The Island (2005)

Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) and Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) imagine what life would be like if they were not in a dumb Michael Bay movie. "The Island."

Directed by Michael Bay. Screenplay by Caspian Tredwell-Owen and Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci; story by Caspian Tredwell-Owen. Produced by Michael Bay, Ian Bryce, Walter F. Parkes. Music by Steve Jablonsky. Photographed by Mauro Fiore. Edited by Paul Rubell, Christian Wagner. Production designed by Nigel Phelps. Starring Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Djimon Honsou, Sean Bean, Steve Buscemi, Michael Clarke Duncan, Ethan Phillips.

I suppose now is a good time to talk about the efforts of Michael Bay.

It’s hard to talk about Michael Bay’s work without talking about Michael Bay himself. Few filmmakers have so enthusiastically slathered their fantasies onscreen for all to admire. The man’s output is pure, unadulterated, unwisely-tapped id. Bay, who got his start directing TV commercials and music videos before jumping to features with 1995’s Bad Boys, has made a healthy career in helming big-budget, frenetic, sexy, action-adventure “event” pictures, ones that so consistently repeat the same images that my embarrassment for Bay has grown with each. Bay has never declared any desire to challenge himself in a meaningful way. He has no interest in character or plot as anything but extrusions of the most remedial clichés, for they are simply devices for him to get to the images that really excite him: the violence, the sex, the jingoistic celebration of American sensibilities, all turned up to a feverish, manic pitch that implies not consideration but masturbation. It’s unpleasant.

I am not suggesting that a filmmaker should not pursue his interests. I am a proponent of the auteur theory, and you cannot have art without an artist who is passionate about something, whatever that something may be. The problem with Bay is that he treats his own interests with the sophistication of a horny teenager: he is unwilling to treat the objects of his desire as anything other than objects. In Bay’s universe, women are prizes to be ogled and won, anyone who is not a heterosexual Caucasian American is to be feared and mocked, and above all, everything should be blown up real good. Are these messages intentional? I’m not even sure. What I do know is that when a message is sent untempered by thought, one still holds responsibility towards the message being sent.

I know that this may seem an overreaction to a man who only wants to make harmless blockbusters. But when a movie is engineered to touch millions of consumers, don’t we have the right to assume it will do so in a way that isn’t hateful? There is no need for a blockbuster to so thoroughly document the offensive territory that a Bay movie visits; a Bay apologist frequently must twist himself into knots in order to justify the racist, sexist, homophobic decisions made in every Bay picture. Sometimes even life itself is devalued by the Bay touch, like in Bad Boys II, where human cadavers are turned into obstacles in a car chase, and then the movie even makes jokes about it. Ho ho. Or Pearl Harbor, where Bay shamelessly reduces a horrific attack into a one-dimensional comic-book backdrop for an insipid love story. Hee hee. You could argue that I’m reading too much into this, and that Bay simply wants to make fun entertainment. Fair enough. I think you can learn a lot about a person by studying what they do for fun.

That brings me to my main sticking point, which is that Bay movies are, generally, not fun. They are violent and oppressive and cynical and long, but not fun. Sure, they have chases and stunts and gunfights, but so what? When the stunts are impossible and the geography incomprehensible, and when the editing adopts a rat-a-tat pace that feels like a kid clumsily flipping through random pages in a comic book, and when the story is cut-price and the actors look generally displeased about what force of nature brought them to this project…how is the resultant numbing effect supposed to make us feel? Some would say that Bay is a master of action sequences, but I think that’s half-right. In actuality, Bay is good at envisioning and storyboarding action sequences. Then he gets in the director’s chair and does everything he can to ruin them.

That brings us to this week’s movie, which is 2005’s The Island, and it is a severiceable representative for any other Michael Bay movie. It’s just as mean, just as stupid, just as crassly commercial as anything else in his oeuvre. It stars Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Bean and the invaluable Steve Buscemi, but don’t let the presence of good actors fool you: they are given nothing to work with. The Island is a mix of science fiction clichés and action-adventure clichés, which I guess is kind of nice, because Bay usually just picks the latter.

The movie’s opening establishes a sterile, utilitarian society of beautiful people where diets and recreational activities are meticulously supervised, and where every once in a while a lucky person gets picked to go to “The Island,” a mysterious paradise. Our hero is Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor), a curious chap who asks a lot of questions, makes friends with the beautiful Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johannson), and then escapes with her to the outside world when he learns that their colony is a sham. Later, Buscemi, playing the stock “friendly janitor” character, delivers him to the ultimate truth. Are you ready for it? Yes, you are, because you already suspect it. Here it is: they are clones, contracted by the wealthy to be a rich source of organs in case of emergency. There is no Island after one’s stay at the colony, just a group of doctors ready to cut you open so that the “real you” can be saved.

Ah, but if you’re a clone, who is “the real you?” Good question! Hope you’re ready to think about it yourself, because from here on out the movie retreats to clichés, with no interest in the science fiction elements at play; the clone stuff is simply a hook for the stupendous (and tiresome) action scenes, as the escaped Lincoln and Jordan wander into futuristic Los Angeles, which sounds much much more impressive than it looks. There are undercurrents of themes here: loss of identity, the dangers of uncontrolled science, the duty that creation has to creator, etc. But not much at all is made of any of these things, possibly because our two heroes are such slow studies. Like all clones, they are only educated to the level of 15-year-olds. This puts Bay, it must be said, right in his comfort zone.

