The Island

©2005, DreamWorks Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures
EWAN McGREGOR and SCARLETT JOHANSSON star in DreamWorks Pictures’
and Warner Bros. Pictures’ futuristic action thriller THE ISLAND, directed by Michael Bay.
Photo credit: Merrick Morton, ©2005, DreamWorks Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures.

“Just because you eat the burger doesn’t mean you want to meet the cow,” says McCord (Steve Buscemi) when attempting to explain to the innocent Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson) and Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor) the world that benefits from their existence might not want to know just how that benefit is achieved.

It raises a very interesting question… one that I’m not sure “The Island” goes far enough in answering. However, suffice it to say that Michael Bay has gone farther in bothering to ask the interesting questions than in his past projects. The problem is that Bay doesn’t follow Einstein’s philosophy. He doesn’t stay with the question long enough. However, “The Island” is still entertaining on a Sunday afternoon.

I kept thinking Jordan Two-Delta was played by Tara Reid. Then, I had to remind myself Johansson is playing a character with the mind of a teenager. That’s how effective her performance is. I forget this is the actress who played opposite Bill Murray in “Lost in Translation.” Versatility is always a good thing.. Jordan, though extremely beautiful, is innocent, guileless—not vain or mean-spirited. Johansson is convincing in such roles which require an improbable beauty with a kind heart.

I would be bothered by the seeming plagiarism of essentially recycling the plot of “Logan’s Run”, that is, if “Logan’s Run” weren’t such a mediocre film. Here, Ewan McGregor, a gifted actor, believes his dialogue (a gift he also gave to the Star Wars prequels) more so than Michael York did in the 1976 movie. It’s funny that I haven’t come across a single review yet that has made the connection. That tells you how memorable “Logan’s Run” is in the annals of science fiction.

On second thought, perhaps it’s no coincidence that Johansson also looks like Jenny Agutter… but I digress.

By now, you’ve seen the marketing and know, at least, this: The inhabitants of this society are apparently “survivors” who have been found and brought back to this containment facility, safe from the contamination of the outside world. They are all participants in a lottery system that, hopefully, rewards them for their service to the society with a retirement at a somewhat utopic location known only as “the Island.” The names Whitman, Price and Haddad immediately come to mind.

The product placement borders on the ridiculous in this movie, but then product placement itself is inherently a statement about the blandness of our conformity-rewarding society. Coming out of the theater, I saw a young man wearing a Puma t-shirt. Isn’t it odd that we pay, instead of get paid, to advertise brands?

Lincoln Six-Echo wants to know why he can’t eat, dress and act differently from one day to the next. Why must it always be white? Why must his shoe brand always be Puma? We know the real answer to the second question… but stay with me here. Their existence appears to be an update of George Lucas’ “THX-1138”, or any other film about a society subjugated into homogeneity. However, there are moments where Ewan McGregor’s skill as an actor propels his potrayal of human curiosity beyond the characters in Lucas’ seminal art flick.

Lincoln Six-Echo befriends Jordan Two-Delta, who shows him some of the finer points of getting a little variety in their daily life. They live in a world where individuality is discouraged and everyone wears the same brand shoes and drinks the same brand of water. How oddly familiar all this is.

But Lincoln has recurring nightmares and is directed, by his wallscreen reminders, of course, to see Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean)—the big cheese of this… wherever it is. Merrick is concerned about the unstable element in his great plan, the finer details of which I will not reveal. Though, I’m sure you could figure them out on your own from the advance marketing.

Merrick releases spider-like, miniature probes that burrow behind Lincoln’s eye, allegedly to identify the source of the bad dreams. Usually in films like this, there’s a rule that dreams that seem to be foreshadowing are foreshadowing. So, while the sights, sounds and interactions with Lincoln’s and Jordan’s acquaintances are all interesting, we proceed through them with a sense that we already know what’s going to happen. Then again, you don’t go to a Michael Bay film expecting a labyrinthine plot. Apologies to Roger Ebert… I hope his lawyers haven’t trademarked “labyrinthine” yet, because I like that word, too.

Eventually, Lincoln goes to see McCord who, unintentionally, leads him to an exterior view of the workings of Merrick’s utopia, so to speak. If you are one of the five people who doesn’t watch network television and thus haven’t seen the trailers for “The Island”, then stop here, turn on the TV, see the trailer, then continue reading:

Now you have the basic premise… that Lincoln and Jordan are clones, bred for the specific purpose of looking cool in a variety of action sequences with lots of effects shots—oh, and having some interesting relationship with their “real world” doubles who live somewhere outside Merrick’s enormous IKEA showroom.

Lincoln, predictably, becomes aware of the plot, too. After all, the function of all movie utopias is for them to be disrupted by reality. How is it, you wonder, that Lincoln is not satisfied with answers that really don’t tell him where all the tubes go in the lab in which he works? How is it that, inside the vacuum of what seems to be Merrick’s rat lab, Lincoln experiences curiosity. His is not curiosity in general, but specific curiosity that repeatedly thrusts him toward things for which he has no outside frame of reference. Well, the film answers this with a rather interesting, if not scientifically implausible, possibility that, of course, has something to do with the source of Lincoln’s genetic material.

Lincoln’s curiosities are accelerated when he discovers an insect in a place where it shouldn’t be found. This leads him to witness several events that reveal the true nature and purpose of his existence. He instinctively returns to his friend, Jordan, who has just won the lottery, because, he has learned, she is in grave danger.

There is an interesting character in Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou), a bounty hunter brought in by Merrick to follow Lincoln and Jordan once it is certain that the knowledge they have may undercut Merrick’s plans to acquire a large government contract. Don’t you just hate it when that happens? Laurent is mostly your stock bounty hunter but, as a mercenary, he’s wise to trust no one in this scheme. You usually find mercenaries in these movies trusting the antagonist only to be betrayed by them, but something tells us Laurent is a quick study.

This is where the film takes that same left turn that “Dreamcatcher” did about half the way through that made you wonder if the director simply gave up and decided to appeal to the lowest common denominator. However, “The Island’s” mid-course correction is predictable, expected and, well, still entertaining enough… whereas “Dreamcatchers” was unpredictable, terrible and downright ludicrous.

So, there are big action sequences followed by a rather amusing encounter that answers why this is yet another film in which a European actor is hired to play an American. But again, if the clone of a speed freak doesn’t speak with the same accent, why does he instinctively know how to drive a flying motorcycle? Again, nevermind… You’ll keep asking yourself little questions like these along the way, just before the intellectual components of the film are cut short to bring us back to yet another Michael Bay action sequence.

By now I’m almost completely tired of any and all action sequences in film, especially those that rely so heavily on computer graphics. The distinctiveness of great action sequences seems to get confused by the availability, offered by CG, of any stunt that can be imagined. Unfortunately, something about large budgets seems to cause the imaginations of action directors to stop at exactly the same place—just short of something we haven’t already seen.

The first half of this movie gave me some hope that directors like Bay will continue to improve their craft and, like myself, get tired of repetition. Perhaps the lackluster performance of summer movies might motivate them to try something different for that second half. However, I’m still a bit skeptical. Can we see a film that continues in the intriguing direction this one was headed? I hope so. Will we have to see the tornado of effects, explosions and helicopters (Bay’s fascination with which borders on perverse obsession), all over again next summer?

Only in a rerun.

The Island • Running Time: 2 hours 16 minutes • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sexuality and language. • Released by Dreamworks SKG