No other filmmaker in recent memory has taken the pounding that Michael Bay has. After huge opening weekends (courtesy of overwrought studio hype), Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and Bad Boys II all dropped like rocks once bad word of mouth set in. Critics have slammed his hyperactive, style-over-substance brand of filmmaking. I myself have called him “talentless,” said he was “inept and incompetent” and suggested that he be banned from ever getting behind a camera again. In Team America: World Police, Trey Parker and Matt Stone wrote an entire song devoted to Bay’s ineptitude. (Sample lyric: "Why does Michael Bay get to keep on making movies?") Imagine my surprise, then, when I heard that Steven Spielberg hand-picked Bay to direct DreamWorks’ big summer movie The Island. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Spielberg is a genius. Perhaps the genius saw some spark of talent in Bay that was escaping the rest of us. Perhaps this assignment was meant to steer Bay in the right direction. If so, it was a marginal success. The Island doesn’t quite work because Bay eventually gives into his worst instincts, but it is undoubtedly better than the director’s previous efforts.
The story takes place in a hermetically-sealed environment, a sterile world buried deep underground and run by Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean). The residents of this enclosed facility don’t remember how they got there; they only have vague memories of a worldwide “contamination” that drove everyone to safety. Periodically, a lottery is held in which one lucky citizen gets to leave the facility and go live on a special island, which is the last remaining place on earth to be contamination-free. It is a shared dream to go to the island, as it means living in a world where one can go outdoors, swim in clean water, and breathe fresh air.
Ewan McGregor plays Lincoln Six Echo, who is finding the sterile environment tough to take. He’s tired of the white uniforms and the controlled diets. He’s not even allowed to get too close to his friend Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson), as “proximity” is forbidden. Lincoln likes to sneak into a maintenance section of the facility where he talks to one of the workers, McCord (Steve Buscemi). Through their conversation, he comes to believe that there may be a world outside the facility. This theory is proven correct when he witnesses an event which directly contradicts the idea that an island even exists. Lincoln finds Jordan and together they escape. Merrick brings in a bounty hunter (Djimon Hounsou) to track them down.
(Spoiler alert: If you don’t want to know the movie’s twist, skip to the next paragraph now.) It turns out that the world was never really contaminated. Lincoln, Jordan, and the others are clones. Merrick’s facility offers cloning services to the wealthy so that they will have organs available should they ever need a transplant. Whenever someone “goes to the island,” it really means that the client has come to collect something from his or her clone. Lincoln realizes that he and the other clones are meant to be expendable.
There is a very interesting concept to The Island, and Bay does a good job setting it up. We suspect early on that the facility is not what it seems. Different things happen to confirm our suspicions, but we’re still not sure what’s really going on. This creates some suspense as we watch Lincoln and Jordan try to put the pieces together. When the revelation is made, it opens up all kinds of possibilities, both ethical and moral. I’ve always liked science-fiction stories that are about ideas, and this one certainly has a strong one at its core.
I’d say the first hour or so of The Island deals head-on with the idea, but the last 75 minutes become what you’d expect from a Michael Bay film. When Lincoln and Jordan go on the run, we get one big, loud, over-the-top action sequence after another. Admittedly, the action is pretty amazing. There’s a chase scene in which large objects fly off a truck and into pursuing cars (a Bay specialty, as he staged the exact same scene in Bad Boys II). Even better is a dizzying sequence set 80 stories above ground, where our heroes dangle from an electronic sign.
The action scenes are pumped up, yet they distract us from what’s most interesting. The early scenes have a quiet sense of foreboding. The sterile world of the facility – where everything is white and antiseptic – provides an intriguing location for a sci-fi story, especially once the twist is revealed. The Island might have been on the level of Minority Report had it kept its focus on the central idea. This is, at heart, a cautionary tale. It’s also one that could have potentially mattered. As soon as Lincoln and Jordan leave the facility though, the movie goes from being thought-provoking to being fluffy.
Michael Bay – for better or worse – has become famous for delivering the biggest, loudest, fastest actions movies around. Perhaps he felt that he’d be disappointing people if he didn’t throw in at least a few larger-than-life action sequences. He didn’t need them. The first hour of The Island shows that he’s capable of relaxing a little bit and drawing us into a compelling story. Maybe Spielberg is right; maybe he does have some talent. It’s just too bad he didn’t trust the strength of the material a little more. It’s not the chases or the car crashes or the shootouts that we want; it’s the exploration of what happens in that facility.
The Island tries to wring out a satisfying conclusion, but the ending left me with more questions than answers. The movie’s first part works as provocative sci-fi, and the second part works as mindless action mayhem, but the two parts never manage to find a satisfactory coexistence.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Island is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sexuality and language. The running time is 2 hours and 16 minutes.
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