I expected to hate The Island. But 2005 was a real bi-polar year. We all learned what it means to miss New Orleans, but look on the bright side: Batman came back to unexpectedly-viable life, I was enjoying all the benefits of dating a Reed College student, and Michael Bay directed a film that doesn’t totally suck. It’s not good…but it fits in with the general tone of this site a whole hell of a lot better than, say, The Rock. I’m a Sci-Fi geek through and through. Gave up making apologies for that sometime in the early-90s, around the time Star Trek started rocking my world.
As such, I could care less about frat boy circle jerks, like the Bad Boys duology or Pearl Harbor. This film faced longer odds then a sailor on the U.S.S. Arizona on December 7, 1941. And yet it…kinda…sorta…beat them.
At the very least, it beat the spread. Sad to say but, since the 2000s were such a sucktastic decade, basic competence has become the new “exceptionally awesome.” Lowered expectations have a lot to do with that, and The Island is living proof that lowered expectations can pay off.
The Island opens with a dream sequence that makes me think someone tacked a David Lynch movie onto the beginning of this one. Turns out we’re in the dream of Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor), a resident of the humanity’s last bastion in this post-Apocalyptic year of your Lord, 2019. Every aspect of the theirs lives is managed from afar by the facility’s black-suited Supervisors. Residents are charged with remaining healthy and civil to each other while the environment fulfills their every need. So they wait until they day they’re chosen by system-wide lottery to move out to the last uncontaminated Island on Earth.
Some form of contaminations apparently wiped out the whole of human life, and these residents live out their lives believing they’ll repopulate the world from their Island paradise. Pregnant women are instantly evacuated the moment they go into labor and no one is allowed overmuch physical contact…or social interaction. And despite prevailing dogma about the Outside being full of pathogen, Supervisors keep finding brain-damaged but supposedly-uncontaminated “survivors” all the time…
For Lincoln, all the creature comforts of life Inside have reduced it to a soul-deadening routine. A hopeless corridor of unending white jumpsuits and waiting. Of urinals that analyze your sodium and tell you what foods you can’t eat first thing in the morning. The only joy in his life is the off chance he’ll catch the eye of this one hot girl, Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson). She could bring the bacon home to me anytime…
But apart from that, visits down to the industrial Sector Six are Lincoln’s only real getaway from his micromanaged hive-life. Down amongst the pipes and sparks, he chin-wags and shares booze with Maintenance Supervisor James McCord (Steve Buscemi). Together the two discus the three most important things in the average American male’s life: booze, babes and God
Lincoln: What’s God?
McCord: You know, when you want something really bad and you close your eyes and you wish for it? God’s the guy who ignores you.
Beautiful. There goes a quarter of your audience, including large swaths of my own deep blue congressional district. No wonder this movie flopped. It’s actually kinda funny, since The Island goes out of its way to affirm the existence of the immortal soul, and even imply that our clones share some ineffable something with us. What might that be? Fuck if I know. All I know is, this plot’s not gonna advance itself.
So through the magic of a stolen pass-key, Lincoln Six Echo makes his way behind the scenes and discovers two recent lottery winners held captive in a vast medical facility. The pregnant Lima Six Alpha (Siobhan Flynn) receives an immediate lethal injection as soon as her baby’s wiped down. Meanwhile, Starkweather Two Delta (Michael Clarke Duncan) is getting his liver removed down the hall. Turns out all the residents of this facility are walking, talking organ banks – clone “agnates” grown as “insurance policies” by your standard Evil Corporation. “It’s a product, ladies and gentlemen,” Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean), the evil scientist running this freak show, says to his perspective clients in that trademark Sean Bean baritone, “in every way that matters. Not human.” Poor Boromir. As if getting shot by Patrick Bateman wasn’t humiliation enough, now you’re stuck playing Albert Wesker. And not the one from the video games, oh no, sir. The stupid one, from Paul W.S. Anderson’s stupid movies.
Successfully rescuing Jordan Two Delta from her trip to the Island, Lincoln breaks free…and, much like another sci-fi messiah I could name, discovers his world is a vast, holographic delusion powered by complex machines he cannot comprehend. Which is not to say he’s a stupid character, like Merrick. It’s just that all the agnates are artificially aged and subliminally educated to the level of fifteen-year-olds. Except Lincoln…who’s beginning to remember things he never experienced…almost as if he were someone else…someone real…
But Michael Bay couldn’t forsake his First Love for long. Really, the man’s a Romantic, pining for his high school sweet heart even though he knows she’ll burn him, the same way she always does. Here the familiar Bay contrivances creep in. Helicopters? People getting out of helicopters in slow motion? An elite team of taciturn, badass mercenaries? Car chases? The back half of this film’s got ’em. But unlike Bay’s other cinematic Superfund sites, The Island can get away with devoting an hour to running its two leads through a plot gauntlet.
