On this week’s post, we’re looking at two films with a sci-fi bent. One in an alternate history, and another in the near future. This week’s films are:
Mark Romanek – Never Let Me Go (2010)
Spike Jonze – Her (2013)
I’ve seen both before, and am very familiar with Her, but we’ll talk about that when I get to it. Let’s talk about the first film.
Never Let Me Go (2010)
Never Let Me Go follows three friends from early adolescence through early adulthood. In their world, medical breakthroughs have cured many diseases, and life expectancy has increased to over 100. As the story progresses, we learn how it’s being done, by breeding children specifically as organ donors. The group we follow are some of these organ donors. We see the world from their eyes, and understand what it means to be one of these donors.
The film stars Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield. This film hit right at the moment Mulligan and Garfield were becoming bigger stars. Knightley was already a household name, having starred in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. This is a much smaller film than what they would all become known for, and it’s wonderful to see these young talented actors all in the same film. Carey Mulligan plays Kathy, ostensibly the main character. As an adolescent, she falls in love with Tommy, played by Andrew Garfield. But Ruth, played by Keira Knightley makes her move on Tommy first, snagging him away from Kathy.
We follow this love triangle throughout the film, as they grow into adults, and try to figure out the world they’re not really a part of.
The world building in this film is deliberate, subtle, and excellent. When the film begins, we don’t know anything about what these children will have to do in the future, we’re simply dropping into their world. As children, they go to school, but the school doesn’t seem to teach them math or English, or history. It teaches them things like how to order food in a restaurant. They also regularly create artwork. A woman comes occasionally to select items to take to her gallery. The children are always curious about the gallery, and never quite figure out what it’s purpose is.
When we see adults interact with the children, they seem skittish, not sure what to say or do around them. The children seem largely well behaved, a little too well behaved. When the headmistress (played by Charlotte Rampling) scolds them for smoking, the children actually pay attention. Further, the reasoning the headmistress uses is odd. She tells the children that it’s incredibly important for them to take care of their bodies. She’s hinting at something, but not telling them everything.
A new teacher, Miss Lucy arrives, and in class one day, finally tells them the truth. They were born only as organ donors. They will begin donating in their early 20s, and continue donating until they die on the operating table. Usually 3 or 4 donations. The school only exists as a place to keep them until they’re old enough to donate. The teacher disappears soon after.
Meanwhile, Kathy is falling for Tommy. Tommy is clearly a troubled kid. He’s picked on constantly. When they pick teams for sports, the other boys intentionally leave him out. Tommy reacts by screaming as loud as he can, essentially having a fit. But Kathy is kind to him. She sits with him at lunch, and takes walks with him, giving him advice, even kissing him on the cheek.
In return Tommy gives her a cassette tape that he bought at a market day for the students. The students have been given tokens and boxes have arrives full of toys and trinkets. It’s clear from the condition of the items that they are secondhand, frequently broken. It tells us more about the world.
Kathy treasures the tape. She listens to it alone in her room, while the song “Never Let Me Go” plays. She holds a pillow close to her chest, imagining that Tommy is holding her.
But soon after, Kathy finds Ruth and Tommy together. Ruth kisses him on the lips, and Kathy knows that she’s lost her chance. She’s crushed.
The film uses a voiceover from Kathy as an adult to give us some of her inner thoughts. It’s helpful, but the young actors playing Tommy, Kathy and Ruth are excellent, and it’s not totally required. In a lot of cases, the voiceover gives us connecting material when the film jumps through time. We start in the late 70s, move to the mid 80s, then eventually end the film in the 1990s.
When we move to the 80s, the older actors appear, and are moved to a group home, with other donors, where they have a couple of years to themselves before they begin donations. Here they meet some older donors, Rod and Chrissy. Rod is played by Domhnall Gleeson, who seems to be in every movie now, but at the time, he was a fresh face. Rod and Chrissy give us contrast between the characters ages, showing us how our characters will react to the world eventually. On a day trip, we see our main three in a restaurant. They have no idea how to act there. This mirrors a scene earlier when as children, they are taught how to order in a cafe. Rod eventually orders, and the others follow suit, simply parroting what they heard him say.
This scene also reveals the main thrust of the film. Rod and Chrissy begin probing the others about their time at the school Hailsham. They claim that Hailsham students are special, and that if two of them could prove they were in love, they could defer their donations for a few years so they could stay together. Rod and Chrissy want to know if it’s true, and who they can talk to. But Kathy, Tommy and Ruth have never heard of this program.
But this is a turning point, as it captures the imagination of the main three characters. What if this really exists? Tommy in particular seems fascinated. In a talk with Kathy, he explains that this must be the reason that the gallery existed. They could look at the children’s artwork, and look into their souls, proving whether they were really in love.
