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Films
by Kathi Maio

Spare Parts with a Soul

TALES about the harvesting and repurposing of human body parts are at least as old as Frankenstein. But in the years since Christiaan Barnard's first heart transplant, such storytelling has understandably increased with a full spectrum of cinematic artifacts from medical thrillers (like Coma) to odd, yet endearing, little rom-coms (like Return to Me) to a regrettable star vehicle about a penitent man seeking to even the score…at 7-7 (in Seven Pounds). Social inequality and revenge have, not surprisingly, also been a part of thematic mix in organ harvesting movies as varied as Stephen Frears's fine London immigrant drama, Dirty Pretty Things, to a gorefest horror flick about a Brazilian doctor exacting his pound of flesh (and then some) from formerly fun-loving Turistas.

And even before Dolly the sheep experienced her short, wooly life, the concept of cloning was incorporated into the more speculative of transplant movies. A little-seen low-budget flick called Parts: The Clonus Horror (later simply Clonus) appeared in 1979 and later had the dubious honor of being Mystery Science Theatered, taking it to an even higher level of cult classic status.

If you did not see Clonus, you might well have seen a strikingly similar big-budget replicant of it released a few years back called The Island. (Hey, I personally make no accusations here. But I was also not surprised to learn about the lawsuit brought by the producers of the earlier movie.)

The Island was not a particularly good movie. In fact, it is a perfect case study of everything that is overblown (as in, blown-up) and emotionally empty about so many Hollywood films. This is readily explained when you recall that the movie was directed by Mr. Michael Bay. Still, the basic storyline concocted by writers Caspian Tredwell-Owen, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci is not without merit.

In a gleaming enclosed 2019 world, white track-suited inhabitants take shelter from what they believe is a contaminated outer globe. Still, as "special" as these survivors are, they all live in hopes of winning a lottery that entitles them to a trip to the last unspoiled spot above, the earthly paradise of the film's title. But, too bad for them, there is no Island for the lucky winners. There is only a trip to an operation room where their organs will be harvested and they will be terminated. These rather innocent folk are actually clones of wealthy inhabitants of the still bustling Earth; "insurance policies" for a day when a replacement organ or two is needed.

From silicone goop birth to eventual harvest of the product, it all goes exceedingly well for Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean) and his corporate henchmen, until an inquisitive agnate, Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor) becomes a bit too curious. And when his best friend, a luscious and charming young blonde, Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson) is the next lucky winner, Lincoln frees Jordan and escapes, setting the rest of the high-octane plot into motion.

As intriguing as some of the plot elements in The Island are, the film was designed not to provoke thought but to excite the adrenaline triggers of his young male target audience. Judging from the anemic box office, I would assume that the film failed in this mission. But it wasn't for want of trying. When Lincoln and Jordan want to do a bit of romantic sparring, it is in the form of holographic extreme fighting, complete with shattered imaginary teeth. Later, when their lives become an elaborate chase scene, guns of all manner spray rounds hither and yon. (They are never hit, of course.) And vehicles both known and vaguely futuristic speed and careen and crash and explode in a very Bay-like ballet of destruction and mayhem.

So why even think and write about a not-very-successful, would-be blockbuster of several seasons past? Because I kept comparing it to the film I just saw and now wish to review. This film, Never Let Me Go, has the same basic concept—clones developed for harvestable replacement body parts—as The Island. And yet it is hard to point to two films that are less alike.

In part, this is due to the tropes and conventions of two very different film genres—the Hollywood blockbuster actioner versus the much more sedate "art house" film. But I think that the differences go beyond simple formula and are actually indicative of national culture.

Mr. Bay's film is the epitome of Hollywood, and therefore very representative of U.S. popular culture. So, yes, things rush and rumble and go boom. Again, and again. But even the limited character development of Lincoln and his Jordan say something about their land of origin. How their two characters act and react to those around them and their life situations is very American.

Although literally programmed toward mindless obedience and complete compliance to authority, Lincoln questions his sterile, confining life and is motivated by his own dreams and doubts to question, and eventually revolt. That streak of independence and rebellion couldn't be bred out of him during his artificial embryonic state, nor suppressed by propaganda and subtle (and not so subtle) coercion in his adult state. He not only rages against the machine, he takes it on, mano a mano.

His opponents are science, industry, the rich man on whom he was modeled, and a small army of incredibly well-equipped commandoes from a Blackwater-style quasi-military consulting firm. He is outmanned, outgunned, and on the run in a world he has never before seen. Of course, he will survive repeated attacks with only a few scrapes and bruises. Of course, he will ultimately triumph, destroying his foes, and freeing hundreds of oppressed cloned brethren. And it certainly goes without saying that he and his luscious blond soul mate will speed off into their golden future (in a snazzy speed yacht), destined to live happily ever after.

Even minus the gunfire and explosions, this is an intensely American kind of story and a very potent fantasy of the power of the individual to defy and conquer.

