We don’t turn to Michael Bay (PEARL HARBOR) for subtlety. Like Renny Harlin, he enjoys blowing things up real good and usually after he’s sent them careening along city streets at breakneck paces calculated to inflict the most bodily and property damage as possible en route. And so it was with some curiosity that I watched the first part of his latest effort, a science-fiction tale entitled THE ISLAND. Beyond an impotent punch at a wall by an otherwise ineffectual drone who is quickly scolded for same by the local constabulatory, and a fight simulator that costs virtual Ewan McGregor a few equally virtual teeth, there’s nothing going on that pegs this as a typical Bay product. Of course that doesn’t last, and by the time he gets to flex his action muscles, it’s as though having been so restrained, the need to crash things and people into each other and then, usually, blow them up, becomes even more overwhelming than usual for Mr. Bay. It is a veritable orgy of twisted metal flying vehicles, the whole draped in an effluvium of billowing smoke and leaping fire that, nonetheless, fails to ignite any sense of excitement or tension, proving, in the end, to be not just an unsatisfying experience, but a positively anti-climactic one. Add to that his utter disregard for a story that could have proved not only both timeless and timely when considering the nature of humanity. Mental pyrotechnics require fewer special effects and a whole lot more smarts.
The premise is an isolated colony of carefully nurtured and equally monitored people who are, they are told, the sole survivors of a world-wide cataclysm. The survivors awake each day to a friendly message from the central monitoring unit, which also tracks changes in metabolism and any signs of stress. New arrivals, always adults, show up regularly, and in such shell-shocked states that they must be taught such remedial things as reading and basic motor skills. No one questions this until one day Lincoln Six Echo (McGregor), asks the therapist to whom he’s sent by central monitoring why the survivors, as opposed to the colony’s staff, always have to wear the same thing, and why does it have to be white. It’s impossible to keep clean. And where do the tubes go that he and his fellow survivors keep full of a carefully balanced set of liquid nutrients? He doesn’t, however, question the proximity rule that keeps him a safe distance from best friend Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson). That instinct has been left out of the remedial training, but no one wants to take any chances on unauthorized breeding. People regularly leave the colony, too, after winning the daily lottery for a chance to live on the eponymous island, the last uncontaminated spot on earth where their job is to repopulate the planet. One assumes the salient instructions will be given. They do go to another world, sort of. It’s the afterlife, because the survivors are really clones, grown at enormous expense to be harvested with extreme prejudice when their “sponsors” need a spare part or a baby-maker. That changes with the unwitting help of a dippy technician (Steve Buscemi), sending Lincoln and a not entirely trusting Jordan out into the world at large.
They don’t know this, of course, because before being put into the general population, they’re conditioned by having images and phrases introduces subliminally while they’re in a twilight sort of state between “birth” and consciousness. The parallels with conditioning of the general population by commercials is a delicious bit of social commentary that is not only ignored by a filmmaker uninterested in anything that he can’t deconstruct in a strictly analog fashion, it’s actually negated by the egregious product placement that is as ubiquitous as it is blatant with the extended close-ups of brand names clocking at least as much screen time as the faces of the actors. In another context, in another film, in another lifetime, in another universe, one might be tempted to believe that it was a slick meta-commentary on the commentary, but not, alas, here. The art direction is similarly shoddy, reflecting a low-rent rip-off of BLADE RUNNER and SLEEPER, with none of the imagination or verve.
A scant nod is given the idea of de-humanizing what is unquestionably a human being, though in the form of a clone. There are tantalizing moments when a medical worker actually seems saddened by what she is forced to witness, while never questioning the process itself, not unlike the euthanasia of lab animal to which the technician has made the mistake of becoming attached. Otherwise there is the chilling spectacle of people inured to the suffering of their charges, cracking jokes or, worse, indifferent one way or another to what happens to them.
As for those actors, they obviously thought that they were making a serious film with important issues worth exploring. There are excellent performances in a script that is deeply unworthy of them. McGregor and Johannsson in particular generate just the pitch of clever innocence necessary for people who have been carefully sheltered for their single-digit years of existence, yet still know enough to wangle unauthorized bacon or ask uncomfortable questions.
THE ISLAND is notable, aside for being a prime example of filmmaking gone amok, for being a cinematic oxymoron. It is a pro-life film with a considerable body count and while there are instances of distinct mourning over the demise of at least two characters, there is no mistaking that the audience should be getting a vicarious thrill out of the way in which so many other live people are rendered lifeless. When making a point about the sanctity of life, the argument is so much stronger when all life falls into that category, not just the chosen.