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Island, The (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 22 July 2005
“The Island” is a fast paced but peculiarly repetitive big-scale science fiction/action thriller set in the near future. As it is directed by Michael Bay, dialogue and performance are shunted aside in favor of speed speed speed. Bay directs movies as though he’s convinced that characterization and the dialogue and behavior that establish it is just a device to hobble his burning desire for sheer velocity.

Sometimes, as with “Bad Boys II,” his movies also lack anything but a semblance of a plot. The script of “The Island, credited to the wonderfully-named Caspian Tredwell-Owen and the team of Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci, actually does have a plot, although it’s strongly reminiscent of a mostly-forgotten 1979 movie, “Parts: The Clonus Horror.” “The Island” also resembles a whole truckload of other, mostly better, movies, including “Logan’s Run,” “THX-1138,” "Minority Report," “Gattaca” and many others.

It opens with Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) tortured by a nightmare involving a ship, lots of water and faceless people torturing him. He awakes to his normal life, which isn’t normal to us. He and several hundred other people (the movie has scads of extras) live in a rigidly-controlled underground city. They know the rest of the world was destroyed by pollution and other bad stuff, and long for the opportunity to move to The Island, “nature’s last remaining pathogen-free zone.” Omnipresent TV screens feature beautiful scenes of this tropical paradise. A regular lottery determines who gets to go there.

The place is controlled by the enigmatic Merrick (Sean Bean), who regards the boyishly enthusiastic Lincoln Six Echo as something of troublemaker. Lincoln himself is interested in Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson), but she’s too aware of the constant video surveillance to respond other than in a friendly manner.

He knows friendly oddball technician McCord (Steve Buscemi), who seems to live somewhere else. When Jordan finds a moth fluttering in an airtunnel—Bay helpfully provides a moth’s-eye-view shot—he begins to wonder if they’ve been told the truth. He finds his way upward into a strange building where people AREN’T dressed in white jump suits, and sees the last lottery winner (Michael Clarke Duncan) awake in terror from surgery that was to remove his liver. Another lottery winner, a woman this time, gives birth to a baby—and is immediately euthanized. (This actually makes no sense, even in the shaky structure of this story.)
When Jordan is the next lottery winner, Lincoln grabs her and flees, again upward, finally emerging into what they’ve always been told was a dead world. It’s clearly not dead, indicated by a motorcycle whizzing by. What’s that? Jordan asks. I don’t know, Lincoln responds giddily, but I want one!

Bay cuts between our fugitives and Merrick, who hires mercenary Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou) to chase them down. There was no planetary disaster; everything on the surface is perfectly normal for . Jordan, Lincoln and most of those in the underground city are clones; wealthy people have paid Merrick’s company huge amounts to breed these clones; they’re living insurance policies, sources of replacement parts and the like.

Trouble is that the script has to plunge into illogic in order for the story to function the way it does. When clones are created, they are normal infants of whatever species is being cloned. Here, they’re full-grown adults. It goes against all cloning theory, but the story required this. The screenplay and actors do suggest that these apparent adults are naïve and inexperienced; McGregor is especially adept at suggesting he’s at a 15-year-old’s emotional level.

Merrick’s customers think all the clones are kept in suspended animation until needed. But the story required them to be awake and aware; it turned out the clones didn’t cook up right, or some damned thing, if they’re kept vegetative. So they’re taken out of the plastic blister where they were grown (hence Lincoln’s watery nightmares) and stuck into this Logan’s Runnish/THX-ish society until needed. And when a clone is needed, he or she wins the lottery and it’s off to the island—which is really death.

But this is an action picture. You can’t have an action hero who can’t operate heavy machinery. So in another plot element required to make everything come out right, more recent batches of clones (why not earlier batches?) have begun asking questions. They’re evidently receiving the memories of their “sponsors” (Merrick’s customers) through telepathy or osmosis or black magic. Or whatever’s necessary.

