Never Let Me Go (2010)

The recent critical success of Annihilation (to say nothing about the film’s financial doom at the hands of its distributor) has been a welcome opportunity to look back to Alex Garland’s career-long achievements as a sci-fi screenwriter before he made the jump to buzzworthy auteur in his debut feature as a director, Ex Machina. A significant part of that reexamination has been tied to a rumor, recently confirmed by actor Karl Urban, that Garland was the uncredited director of the sci-fi action thriller Dredd. I very much enjoy Dredd as a slick, bare-bones slice of schlocky spectacle, but it’s not quite of the same cloth as what I enjoyed so much in Annihilation & Ex Machina. To me, Garland’s personal brand of sci-fi is one of heady, introspective melancholy. His films might feature Domhnall Gleeson seducing a sexy robot or Natalie Portman firing bullets at a monstrous alligator-beast, but they’re still works built on the backs of sci-fi ideas, as opposed to sci-fi spectacle. To that point, I’d suggest that the undersung work of Garland’s past is not Dredd at all, but rather the sci-fi melodrama Never Let Me Go. Adapted from a widely adored novel by Nobel prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro, who also penned Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go is a romantic period drama set in an alternate timeline version of the 1970s (and later stretching to the 1990s). It details a decades-long love triangle melodrama between three doomed characters, recalling more the historical romantic epic ambitions of a film like Atonement rather than the shoot-em-up spectacle of Dredd. It’s not an especially fresh, attention-grabbing work. There’s no space travel, ray guns, or alternate dimensions. Instead, it dwells on the glum, moody repercussions a sci-fi dystopia wreaks on the emotional state of the characters who live it, which makes the film feel right at home with Garland’s more recent, more revered directorial efforts.

I was intrigued by the trailer for Never Let Me Go when I saw it nearly a decade ago, but also confused why the advertising made its central twist so obvious. As it turns out, it’s because the main conceit is not a twist at all, but a premise that’s stated up front and seen to its logical, emotional conclusion. A breakthrough discovery in the alternate history 1950s raised the live expectancy rate of the average citizen well past the 100-year mark: clones. Clones are systemically raised as part of an organ-farming program. Donations are involuntary, required without exception, and donors are raised to understand what fate awaits them as their purpose in life reaches “completion” (hint: they don’t get to enjoy the extended life expectancy rate the new technology affords the rest of the world). Our window into this scenario is a traditional British boarding school that only appears sinister at the margins. Cloned children are taught that it’s their special duty to keep themselves “healthy inside.” Chip readers, daily pills, and mysterious art contests hint at the administration behind their care, but we never peak behind the proverbial curtain. Instead, we watch them mimic social behaviors form music & television, find enormous pleasure in the thrift store castoffs of regular children, and search blindly for clues to the identity of the “originals” they were cloned from in any scraps of the outside would they can gather. From this grim backdrop emerges a decades-long tale of unrequited love & romantic jealousy among three of the boarding school student as they age out of the safety of childhood education and into active, repetitive organ donations. Some attention is paid to the mysteries behind the administrative structure of their preparation as donors, but the story is much more concerned with the emotional repercussion of an unfulfilled romantic life of people who were “born” to die young. It’s a small, intimate story told within the context of a massively ambitious sci-fi premise, so it’s no wonder Garland was drawn to telling it onscreen (he was also reportedly chummy with Ishiguro on a social basis, which helps I’m sure).

I can’t kick myself too much for missing Never Let Me Go in its initial theatrical run. Practically nobody saw this thing. It earned $9 million on a $15 million budget, only $2 million of which was domestic box office. The real shame there is that I believe the film could have been a huge hit if it had arrived just a few years later. Its romantic strife amidst a grim dystopia would have been right at home with the YA craze that followed The Hunger Games in 2012. Then there’s the cache of the film’s cast, which only gets more impressive every passing year: Keira Knightly, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Sally Hawkins, Domhnall Gleeson, and so on. With Garland’s recent critical success, Never Let Me Go now has a unique context as a primer for his auteurist voice, but it’s honestly baffling that the film has yet to become a hot topic before, whether initially or upon reappraisal. The film may be a little low-key melancholy for a star-studded sci-fi picture, but it’s far from the limited appeal of the art house version of this child-farming territory in works like Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Evolution. This is the tragic story of young people being disfigured & discarded by a menacing society who treats them like appliances, but in the midst of watching it the weight of that premise never overwhelms the simple love story at its core. If there’s anything Garland has proven himself to be particularly adept at, it’s achieving intimacy against the backdrop of far-reaching sci-fi concepts and Never Let Me Go is a great, distilled example of how effective that dynamic can be. He’s never quite turned that talent into boffo box office (not even with the popcorn action spectacle of Dredd), but Ex Machina & Annihilation both enjoyed a critical goodwill Never Let Me Go deserves as well. It’s doubtful that wide scale reappraisal is ever coming, since the movie’s previous lack of attention doesn’t make much sense either, but it’s still pure-Garland in its intimate sci-fi introspection, an auteurist voice we’re just starting to fully understand.