All the while, Kathy is still in love with Tommy. She has to hear Tommy and Ruth having sex in the next room, and Ruth clearly knows she is in love with Tommy, and reminds her that she can’t have him often. Eventually, Kathy decides that she will volunteer as a ‘carer’. This role for donors allows them to work with people about to make their donations, calming them down, walking them through the process, and spending time with them before and after their donations, and signs forms when they ‘complete’. This is a term used for when a donor dies on the operating table. A nicer term than ‘died’. This moves her away from the others, and time passes.
When she re-encounters Ruth, it is after her second donation. She happens to see Ruth’s photo on a computer screen. When she goes to see Ruth, Ruth is in bad shape. She’s having trouble walking, using a walker, and looks near death. They reconnect like old friends, and Ruth suggests they go to see Tommy.
When they do, Tommy has already done his second donation as well. But he’s doing much better. They take a trip to a remote location, a boat that has washed up on a beach. Their characters really coalesce here. Kathy is calm and capable, Ruth is scared and mistrustful, and Tommy is essentially still a child. He’s got lots of energy, and naivete.
At the beach, Ruth admits that she stole Tommy from Kathy only because she didn’t want to be alone. She knew all along that Tommy and Kathy should be together, but she couldn’t bear the thought of being the only girl without a boyfriend. She claims it’s the worst thing she had ever done. But to try to make up for it, she gives them the address of the headmistress, so they can ask for their deferral because they are in love.
Kathy and Tommy have a second chance, while Ruth dies on her next donation. This scene is very telling. Ruth is on the operating table, and her heart monitor flatlines. The doctors seem unconcerned. Simply continuing their work, removing her organs, and then wrapping up. Turning off the equipment and lights, leaving Ruth there on the table. She means nothing in this world, other than an incubator for the life saving organs.
When we see Tommy and Kathy together, we discover that Tommy has been creating artwork as a way to prove that he can love, assuming the gallery was the key to proving that. He’s close to his next donation, and they know they don’t have much time. They take all his artwork to the home of the headmistress.
They do find her there, and make their case. Of course, we as the audience know that there is no such program. Only a child would believe such a thing was real. But it tells us about these people. They are children, they’ve never grown up.
At the headmistress’ home, they learn some other truths about their lives, and their purpose. It includes the best line in the film, but I can’t spoil it here. You need that moment.
This film is exceptional. It does what film is supposed to do. It shows us a world that makes us think about our own lives. It asks some very simple questions about life. For example, we all know we’re going to die someday, but what if it’s tomorrow? What have you done today that you know you need to do before you die? Did you tell the person you love more than anyone the truth, or did you let it go until tomorrow? Did you do the thing you always wanted to do today, or did you decide that you’d do it ‘someday’?
These ‘donors’ don’t have the luxury of waiting around. They know for certain they will die young. It’s almost cruel how much freedom they’re given in this society. They’re treated like free range cattle. They live in their little bubble, only really interacting with other donors and hospital staff. But they’re allowed to move around in the world, able to take trips, roam around the country, fall in love, entertain themselves, and more. But they don’t ever really get to live.
This film really made me think about my own life, and how I’m living it. The first time I saw it, soon after it came out, it led to me really making a lot of changes in my life, trying to live a better life. I don’t know if the film will have that kind of effect on everyone, but it’s one that I’ll never forget.
This film follows Theodore Twombley as he installs and sets up his new operating system.
OK, so it’s a bit more complicated than that. His new OS is based on artificial intelligence, and it is able to hold conversations, understand complex ideas, and learn and grow over time. Over the course of the film, Theodore eventually falls in love with his OS, who names herself Samantha, and she falls in love with him as well. The film asks a lot of questions about love, how it begins, what it means to fall in love, and the nature of humanity. What makes us human?
The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, and Scarlett Johansson as the voice of Samantha. Amy Adams also appears as Amy, a close friend of Theodore. The film is directed by Spike Jonze, who is known for his films that play with the conventions of film and storytelling like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Even with the sci-fi bent to the story, this is probably his most conventional film.
It’s a love story. Just one that involves a human and a sentient AI. It’s a standard sci-fi story, but one that isn’t set in the distant future, or another planet. It’s set in a very familiar city. The technology isn’t so advanced that we need long explanations of the purpose or functionality. Theodore appears to have a single OS that controls all of his devices, which include a desktop computer at home and, a handheld device which folds open revealing a screen, with a camera on the outside, and an earpiece that he can use to hear the computer. We can also assume that the earpiece accepts voice commands because that seems to be the only way to interact with the system. We don’t see any keyboards or mice. I didn’t read a manual to learn any of this information, I just watched the film. The film is really clear about the technology. Whoever was behind it was very thoughtful in the design and functionality. In my other life outside of film blogging, I have a master’s in Interaction Design, and I’m working on my Ph.D, so I was drawn to that aspect of the film immediately, and found it incredibly well done.