Don’t worry, I can explain. I’ve even prepared an analogy: The Island is to Logan’s Run as Armageddon is to Meteor. I can see the poster now: “Beyond 2001! Beyond Zardoz! There is…The Island!” It’s the kind of film professional critics (i.e., those who get paid…though we all have those little Paypal Donate buttons on our websites now, which pretty much puts the onus back on you) love to thumb their noses at, but it’ll probably gain a cult following in…oh…about fifteen years or so. Hell, it probably has one now and I’m just two lazy to seek it out. Some people even like Equilibrium, and that’s at least as full of plot contrivances.
The first comes when Dr. Merrick hires mercenary Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou) to track down the fugitive organ banks. It turns out Merrick’s entire operation is illegal thanks to the Eugenics Laws of 2015, which stipulated agnates remain in persistent vegetative states. As Merrick explains to Laurent, “We found that without human experience, without consciousness, without life – the organ’s failed.” Why? Because if they didn’t, we couldn’t very well have a film, now could we? Just like Michael Bay can’t make a film without an elite team of military stereotypes. Can you think of a better way to catch two stumbling idiots than heavily-armed muscleheads? I’m betting Merrick went to the Umbrella Corporation School of Business. After he got his doctorate from Omni Consumer Products University.
At least Laurent gives Lincoln and Jordan all the excuse they need to run around causing property damage. All thanks to Bullshit Contrivance #2: the Heroes Battle Death Exemption. Despite having the life experience of a four-year-olds and the subliminal education of first world teens, Our Heroes still manage to outrun a team of trained mercenaries, survive another interminable freeway chase (because the two in Bad Boys II weren’t annoying or gratuitous enough), smash through a office tower, dangle off its gigantic corporate logo high above the ground, fall off…and survive with nothing but tasteful movie wounds. And no, Michael, they are not “saved” by one off-hand character’s Odious Comic Relief. Nothing saves this. It ruins your film because it exposes The Island for the crass commercial it really is. I have a hard enough time keeping my knowledge of that repressed as it is, Mikey.
Lincoln even knows how to fly a hoverbike. And, since he’s a clone, this isn’t just any old plot contrivance: it’s the film’s Exhibit A in the Case of Why Clones Are People Too. Lincoln, for example, is a clone of commercial artist and fast-vehicle designer Tom Lincoln…who kindly takes Our Clone Heroes in…just so he can prove to be an evil douche about two scenes later. Movie’s got to hammer home its Obvious Theme somehow. “People will do anything to survive.” Bold, revolutionary statement there, The Island.
Sad fact is, as far as Michael Bay’s concerned, this is actually a vast improvement. There are good reasons for that. Two of them are named Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, former TV writers who somehow became Hollywood’s go-to team for mediocre films, the kind of empty-headed crap that pads out the ass end of summer. The pair have since gone on to pen mediocre Zorro, Mission: Impossible , and Star Trek films, along with two of the godawfulest movies of the 21st century (so far). Here they were fresh off of their run on Alias, and you can almost see the James Cameron glow in their story.
By which I mean, “It’s a fun-filled action romp that shamelessly rips-off old, low-budged sci-fi storys the writers probably saw on TV.” With Cameron, it was several episodes of the Outer Limits, which is why Harlan Ellison gets a credit at the end of Terminator…and he had to sue just to get that much. In The Island‘s case, the director and producer of 1979’s Parts: The Clonus Horror filed suit against DreamWorks, claiming anywhere from 89-100 specific points of similarity between the two films. They even tried to get The Island pulled from theaters.
I appreciate the thought, Clonus Associates. You shouldn’t have settled out of court. I hope some of that seven figure settlement trickled down to Clonus‘ writers. As Clonus writer Bob Sullivan told Agony Booth:
“Two months before The Island came out, a WGA attorney notified DreamWorks and the three writers of The Island that the WGA viewed their film as an unauthorized remake of Clonus. But suddenly, the whole thing was hushed up, and the attorney was fired. We know this because that attorney was our Deep Throat, telling us what had happened. But of course, the WGA won’t help me now—even though their mission statement claims they were created to help all writers—because I’m not a union member, and [Island writer] Caspian Tredwell-Owen, who was paid a million dollars for his “original” screenplay, is a union member.”
And so it goes in modern Hollywood.
Yet, I don’t hate this film. Why not? Did Bad Boys II just drain all that hate out of me? That can’t be right. I’ve hated everything else the writers and the director have ever done, so what’s the rogue element?
Maybe I’m just a sucker for sci-fi chase films. The Island is exactly the kind of cheesy sci-fi chase movie I grew up watching. But whereas those films limped along on (oh, say, for example) $257,000 budgets, this thing took one hundred and twenty-two million to make and brought most of it back at the box office. With those kinds of numbers, DreamWorks can afford to plagiarize decades of B-movies and still have cash on hand to light imported cigars and pay someone minimum wage to feed bills into a shredder.
