Have you ever wondered what it really is about dramatic art that, at its best, speaks to us on such a profound level? Well I have, and I think I might be on to something. You see, I’m of the opinion that a true work of art has to do one, or more, of the following three things: it should communicate something prescient about our current time and place, or challenge the conventions of the art form, or light upon something fundamentally intriguing or complex about the human condition.
Needless to say, the latter of these is the most commonly tackled in drama, as it’s hard to pull off the first in a way which doesn’t seem preaching and overtly political, whereas challenging and advancing the very nature of the art form is a pretty rare feat to attempt, never mind to pull off. What do we mean, though, when we say the human condition, and are the extreme emotions and situations presented in dramatic art capable of speaking to the spiritual concerns of the common man? Certainly classical tragedy from Ancient Greece to Shakespeare is preoccupied with the plight of socially lofty individuals, “great” examples of humans whose very magnificence and splendour highlights the terrible depths of their fall. But when Oedipus reflects upon the horror of his incest, or Hamlet contemplates the consequences for his eternal soul should he enact the vengeful murder demonically demanded of him, is this really drama hinting at a universal human truth. I certainly never intend to kill anyone, never mind a monarch who’s also my Uncle, and as for sleeping with my own mum…
Drama fundamentally has to occupy an existence above our reality, the story presented has to be somewhat extraordinary, because we will soon bore as an audience with watching people just like us, taking on the same old problems we have in our daily existence. British soaps, for example, did not remain true to the depiction of social realism for very long before introducing into their midst serial killers, petty gangsters and tram crashes, and have you ever walked by any of those on the street. Even Ken Loach and Mike Leigh aren’t as in touch with the issues of the universal human as it at first seems. That isn’t to say they get a damn sight closer to these ideas than the vast majority of drama in film and theatre, but when was the last time your mixed race adopted child telephoned you, and when did Eric Cantona last appear to dispense advice? Probably that time when you were out in a field, chasing a kestrel.
This brings us, in a very round-about but not too contrived way (promise) to the science fiction genre. Here is an opportunity for dramatic art to address my three central aims in one fell swoop. The almost limitless imagination that can be brought to sci-fi surely encourages a confrontation with what the boundaries of presentation in the form previously were, and a sci-fi universe’s very occupation of a world removed from our own presents an obvious forum for allegory and socio-political commentary. If you haven’t seen Ronald D Moore’s noughties revamp of “Battlestar Galactica,” you’re missing out on one of the most intelligent, dynamic and insightful critiques of post-9/11 western civilization. I’m not even kidding: as the series progresses the show morphs from an action drama chronicling a post-apocalyptic intergalactic last stand against terrorist oppressors, to an overt Iraq war and US domestic policy allegory, to a metaphysical creation myth. It also presents us with the Cylons: a race of vengeful robots whose religious dogma conflicts with that of humanity, but who themselves look just like humans, and some of whom develop the capacity for emotion and feeling…
Here’s the point: reflection upon the human condition is at its most provocative and moving potential when we see the prime qualities of humanity manifested in a non-human entity. “Star Trek” did this very thing with the characters of Spock and Data: our humanity is brought into focus by the attempts of non-humans to become more like us, and it’s this very thing that makes Mark Romanek’s “Never Let Me Go” such a beautifully profound film.
Honestly, why haven’t more people been raving about this film, and why has it been buried beneath awards juggernauts which have been either over-hyped (“True Grit”) or are just plain boring (“The Fighter,” F-Bombs aside). This film was stunningly scripted, immaculately directed, and acted with immense depth and feeling. Kazuo Ishiguro clearly specialises in stories about repression and the way it forces protagonists to lead sadly unfulfilled lives, cross reference Anthony Hopkins in “The Remains of the Day.” However, this repression and the waste of life is brought into even more devastating focus in “Never Let Me Go,” concerning as it does a love between two people cruelly denied by a selfish and jealous third party, when all three are clones destined to lead horrendously short lives as their organs are harvested by medical science to aid the eradication of all disease. The aching, desperately short existences of Cathy, Tommy and Ruth speak very clearly to these science fiction ideas of the human potential of non-human beings, in this case clones. Compare it to “Bride of Frankenstein,” for example. In James Whale’s superior sequel the Monster is not played as a fearful and hideous result of his creator’s misguided attempts to play God, but as a frightened and gentle creature yearning for love and companionship. At the beginning and end of Romanek’s film, when Andrew Garfield stares lovingly into Carey Mulligan’s eyes as he lies on an operating table awaiting his inevitable mutilation and destruction, the obvious parallels of a human-created being denied a human existence are all too clear.
Think also about the child-like nature of the three leads in “Never Let Me Go.” To both protect them from independent thought and true understanding of their lives’ purpose, and to hide from moral mankind just how human these disposable entities are capable of being, the young clones live a heavily sheltered and isolated existence in a manufactured idyll, to promote their false contentment. Their humanity is in their unsuppressable longing for meaning, yet their inhumanity is evident in behaviour which bears the hallmarks of this eerie alternate existence. Cathy experiences sexual longings, and takes this as an indication that her genetic model was a porn star, and subsequently flicks through a magazine in search of this model. The three watch a television sitcom, and laugh not from understanding the jokes, but because they think it’s the normal thing to do. They are incapable of making independent food and drink orders at a café, mistake broken junk for exciting material possessions, and are incapable of understanding their reaction to music, especially Cathy in her constant replaying of the melancholic eponymous song. Like Pinocchio, the three clones are childlike and immature, but are on a determined quest to discover a meaning and humanity within themselves. But Pinocchio is granted this wish having suffered and undergone various tests through which he proved that within him lies the most noble of human qualities. Tommy is a gifted artist, and he understands the links between artistry and the human soul and our inner beings, yet to him humanity is denied as a scientific necessity. He and the two girls are viewed as subhuman, and can never be viewed otherwise. As is explained to him, he wasn’t encouraged to draw to express his soul, but to see if he had one at all.
In the end the film is desperately sad, dramatically devastating and poignantly moving: not because it covers an unrealised romance, but because it shows three people achieve humanity only to be denied it, condemned to their hopelessly brief existences. The most powerful thing of all is that they weren’t even granted sufficiently wonderful life experiences as part of their brief lives, and whilst Cathy’s closing monologue hits upon the truly universal human truth that we are never on this world for an adequate amount of time, this point is sharpened by just how dimly the brief candles of their lives burnt for. In “Blade Runner,” replicants are morally imperfect slave fodder, but the things they see compensate for their short and miserable lives. As Roy Batty proclaims:
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched sea beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time…like tears in rain. Time to die.”