New thriller ‘The Island’ derivative but not dull
~ By ANDY KLEIN ~
With The Island, director Michael Bay – purveyor of such pumped-up megaproductions as Armageddon and Pearl Harbor – makes his first feature without the participation of producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Does it make any difference? Does Bay’s new film reveal him as a sensitive, personal filmmaker who, out from under Bruckheimer’s heavy hand, finally reveals his own voice?
No. Not really.
Just to make sure you don’t mistake it for Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband, the film opens with a whizbang, quick-cut montage of images and sounds that resembles a glossy perfume commercial interrupted by sudden violence. Before we can put it together into anything coherent, it is revealed to be the dream of our hero, Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor), who lives in a sterile, futuristic indoor facility, in the not-very-distant future – 2019, to be exact.
Apparently, there’s been some sort of plague that has made the outside world uninhabitable, except for an idyllic island that one can only get to by winning the lottery. There are a lot of questions the inhabitants of the facility don’t think to ask, except, of course, for our hero, which is precisely why he is our hero.
Roughly the first half of The Island involves Lincoln finding out that everything he’s been taught is a lie and that he and his gal pal, Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson), better get out of Dodge. (“Lincoln out of Dodge”: I just crack myself up sometimes.)
Now, normally, I’d worry about spoiler issues at this point, but the big revelation for Lincoln – that he and Jordan are clones – has been spilled in every ad and advance article, so there seems no point. Their home is actually an underground industrial installation run by the evil Merrick (Sean Bean). Merrick produces perfect human clones as backup systems and parts suppliers for people who can afford the $5 million fee. To assuage any moral qualms, Merrick tells his customers that the clones are totally vegetative and free of any consciousness. (As one character explains the hypocrisy, “Just because people wanna eat the burger doesn’t mean they want to meet the cow.”)
But, in truth, his early experiments showed that, without consciousness, the organs failed and the clones died. So he keeps the doubles hidden away and contrives the whole plague story to head off any desire to escape or even to question their surroundings.
The setup is a sci-fi version of a major release from last year by another famous director: I won’t give the title because, if you saw the film, you’ll know what it is, and, if you haven’t, why should I ruin the surprise? In that film, we were meant to be as baffled by the mystery as the characters; the whole thing built to the revelation of what was really going on.
Last year’s film had its own problems, but the director was clear about what he was trying to do. In The Island, most of the first half is played as though the audience is supposed to be learning the truth along with Lincoln. But, of course, we already know it and begin to wish Bay would simply – and, in this case, literally – cut to the chase. We know too much more than Lincoln for too long.
There is also the issue that, while the point of the film is that our two protagonists are human, their “upbringing” has rendered them more like aliens; it’s a huge relief every time Steve Buscemi, playing a regular working-class stiff at the facility, shows up.
The second half is classic Bay – essentially, nonstop action. For films where the characters are gwine to run all night, gwine to run all day, you can always bet on Bay. (I’ll stop now.) The action is sometimes exciting and occasionally clever – as in the highway chase – but, like most Bay run/drive/explode sequences, it’s mechanical and less involving than it ought to be. He never achieves the suspense that Steven Spielberg manages in War of the Worlds or the oomph that John Woo’s cutting gave the action scenes in Hard Boiled. All this stuff isn’t bad, but it sure is familiar.
There are the usual number of implausibilities – Merrick manages to keep his secret, even while employing hundreds of workers like the Buscemi character? – but that comes with the turf. Still, there are also some scientific stretches I might not have noticed if they didn’t also suggest a consistently right-wing ideological agenda. First, the notion that “without consciousness the organs failed and the clones died” implies that, if the organs don’t die, there must be consciousness; ergo, Terry Schiavo was murdered by being unplugged. Second, there is a heart-wrenching scene of new clones being violently torn out of their amniotic sacs by the bad guys. Gee, what commonly performed medical procedure is that supposed to invoke? Thirdly, the entire plot hinges on the notion that memories can somehow be imprinted on DNA and inherited: There goes genetics – and, by extension, Darwin – right out the window.
The Island. Directed by Michael Bay. Screenplay by Crispian Tredwell-Owen and Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci; story by Crispian Tredwell-Owen.
With Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Djimon Hounsou, Sean Bean, and Steve Buscemi. Opens Fri., citywide.