Director : s Michael Bay
Screenplay : Caspian Tredwell-Owen and Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci (story by Caspian Tredwell-Owen)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Ewan McGregor (Lincoln Six Echo / Tom Lincoln), Scarlett Johansson (Jordan Two Delta / Sarah Jordan), Djimon Hounsou (Albert Laurent), Sean Bean (Dr. Merrick), Steve Buscemi (McCord), Michael Clarke Duncan (Starkweather), Ethan Phillips (Jones Three Echo), Brian Stepanek (Gandu Three Alpha), Noa Tishby (Community Announcer)
(This review contains what I would call “spoilers” about the movie’s premise, except that I’m not giving away anything that isn’t in the film’s trailers. Thus, if you don’t know a single thing about the plot, it might be better to see it without reading about it first. If, like most others, you have already been assaulted with the give-away trailers, please proceed.)
From the “glass half-full” perspective, Michael Bay’s The Island is his best film since 1996’s The Rock and the first of his films to have a genuinely interesting idea backing up the orgy of action and violence, rather than just a concept. From the “glass half-empty” perspective, The Island is, like last summer’s I, Robot, yet another big-budget Hollywood action spectacular that takes an intriguing idea and then hacks it to death with an avalanche of action scenes.
Regardless of which perspective you take, it is hard to get away from the real problem with The Island, which is simply that it doesn’t fully appeal to either Bay’s fans or his detractors. Like Pearl Harbor (which is an embarrassingly bad movie from any perspective), The Island represents a stretch for Bay, albeit not one that requires his feet to ever leave the ground. Those who have criticized his movies (which also include Bad Boys, Bad Boys II, and Armageddon) as empty, headache-inducing spectacle for masochistic Ritalin junkies might appreciate the fact that The Island is built on an intriguing sci-fi concept, but will be dismayed once the second half of the film kicks into nonstop action mode, leaving what brains it had in the dust. On the other hand, Bay’s longtime fans will likely be disappointed by the film’s overall lack of crudity and the long stretches at the beginning that establish tone and atmosphere. It’s almost enough to make you anxious for Bay to detonate something.
The story in The Island, which was originally concocted by screenwriter Caspian Tredwell-Owen (Beyond Borders) before being taken away and “Bay-ified” by screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (veterans of TV’s Alias who also penned the upcoming Legend of Zorro), suggests a near future in which the wealthy and powerful can pay millions of dollars to have clones of themselves made as insurance in case they ever need any spare parts (a heart, a kidney, some lungs). The problem of what to do with all the clones is solved by Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean), a Frankenstein-esque genetic scientist who concocts a sterile pseudo-world underground where the clones live a regimented life. They are led to believe that there has been worldwide contamination, thus they must never leave the confines of the giant buildings in which they live. They are given hope by a random lottery that promises to send the winners to the titular island, supposedly the only other place on the planet that is not contaminated. Thus, thousands of clones have no idea that there is a thriving outside world or that they are carbon copies of their “sponsors.”
Naturally, such a scenario invites questions involving all kinds of moral dilemmas, the peak of which is the question of whether or not the clones are human in the sense that their sponsors are. Clearly, Dr. Merrick and his staff do not think so, as they have no compunction about killing the clones for their parts. It’s not even framed as a sacrifice so that someone else can live; rather, it’s on par with gutting an old car for its spare parts. One could imagine a heady, dense sci-fi parable being made out of the story, one that focuses on the quandaries inherent to the kinds of scientific progress that genuinely blur the lines between humankind and God.
And, for at least the first 45 minutes, that is what The Island appears to be, although one might imagine how much better it could have been had the marketing campaign not made it perfectly clear what the story is about. However, around the halfway point, The Island turns into an extended chase movie, as two clones, Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson), discover the truth about their situation and escape in order to find their sponsors. Dr. Merrick cannot allow this because he has deliberately misguided the public, leading them to believe that the clones are never brought to consciousness, a line of demarcation frequently used to separate life from simple existence.
To be fair, the action sequences that make up much of The Island’s second half are relateively good stuff -- definitely some of Bay’s better work, at least. The action isn’t edited to within an inch of its life, and because the first half of the movie sets up Lincoln and Jordan’s characters, making them sympathetic and interesting, the peril in which they increasingly find themselves had some genuine tension to it. An extended highway chase has some great moments, although it’s hard not to be nagged by the fact that the Wachowski Brothers already perfected this particular form of action in The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and it looks far too much like a similar sequence in Bay’s own Bad Boys II.
The movie picks up nicely when Lincoln finally contacts his sponsor, an egotistical Scottish car and boat engineer who may or may not be sympathetic to the clones’ plight. McGregor has fun playing both roles, digging deep into the recesses of abject greed to play the sponsor, which contrasts well with Lincoln’s confused, childlike demeanor. Alas, it’s not quite enough to save the movie as a whole, which ends up feeling more like two movies clumsily spliced together than an organic whole.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2005 DreamWorks and Warner Bros.