I get the feeling that there are a lot of people who think that movie critics are sad little people whose only true enjoyment comes from taking the piss out of movies that are really asking for it. Michael Bay’s futuristic “The Island,” starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson as two runaway clones, is one of those movies that is really asking for it.
So let me at least speak for myself when I tell you that being merciless when reviewing a bad movie is small payback for the disappointment I feel after seeing a great opportunity go up in smoke (and a lot of car crashes). I am, above all, an obsessed movie fan, so it is no fun to know exactly what a film will be like before you actually see it. I hate to say it, but “The Island” is a film that I could have reviewed just from reading its press, which goes something like this:
Bay, the director responsible for big-budget disaster movies like “Armageddon” and “Pearl Harbor,” gets a creepy science-fiction script handed down from Steven Spielberg, who says he’d be perfect to direct it. But the screenplay is slow and talky, and its author, Caspian Tredwell-Owen, is stubborn to the idea of changing it too drastically. So out goes Owen and almost all of the serious examination of moral issues that surround cloning, and in comes two hot up-and-coming screenwriters to polish it up, Bay-style.
|Plan Your Escape, indeed.|
I imagined before seeing “The Island,” that this polish would consist mainly of an over-simplification of the film’s more heady implications and finding a whole lot of excuses to blow shit up. And, sadly, I was right.
McGregor, who plays Lincoln Six-Echo, starts to question the sterile indoor community in which he and thousands of others live. They all have assigned jobs and are all forced to dress identically, in typical all-white B-movie ultramodern uniforms, as if they’ve just stepped off the set of 1976’s “Logan’s Run.” His best friend, Jordan Two-Delta, is one of the naïve “lucky” people who is chosen weekly to help populate an unseen island where those who have survived the Earth’s “contamination” live in utopia. However, winning here is a lot more like Shirley Jackson’s brutal short story “The Lottery,” and a lot less like Powerball.
What transpires is more of a prison break/inmates on-the-run story than true science fiction. “The Island” has more in common with “Con Air” than it does with “Gattaca.” Lincoln and Jordan barely have time to grapple with their true origin because they are too busy running from bounty hunters who, despite all their hi-tech gear and muscle-bound intensity, cannot seem to track down two people with the education of fifteen year-olds who have never been outside before.
Reducing the clones to “the oppressed” and the humans to evil villians puts the movie in an easy context so that Bay can do what his blockbuster movies do best. Despite my frustration at Bay’s insistence on making a complicated issue seem entirely black-and-white, I will give the man credit for one thing. “The Island” contains one supremely spectacular chase sequence. Once the clones leave the constraints of the facility, Bay stages a dizzying highway chase that mixes the familiar (SUVs and trucks) with the futuristic (flying jet skis with gunner turrets), nudging the camera up uncomfortably close to some pretty intense collisions. That scene saves the movie from being a complete bore.
A quick glance at the casting shows the classic Bay formula— a high concept dumbed down and peppered with hip actors better known for their independent-minded roles. Besides McGregor and Johansson, supporting actor stalwart Steve Buscemi lends his wisecracking credibility in the sidekick/weirdo part that is basically a reprise of his role in “Armageddon.” Even past Oscar nominees Djimon Honsou and Michael Clarke Duncan appear briefly, and are underused in tiny, one-note roles.
Buscemi delivers piece of down-home philosophy early on that sums up Bay’s lowbrow approach to the material and serves as a contrast between what “The Island” is and what it could have been. As he sends the fleeing couple on their way, Buscemi gives Lincoln his Visa and warns him that one life lesson he can be sure of is that you should never give a woman a credit card– like we haven’t heard that in every bad stand-up comedian’s act since 1985.
In a movie that skirts the intriguing issues of cloning and treats them as merely platforms to set up another action scene, perhaps it is fitting that its this idea that’s being singled out as really important.