The movie is two halves, and neither of them work. The opening scenes of social satire are promising, if familiar. But they require a more skilled hand than Bay, who possesses no trace of appreciable irony.  The second half grows very tedious, as our heroes are chased and chased and chased by a team of mercenaries who really should offer the evil scientists a discount, based on how the chase is going. The screenplay, by Caspian Tredwell-OwenAlex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, gives our main characters nothing interesting to say, do, feel or think. They’re simply white-bread action figures to be plugged into frantic scenes of violence, which they prove quite adept at. They evade their pursuers through the streets of LA, down a freeway, back into the city, up a skyscraper, and in numerous cars and vehicles, which is quite impressive for 15-year-olds who have never seen any of these things before.

Bay shoots the film like he does every one of his other movies, with an orange glow that makes every shot look like it was filmed at the “magic hour” of about 5:17pm. I know it looks pretty every once in a while, but every shot? Every single shot? Why? What planet does this movie take place on, anyway? It makes both McGregor and Johannson look like they just spent the weekend inside a tanning booth, and creates an oppressive color palette that drains the energy out of the picture. There’s something to be said for the element of surprise, and once you’ve seen five minutes of The Island, you now know how every shot in the film is going to look. Deep orange and red colors tend to stir emotions; when they’re not there to be stirred, we get irritated. A Bay movie is the cinematographic equivalent of dry humping.

There is a love story (of course), and the scenes that underline it are shot with all the sincerity of a perfume ad. Certainly there would be something scary about two grown adults discovering sex for the first time, as those longings are reported to be removed from the clones alltogether. But the movie soon dispenses with that notion, making Lincoln and Jordan very very attracted to each other, and soon eager and instant experts in the subject of making love. Bay clearly enjoys putting Johannson in a variety of sexy poses and outfits, and she is a very attractive woman, no question. But the way his camera caresses Jordan throughout the movie made me think less about the story and more about what constitutes sexual harassment on a Michael Bay set. Bay also makes sure that Jordan lets Lincoln do all her thinking for her, because that’s the way women should be, damn it.

Even the attempts at humor go for easy gender stereotypes, like when Buscemi helps our heroes with wad of cash and plastic, and then says “There’s one universal truth: never give a woman a credit card.” Get it? Because women are irresponsible with money! That’s so true! Johannson, who is a skilled actress with plenty of brass, does what she can. As far as Bay leading ladies go, she actually ranks near the top, but that may simply be my own baggage: unlike Bay favorites like Kate Beckinsale and Megan Fox, I’ve actually seen Johansson give good performances in other films.

By an astonishing coincidence, The Island is reminiscent of two movies. Actually, in one instance it is a coincidence, and in the other it is proven theft. The theft is from the 1979 film Parts: The Clonus Horror (aka Clonus), which was once featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and also featured a hero in a secluded society who learns he is in a cloning camp, breaks out, meets the people who bankrolled him, gets involved in chases, meets a girl, discovers sex, etc. It is not a good film, but at least it works up a sense of creepy awe during the pivotal moment where the hero bungles into a room full of videotapes and learns the secret of his existence. The filmmakers of Clonus waged a lawsuit against The Island and earned a settlement, and it’s easy to see why: not only is the premise the same, but the story beats are pretty much identical.

The other film I’m thinking of came out last year, and was called Never Let Me Go. It was directed by Mark Romanek, starred Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, was based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, and was (surprise!) a much more interesting picture. To be fair, they are both going for different approaches: Never Let Me Go is a character study, not an action movie, but why do they have to be so very mutually exclusive? It’s interesting to compare the approaches of the two different films, especially in that The Island is about two people trying to fight their fate, while Never Let Me Go is about those who learn it and accept it, fatalistically. Whether than reflects a more Eastern sensibility (Ishiguro is Japanese) or simply more considered storytelling, I do not know. It also engages with the core of its idea like the way the best science fiction should, just like The Island does not. It is perhaps an inevitable lesson that Never Let Me Go made less at the box office than The Island, although not to the degree than you might expect (The Island was a huge disappointment for Dreamworks and WB).

It must be said, I am not blind to the qualities of a Michael Bay movie. They are quite real. First of all, he is splendid at integrating real footage with CGI effects; the blending of the two in the first Transformers may be the best example of such I’ve ever seen. And there is something to be said for being able to make a product that so many people want to see. His Transformers movies are proven box office juggernauts, and have generated the biggest disparity between critical consensus and audience appreciation…well, maybe ever. And, yes, every once in a while, Bay whips himself into shape and delivers a cool action shot. I can enjoy that sometimes. I am no snob. And I would never be so foolish to consider Michael Bay a failure. The numbers don’t lie.

But I cannot consider him a success. Not someone so juvenile, so unwilling to evolve. His new movie, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, is his ninth directorial feature, and his producer credits are in the dozens. Let’s think about this. By his ninth feature film, Steven Spielberg had directed both Empire of the Sun and The Color Purple. James Cameron made a documentary for his ninth film. Tim Burton made Big Fish for his ninth film. Christopher Nolan hasn’t even made his ninth picture yet, and he has made several classics. Apples and oranges, perhaps, but Bay is, like these other men, one of the most successful directors of all time, so why has he shown such little interest in actually furthering his craft? To branch out and explore seems to me to be the very definition of directing. The man is 46 years old. When exactly is Bay planning to grow up, and move out?

Maybe he can’t. Maybe he shouldn’t. It’s the lack of trying that galls me the most. I hold in my heart a hope that Bay might one day become a filmmaker of note, rather than a hack who makes a lot of financially successful pieces of junk. Or if not someone of great importance, at least a man who can make a movie that isn’t offensive and stupid. I realize that for this review I’ve done little reviewing of the movie, and much more of the man. But how can I not? The movie is the man, and the man is each of his movies. Sorry, Michael. So sorry. Maybe next time. Boy, am I tired of saying that to you.

GRADE: D+

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1991 – The Rocketeer / 2004 – Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 2004 – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

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