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.