Kazuo Ishiguro, author of the novel Never Let Me Go, would not (and probably could not) write such a story. It is alien to his style and his sensibilities, and it is utterly foreign to the national culture his award-winning fiction reflects. But that culture is not as simple as the sound of his name might imply. While born in Nagasaki, Japan, Mr. Ishiguro moved to the U.K. at the age of five, and was raised in Britain, where he still resides. Mix British reticence and a Japanese sense of duty and fatalistic acceptance and you get some idea (albeit a far too glib and simplistic one, to be sure) of his characters' life experience.

You get this feeling from the servant leads of The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro's 1989 novel, which was also adapted for the screen as a 1993 Merchant-Ivory (Ruth Prawer Jhabvala-written) production. And you especially get this sense from his 2005 novel about clones and their brief lives, which has now been adapted by Alex Garland for the screen, and directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo).

And an impressively faithful adaptation it is, too! Although stray bits of storyline (like the loss of a dearly loved audiotape that lends the novel and the movie their title) have been trimmed, and a few touches (like scannable tracking bracelets) have been added, all in all, the film captures the plotline, tone, and themes of the novel exceedingly well.

After a glimpse of an operating room and a bit of voiceover by Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan), the film sets up the story by indicating that after WWII, medical breakthroughs allowed for human life to easily extend to 100 years or more.

We then see a stately, if somewhat gone-to-seed, British school estate called Hailsham House. We meet the rather prim and austere staff and the young children who are "students" there. Although much of Hailsham seems like a stereotypical British residence school, there is something more than a little off about the place. The children's uniforms are a bit threadbare, and their only possessions are homemade art and the broken castoffs that they buy with "tokens." Perhaps this could be explained as evidence of post-war austerity. And since there is no indication that any of the children have family beyond their teacher "guardians" and each other, perhaps they are orphans.

But before long, we hear the students lectured that they are special and must not smoke but instead must carefully guard their health. And words like donations start to be heard. Controlling legends of children who ran away and were murdered or starved to death are also spread amongst the lads and lasses, keeping children from even chasing a stray ball that flies beyond their gates. Although far from the stuff of gothic horror, there is nonetheless something unsettling about it all.

Still, Hailsham inmates are seemingly normal children with their games and dreams, loyalties and jealousies. A bond clearly exists between a frustrated but good-hearted boy named Tommy (played as a child by Charlie Rowe) and an empathetic and sweet young girl called Kathy (played as a child by Isobel Meikle-Small). But this deep connection is coveted by a willful young beauty named Ruth (played as a child by Ella Purnell). By the time puberty sets in, Ruth makes her move on Tommy, claiming him for her own.

Although the tale of star-crossed young love is a major part of Never Let Me Go, the greater purpose of the students' lives is soon made abundantly clear by a sympathetic teacher. They are clones, raised to provide organs to other humans. They have no future. By young adulthood they will begin making the "donations," which, after three or four surgeries, will result in their "completion," or death.

Now, if a Hollywood screenwriter had been given this story, it would at this point veer into resistance and violence. The students would flee. And when pursued, they would fight. A few would fall in valorous combat. Others, including our meant-for-each-other lovers, would either bring their oppressors down or strike out for a new land and freedom.

Luckily, a Hollywood writer was not given the task of adapting Mr. Ishiguro's story. Scriptwriter Alex Garland, a novelist in his own right (The Beach), is best known for scripting Danny Boyle's sf films 28 Days Later and Sunshine. In his adaptation, the plot moves quietly, in an elegiac (and some would find existential) path toward its own "completion." The three leads, now young adults played by Mulligan (Kathy), Keira Knightley (Ruth), and Andrew Garfield (Tommy), move from their school to a halfway house called "The Cottages" and later to their appointed work as carers (clones who care for their butchered brethren, postsurgery) and as direct organ donors. For a time, there is a tantalizing hope of a short reprieve. But this is but a fleeting thing.

If you have not seen the film and the whole thing sounds quite depressing—well, it is. But it is not dull. Nor is it unsatisfying as a story or a film.

The performances are all first-rate. The film's look—washed out gray and windswept—is Brontësque and quite beautiful.

And the story itself, despite plot elements we have all seen before, is quite unique. The layers of the original novel are preserved. The film is part pastoral coming-of-age story, part Japanese parable of duty and honor, part Dickensian drama of the downtrodden and pure, part classic British novel of manners (although clearly much more Austenite than Janeite!), part postmodern social critique, and, of course, part brave-new-world horror story.

Sounds like a jumble. But the end result is a fable of great subtlety. Mr. Romanek, an American filmmaker (by god!), has made a very European (laced with Japanese) film, with the help of a brilliant original text and some very talented (largely English) cohorts and cast.

Still, the very un-Americanness of this movie is not for everyone. I have spoken to moviegoers who were absolutely outraged by the "passivity" of the film's protagonists. But I would say to them that not all heroism consists of blowing things up. Or even surviving.

The graceful dignity and acceptance of young Kathy H. has much to teach us all. For, sadly or not, the path of life for most humans has more in common with the "students" of Hailsham than any Hollywood action hero you could name.

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