The film is strange in its basic premise: that those who are obviously human might be classified as “not human.” It builds up a story about three youths, with all the complications of puberty and entering adulthood, and then pulls out the rug from underneath them with the world in which this story is told, taking away their right to humanity. “You’re in love? Tough! You’re not here to be in love, you’re not here to even be human!” It’s a daring premise, to be sure, and it leaves you reaching for the tissue box (at least, it’s supposed to). As the film’s characters search for “true love,” some find it and others do not; the film suggests that not everyone can even find it, and even those that do will unfortunately not get the chance to fulfill it. What is different in this film is the suggestion that “true love,” when found, will be denied by external pressures on the relationship from society, rather than something from within the relationship itself.
Something I find rather interesting is the age politics at play; unless I’m mistaken, I think that clones in the film are exclusively portrayed as young people, while everyone else (the “normal people”) are older. I wonder if this is intentional, since when I see it, I can only think of the current issues at play regarding my generation, who will be paying for my parents’ generation’s greatest excesses. I can’t help but think that this film predicts the current social issues at play in America and abroad.
What makes the film, then, so difficult to watch is the inevitability of the clones’ destruction. They cannot save themselves; nobody ever even suggests trying to break out of the system which defines them as clones, and the one “out” is built on rumors and false pretenses. Funny how human that kind of rumor-making is, even as society denies these humans their right to existence. These youth are forced to sacrifice their own futures so that those who came before them can live longer, past 100. A selfish societal basis, to be sure.
Mark Romanek presents this world with grace and class; the science fiction element is present only enough to make it believable, and no more. Granted, he presents the material as Very Serious Business; sometimes, it gets a bit too serious and “Oscar-baity,” straining the believability of his film’s world. Most of the time, however, the seriousness of the tone feels appropriate; while the film is in many ways just a children’s love story, the weight of their purpose in life as organ farms demands a certain level of respect. And if the film knows anything, it is how to produce high quality Very Serious Business. Two of the strongest aspects of the film, its cinematography and music, emphasize the emotional pain the characters feel, and make you feel it as well – sometimes too strongly, as the “Oscar bait” moments attest to. Complementing the camerawork is (mostly) great acting by all three leads; if a lesser actress than Carey Mulligan were in the lead, I do not know if the film itself would hold together. Andrew Garfield does at times strain his credibility, most notably with one scene of screaming and crying, but is otherwise very good at what he does, as is Kiera Knightely, whose character appears far less than the others but just long enough to really leave an impression.
An issue I have with the film one that is actually more common in romantic comedies: the separation of sex from true love. The act is portrayed as a false act of love, one that those who are actually in love won’t have to do, since they’re already in love, or something like that. It’s a silly suggestion to make, but it’s also minor within the greater context of the film and does not really hold the movie back.
Ultimately, the Very Serious nature of the film works; Mulligan’s character comes out of the film in the “best” situation but only because her life ends in the least bad manner, compared to her friends. She ends her life happy for whatever little she was able to enjoy, as those who continue to live into their 100s do so thanks to her forced sacrifice. That, in the end, is the ultimate pain of the film: those who sacrifice their youth, and their lives, against their own will, for the pleasure of the previous generation.