The style and approach taken in “Never Let Me Go,” an adaptation of a 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (“The Remains of the Day”), should be cause for approbation. In Hollywood movies, science-fiction premises such as this one — a medical breakthrough taken to its grotesque extreme — tend to culminate in frights, or at least chase scenes, or at least product placements. Never long walks in galoshes through the woods, or lengthy discussions on a deserted beach.
But this is an unusual endeavor. The movie tells the story of students at Hailsham, the school where Kathy (Isobel Meikle-Small), Tommy (Charlie Rowe) and Ruth (Ella Purnell) — played as adults by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley — attempt to work out the playground version of a love triangle when not blinking stone-faced at warnings of their impending doom.
Their idyllic childhood, we soon discover, is just a cover. These kids are indeed special, as we and they are constantly reminded, but only for a horrifying reason. It's difficult to say more without spoiling the surprise that takes place about a third of the way in, although it's important to note that the shock is not as much the information itself, but how the students react to it, so obediently resigned to their fate. When a sympathetic teacher (Sally Hawkins) tries to warn them, the austere headmistress (Charlotte Rampling) fires her, and that's when the movie gets to make its primary point: No one really cares what's going on, least of all the children.
In its early stages, the movie has the charm of a coming-of-age yarn mixed with the foreboding of a gentle thriller, kind of like “Goodbye Mr. Chips” rewritten by Michael Crichton. It's a curiously retro bit of science fiction, constantly reminding us what year it is, from the 1960s into the mid-'80s. But already, cracks are forming in this story, directed by Mark Romanek (“One Hour Photo”) from a script by Alex Garland (“Sunshine”). Why, for example, is the movie so determined to establish itself in the past? Do we really need to know it's 1979, or 1985? In fact, why is the attention to a time line so often important to the movies? Isn't it better, especially for science fiction, to simply leave it ambiguous?
Both versions have their conventions. Ishiguro ends his chapters with those foreshadowing cliffhangers he's so fond of. The movie nearly blows the tears from its unrequited lovers' faces with turgid violin strains. But the printed word affords a much greater suspension of disbelief, or at least a supportive symbiotic relationship. You get into a good book, and it gets into you, no matter how daft the subject may be. Blown up on the big screen, however, and it is much more difficult to hide sheer lunacy.
“Never Let Me Go” is lunacy. Romanek and Garland have admirably refrained from the usual Hollywood impulse to turn this kind of material into a horror film. Their movie is, like the novel, much more interested in the responses of the characters to the dangers that face them than in the dangers themselves. The mood is as muted as the color scheme, the action as deliberately paced as the rigors of the school. The movie also looks great, not least because of its gorgeous cast, in their vintage haircuts and wrinkly barn jackets.
The problem is that it's all so absurd. Obvious parallels with the plot will be brought to mind — the machine-gun slaughter of the First World War, the ghettos and concentration camps of the Second — but it becomes increasingly difficult to take the movie as anything more than metaphor in the form of a high-toned melodrama, one that becomes increasingly dull.
During the second half, the three main characters are stuck in something like a hamlet of waiting rooms. The movie seems to take on its characters' peculiar brand of ennui at this point, uncertain of what's going on but duty-bound to keep moving. The more the characters yield, however, the more you may feel the urge to jump up and yell some sense at them. Is it possible that any human, no matter how he or she was raised, would, without complaint or remorse, willingly stroll to their own annihilation? The nagging problem with “Never Let Me Go” is that it answers that question without ever asking it. (R) 113 min.