This lavish, complicated setup exists mostly to plunge McGregor and Johansson into big-scale action scenes. These are very well staged and interesting, but Bay continues to use that damned, outmoded quick-cut MTV-style editing that reduces action to mostly a bunch of blurry photos. Still, these are good big-scale action scenes; you can at least get a good idea of what’s going on, even if there’s little impact. The fleeing couple push railroad wheels off the back of a speeding truck (a huge mag-lev train was seen earlier, indicating that railway wheels are no longer needed), smashing into the Los Angeles police cars and mercenary cycles pursuing them. (Just why there are so MANY pursuers who take such deadly risks amidst thousands of bystanders isn’t satisfactorily explained.) In a couple of eye-popping shots, several cars flip into the air at the same time.

Then McGregor himself gets aboard one of these “Empire Strikes Back”-style flying motorcycles, and thanks to his sucked-up memories, he can fly it like an expert. Good thing his sponsor wasn’t, say, a pastry chef. With Johansson on behind, he smashes it right through an L.A. skyscraper and almost out the other side. There’s a preposterous, impossible-to-buy scene in which the two fugitives fall seventy stories straight down the side of a building—while clutching a huge advertising sign—and get only a couple of small scratches.

Finally, they wind up at the plush home of Lincoln’s sponsor, a hedonistic asshole named Tom Lincoln. He’s dying of a venereal disease—couldn’t be no-moral-implications cancer, of course—and our Lincoln’s jig would have soon been up.

This encounter, of course, leads to another big chase. The movie then stops dead—and starts up again, back at the underground laboratory.

In all this blur of action, somehow McGregor and Johansson find time to be attracted to one another, even though the clones have been programmed or something not to experience sexual arousal. I guess it was another of the coincidences the movie is driven by that in the case of these two, it didn’t take.

Even though it’s clear that Bay doesn’t trust dialogue or even think it’s all that useful, there are a few good lines here and there. And despite acting not really being required, McGregor is quite good as both the wet-behind-the-ears clone and the jaded sponsor (who gets what’s coming to him). In his few scenes, Steve Buscemi is again very colorful, memorable as a blue-collar jerk with a good heart. Sean Bean is always good as a cold-hearted villain, and this guy is ice clear through.

The scenes of near-future Los Angeles are very cleverly done; the effects are excellent, but that’s what we should expect from a big Hollywood movie by this time. Real buildings and locations are smoothly integrated with CGI towers and trains hanging from overhead tracks. It does look remarkably smog-free, though. Many of the chase scenes take place on freeways, of course, but this L.A. seems to have even more than are out there right now.

Again, so things come out right, the mercenary Laurent, who’s had no hesitation to blow innocent bystanders into jelly in his efforts to capture the runaway clones, is given a change of heart near the end which, evidently, is supposed to wipe out the cruel callousness of his earlier actions.

“The Island” is modestly entertaining, but it’s a vastly expensive movie; modesty should have been the least of its virtues. There’s not a single original idea in whole, huge contraption; it seems as constructed from spare parts as Frankenstein’s monster. Buscemi has the best line; when McGregor and Johansson wonder why their “sponsors” never wanted to see their clones, he wryly replies, “Just because people want to eat the burger doesn’t mean they want to meet the cow.”

But a movie like this needs more than a few flippant lines. In interviews, Bay claims to have been drawn to the film because of its ideas. Okay, but then why don’t the ideas get more front-and-center treatment? When Johansson learns that her “sponsor” (a model) is a young mother dying of injuries sustained in an accident, she has a line indicating she’s concerned about the ethics of all this, and her place in this structure. But it’s one line, then off to another chase.

If these clones don’t even know what sex is, why wasn’t there a tender/comic scene of their sexual exploration and discovery? No, we get just a standard set of closeups and lingering kisses.

You’d think a director who was attracted to a project because of the ideas it contains would have found a way of dramatizing those ideas, of bringing questions to the foreground, of suggesting that these concepts relate to contemporary issues (stem cells, for example). Instead, as in all his films Bay concentrates instead on action, stunts and effects. “The Island” is just another summer thrill ride.

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