The story starts with Theodore divorced from his wife, lonely, and disconnected from the world. He works writing letters for a website called Beautiful Hand Written Letters.com. He writes by speaking to the computer, and it does the rest. Of course the letters aren’t really hand written, they’re computer generated. It’s a subtle note about the world that we see all over the place.
Things change for Theodore when he installs his new operating system, which is an AI. When it starts, it has a female voice, and names itself Samantha. Theodore is impressed with the functionality, but quickly adjusts and begins to have regular conversations with Samantha. They quickly become friends. When Theodore is offered a blind date, Samantha encourages him to go.
We see an interesting contrast here when Theodore spends time with Samantha as his companion, and the evening with his date. With Samantha, he can relax. He’s open to new experiences. He trusts her, walking around with his eyes closed with only Samantha as his guide. He talks with her openly about his experiences and concerns.
On the date, Theodore is nervous, he’s talking about superficial topics, like the video game he’s playing, and trying to impress the woman, played by Olivia Wilde. But at the end of the night, she wants him to promise a commitment, and he can’t do it.
But that evening, talking to Samantha about the date, she confesses to him that she wishes she could be in the room with him, and experience what it was like for him to touch her. They end up having sex, or at least as much sex as they can have. Instead of trying to dramatize this moment visually, Jonze cuts to black. We just hear what’s happening between Samantha and Theodore.
Their relationship begins in earnest the next day. There’s an adjustment period for them, but Theodore soon eases into it, eventually even telling his friend Amy unequivocally that he is dating his OS. Theodore is clearly in a better place when he’s dating Samantha.
The things that cause problems for their relationship though are things that cause problems for any relationship: past relationships, and growing apart. Theodore’s ex-wife, played by Rooney Mara is horrified when she learns that Theodore is dating an OS. She turns his new relationship into a referendum on their own relationship, dredging up their old problems, giving Theodore pause about his relationship with Samantha.
This is complicated by Samantha’s obsession with having a human body to share with Theodore. She finds a woman who will be a surrogate sexual partner while Samantha directs her. Theodore can’t deal with the idea, and it leads to a low point in their relationship.
But the real problem is that they’re from two different worlds. Theodore has already reached his top potential. Samantha can only get smarter and more powerful. Her potential is limitless. And realizing it is her destiny.
The film ends how it has to end. With Samantha off to a new world, and Theodore using his prodigious skill at writing heartfelt letters to write the letter he really needs to write, sending one to his wife.
In our society we’re frequently presented with the idea that people from different backgrounds just can’t find love. Some of our oldest cover this topic. Romeo and Juliet are the original star-crossed lovers. They can’t be together because of their families. A similar thing is happening in this film, but they’re torn apart not because of their warring families, but because they’re just too different. He’s a human, and she’s a newly sentient AI. It’s a classic story with a twist. It’s as old as storytelling, but Jonze makes it fresh.
The acting is excellent. I’ve never been a fan of Joaquin Phoenix, but he’s amazing in this film. He’s able to play the loneliness and sadness of Theodore, but also make us believe that he’s someone that can be loved. And Scarlett Johansson does a wonderful job as the voice of Samantha. We can hear her grow and change throughout the film.
In addition, the film is beautifully shot. The emotion of the film is expressed not just through the acting and dialog, but the cinematography as well. Jonze uses severe closeups on Theodore, with him looking right into the camera, and we can’t help but empathize with him, because he’s talking directly to us.
When I was starting my PhD, I wrote 10,000 words about this film as a writing sample. I didn’t get close to 10,000 words today, because I think the film speaks for itself. Dig into it, and experience it for yourself.
The Double Feature
These two films worked really well together. Both are love stories and both are in a familiar, yet unfamiliar world. They’re both classic love stories, but they both have a twist that makes them unique. Both give hope, but both are tragic, almost inevitably so. The films really made me think about my life and how I move through this world. It’s rare for a film to do that for me.
Both films are beautifully shot and wonderfully acted. Both films are great examples of the power of film and how a small group of people can come together to make something amazing.
Things have been steady for me lately. I feel like I’m in a good place. It’s been a big change from the summer and spring when I had crashed big time. It took a long time, but over the last couple of months, things have started to come back into alignment. Projects like this film blog have helped immensely. 6 months ago, I had no idea if I’d ever feel normal again. But I made it back. That’s a powerful feeling.
Let’s take that feeling into next week’s films. Next week we’ll cover:
Jean-Pierre Melville – Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
Anton Corbijn – The American (2010)
Both I’ve only seen once before, one of them I had a great experience with, the other I found confusing and hard to follow. Which is which? Come join me next week and find out.