The science fiction genre has produced some of the greatest fictional worlds in the history of storytelling — worlds in which exotic fictional planets exist and traveling across the universe is as simple as hopping on a plane is now. But that doesn’t mean every sci-fi movie has to have spaceships flying through the skies or battles on the moon.
Sometimes, all a sci-fi story has to do is rewrite history in one small but important way by introducing a piece of technology with the power to reshape the world and the lives of those in it. Indeed, sometimes the worlds we see in a sci-fi movie can end up looking a lot like our own, and usually, that’s the whole point.
At least, that’s certainly the case with Never Let Me Go. Based on Kazuo Ishiguro's novel of the same name, the indie drama is one of the most moving and emotionally devastating sci-fi films of the 2010s — one that, unfortunately, has become increasingly lost to time in the 11 years since its release.
Fortunately, Never Let Me Go is now streaming on HBO Max. Here’s why we recommend that you add it to your watchlist ASAP.
The opening frames of Never Let Me Go tell us — via a few lines of on-screen text — that the world was changed by a medical breakthrough in 1952, which has made it possible for the average human to live to be well over 100 years old. From there, the film spends its opening act with the young, pre-adolescent students of Hailsham, a countryside boarding school.
On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be anything all that unique about the school — other than that its kids are told never to leave its boundaries, lest they die a violent death in the outside world. The school’s leaders also intensely monitor their physical health. Eventually, we learn the truth about Hailsham and its students. They exist as a result of the “medical breakthrough” alluded to in the film’s opening text, and they are being raised to become organ donors. When they are young adults, they will have to donate all of their vital organs until there are none left to give.
Contrary to what most audiences might expect, Never Let Me Go doesn’t spend its subsequent two acts further building out its sci-fi world or exploring the logistics of its upsetting premise. Instead, the film follows the lives of three Hailsham students — Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and Ruth (Keira Knightley) — as they grow up together, fall in love, and hurt each other in their own careless, deeply human ways.
The film features no high-tech sci-fi gadgetry, nor any spaceships and fantastic planets. If it weren’t for the knowledge of the dark fates that await them, one could be forgiven for thinking Never Let Me Go is nothing more than a romantic drama about three school friends. It is that, of course, but it’s also a film in which three young people are told from a young age that their purpose is to die and how they each try to grapple with the fear and intense loneliness caused by that revelation.
That might make it sound like not a lot happens in Never Let Me Go, and in a way, that’s true. But despite its relatively plotless structure, the film still manages to be a consistently engaging experience, thanks primarily to the impeccable work of its core creative team members.
The film’s script, written by Ex Machina and Annihilation filmmaker Alex Garland, is moody, intelligent, and contemplative. At the same time, music video extraordinaire Mark Romanek directs it with a confident and patient hand. The three lead performances given by Mulligan, Garfield, and Knightley are, in turn, stunningly raw, with each actor bringing the faults, fears, and hopes of their characters to life with surprising vulnerability.
Together, the film’s central actors lean into the emotional messiness that complicates Tommy, Ruth, and Kathy’s shared friendship, which creates a sharp contrast between the film’s moving story and the mannered ways in which Romanek and Garland bring its cold, sterile world to life.
One of the great accomplishments of Alex Garland’s script for Never Let Me Go is the way it places us firmly inside the perspectives of its three main characters. Outside of the film’s opening expositional text, Never Let Me Go ensures that we never know any more or less than Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. The movie forces us to look at the world through the eyes of people who do not know it the same way we do — seeing everything from the perspective of kids who were taught never to stray from the tragic paths already set for them.
Romanek only heightens that feeling, bringing the film’s alternate reality to life with an unintrusive but melancholic grace. Building off Garland’s script, Romanek often shows the film’s central characters standing on the other sides of physical barriers, whether they be glass windows, open doorways, or rickety country fences. It’s a subtle but well-calibrated choice — one that makes us constantly, subconsciously aware of Tommy, Ruth, and Kathy’s enforced separation from the rest of the “normal” world.
But few images from Never Let Me Go stick around quite as vividly after watching it as that of Tommy, Ruth, and Kathy on the beach, looking out at a boat that’s run aground. It’s a loaded moment — three young people doomed to die, staring at a boat that was built but not allowed to set sail.
Never Let Me Go is streaming now on HBO Max.