So there’s not a surprise or challenge or honest, human emotion to be had here. We get half an hour of actual utopian sci-fi, an hour of the same three action set-pieces Bay throws into every film, and the expected Fun with Split-screen, as Ewan McGregor plays off himself. The Lincoln we like even manages to get the Lincoln we don’t like shot by Laurent’s mercinaries and you’re thinking, Okay…that wasn’t so bad. Movie’s over now…right?
Ha! Back at Evil Insurance Co. LTD., Dr. Merrick’s decided to “recall” all the clones of Echo generation, since Lincoln Six Echo’s perchant for questioning authority turns out to be genetic…which is the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard, but whatever. This means everyone Lincoln and Jordan have ever known will die unless the two bold freedom fighters liberate their clone brethren. Laurent even has the obligatory Eleventh-Hour Change of Heart once he realizes Clones are People Too. And treating people like livestock is a Bad Thing.
As with The Rock, I find the taciturn, Lawful Evil antagonist more interesting than the so-called Heroes, despite Laurent’s complete lack of (meaningful) screen time. Hounsou spends most of the film as a Mercenary Everyman, running around, giving orders, not thinking twice about shooting up LA in the name of fulfilling his contract. Once it’s completed (in the loudest, most destructive way possible) and the fugitives safety retrieved (though – SPOILER ALERT – no really) Laurent says “Fuck this” to Dr. Sean Bean and becomes Our Heroes’ new best friend. I just hope he picked up the check before starting his new career as a Clone Rights advocate.
Speaking of which…The Island would have us believe that, not only did an Evil Insurance Company (is there any other kind?) clone all these people, it locked them up in an underground lab and kept the whole thing secret…from everyone. Except, of course, for Xbox™, Puma™, Aquafina™ and KFC™…who apparently won no-bid contracts to supply these clones with food, water and aggression-sublimating video games. How does Lincoln find his “sponsor”? Through an MSN™ search, of course. How do Our Mercenaries pursue Our Heroes? In Caddies, choice of the stylish mercenary.
Parts: The Clonus Horror…and, hell, even Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones… avoided this plot hole by showing active collusion between the Evil Cloners and the government agencies supposedly regulating them. But The Island is too naive and prosaic for that. People in The Island‘s world are supposed to be shocked, shocked, that these clones are sentient. We’re supposed to be bowled over by the film’s likening their situation unto slavery and Laurent’s conversion to the Light Side.
We’re not because we’ve seen all this before. Done better. For cheaper. With actors who didn’t appear in Star Wars. In films that didn’t whore themselves out to every company with an overlapping market share.
A better cast is the only real “improvement” The Island can hold over Parts head. Shame neither Obi-Wan nor ScarJo have anything to do besides set up the next fish-out-of-water gag. McGregor prepared for this through years of toil under George Lucus and Johansson’s got that quiet intensity in her eyes that shuts me up. It’s pretty hard to talk when you’re drowning. But both Our Heroes are blank slates. With a decent director, their journey of discovery could provide the film with what it lacks and what it insists clones possess: soul.
Unfortunately, Michael Bay is a soulless monster. If you switch on the cometary track you’ll get all the evidence of this you’ll ever need. Much like Uwe Boll, Bay’s commentaries are often more interesting than his films, because they reveal the true depths of his psychosis.
In the past, Bay blamed this film’s “pitiful” take on the actors, but someone must’ve told him how much this made him look like an ass. Here, he’s careful to kiss up to everyone except for those anonymous shills in DreamWorks marketing department. Because everyone hates marketing guys, right? Fuck them. I’m gonna go punch one right now, just as soon as I edit this together.
But first I’m going to once again reference Agony Booth because they’re (a) authentic fans of Clonus who (b) managed to make the most salient point about all this:
I find it very odd that during this entire diatribe against the marketing, at no point does he once mention the trailer that revealed the whole fucking story. Did he even wonder how The Island would have done if the trailer hadn’t told us they were clones, and then made that the big secret plot twist? Apparently not.
The Island‘s apparently-stiff summer competition also ensured its “failure.” How could a derivative sci-fi chase flick hope to succeed against cinematic titans like…March of the Penguins…or Revenge of the Sith…or Tim Story’s Fantastic Four? Or The 40 Year Old Virgin? Or Mr. & Mrs. Smith?
Here, Michael Bay is out-and-out admitting his films are only as good as their ad campaigns. And that’s a better summation of The Island – and Bay’s career as a whole – than a thousand critics could ever write, even if they had a thousand years and a thousand DRM-free copies of Microsoft Office.
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