-Brandon Ledet

Last Night (1999)’s Studio Comedy Equivalent in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

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The Y2K scare in the late 90s lead to a brief cinema trend of End of the World features, but there weren’t many out there quite like our December Movie of the Month, Last Night. The Don McKellar-helmed black comedy strayed from the alarmist thriller beats of titles like Armageddon, Deep Impact, and End of Days to chase a much more realistic, resigned Gen-X vibe of sullen gloom & gallows humor in the face the Apocalypse. Much more recently, End of the World cinema trended once again, this time likely inspired by the supposed end of the Mayan Calendar in 2012. Among the traditional alarmist thrillers this time around (like the appropriately titled 2012) there were actually a good number of mainstream comedies on the topic: This Is the End, The World’s End, It’s a Disaster, etc. Only one of these Armageddon comedies of the 2010s managed to match the weirdly subdued in a time of crisis vibe of Last Night. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a much more minor & less stylistically focused work than Last Night, but it still makes for an interesting companion piece for McKellar’s Canadian cult classic. It not only reflects the way humor & pop culture attitude had shifted in the decade or so between their releases, but also points to how Hollywood convention could’ve made McKellar’s piece a much less interesting work if it weren’t a dirt cheap indie.

Both Last Night & Seeking a Friend for the End of the World center their tales of a world unraveling on a neurotic male protagonist who faces dying alone after the recent departure of his romantic partner & the impending doom of an inevitable Apocalypse. Unlike Patrick’s wife in Last Night, who died before the announcement of the world’s end, Steve Carell’s protagonist in Seeking a Friend loses his own wife to infidelity and she bolts from their marriage in the opening scene. In both features, the leads are neurotic men who can’t will themselves to join in the orgiastic parties surrounding them as they wrestle with their grief, but instead take unexpected comfort in newly-formed intimacies with total strangers (Sandra Oh in Last Night, Kiera Knightly in Seeking a Friend). News broadcasts continue to the bitter end in both films; insurance & gas companies continue to function; riots overtake the cities; characters obsess over curating their life-ending soundtracks, including off-screen radio DJs. What really ties the films together outside of their narrative details, however, is their general search for an authentic response to a world-ending crisis. Once the initial shock of a Doomsday scenario fades, what does worldwide grief look like and how can it be reflected in the personal response of a lone protagonist? Last Night and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World stand out from their temporal peers & reflect each other’s unique tones through this pursuit of a believable, down tempo Apocalypse.

As much as I enjoy Seeking a Friend as a down tempo comedy, however, I don’t think it quite measures up to the significance of Last Night as a unique work. Last Night is an odd little duck. It may feature a Gen-X 90s tone in its humor (along with a unfortunate influence from Woody Allen neuroticism), but it does carve out a very specific space that’s indicative of Don McKellar’s authorial voice. Seeking a Friend, by contrast, feels very conventional for a major studio comedy, a project by committee. Where Last Night finds small moments of shared, nonverbal intimacy, Seeking a Friend filters its entire plot into a familiar romcom formula. It also trades in Last Night‘s everything-is-connected ensemble cast structure for a more traditionally linear road trip narrative and unfortunately allows its female lead slip into something of a manic pixie dream girl cliché, which is far from the devastating performance Sandra Oh gives in her role. Most tellingly, Last Night never feels the need to explain how or why the world is ending because it doesn’t necessarily inform its characters’ behavior, but Seeking a Friend feels the need to spell it out in the very first scene. You can readily see exact gags that reflect each other in both works. The brilliant “Taking Care of Business” guitar jam gag in Last Night is reflected in Seeking a Friend’s End of the World Awareness Concert & its radio DJ promising “a countdown to the End of Days along with all of your classic rock favorites.” Craig from Last Night‘s pursuit of bucket list sexual experiences is represented in Seeking a Friend by a family restaurant called Friendly’s that’s devolved into a nonstop pansexual orgy. The movies do share a lot of content in their smaller details. However, Last Night employs them for a much more unique effect than the cookie cutter comedy beats of Seeking a Friend (as funny as they can be).

I think what’s most interesting here is just how normalized the idea of a low stakes response to the end of the world had become between 1999 & 2012. Don McKellar’s Apocalypse comedy is a dirt cheap production with a small cast & limited scope. Seeking a Friend, by contrast, features two recognizable stars (along with a long list of the time’s comedic up & comers: Patton Oswalt, Rob Corddry, Rob Huebel, Amy Schumer, Gillian Jacobs, TJ Miller, I’m out of breath) and spreads its story out over a wide range of road trip-driven set pieces. It’s far from a summer blockbuster in terms of scale, but it still boasts the generic feel of a studio-funded romantic comedy, however dark. When Don McKellar made Last Night in 1999, concluding an ensemble cast black comedy with a bright light signifying the Apocalypse was weird fodder for an off-kilter, low budget indie production. By 2012, it was familiar enough territory for a major studio romcom starring two household names. That’s a fairly quick turnaround on pop culture sensibilities, all things considered.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the lucid dreaming fantasy drama Paperhouse, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet