This film gained notoriety after Michael Bay's The Island came out, and people started pointing out that the Bay film was pretty much a straight remake of this one. Then the makers of this film sued, citing 100 points of similarity between the two, and finally Dreamworks, who released The Island, settled out of court. Having seen The Island [and now, against my better judgment, kind of wanting to see it AGAIN], I can attest that it truly is an updated remake. But, that said, they picked a rich film, just ripe for a remake. This is one of those films that, like the CdM manifesto says, requires getting past its cheesiness to focus on its ideas, but once you do it's quite rich, with ideas popping out all over and little real interest in pleasing the masses. Also please note that the same premise resulted in the serious sci-fi artsy film Never Let Me Go. We open with shots of a kind of meat locker with preserved bodies in plastic. This is intercut with a political rally for Senator Knight, who hopes to become President. Then we see a group of what we will soon realize are clones being overseen by guards as they do various physical fitness activities such as biking and running. The guards talk among themselves as though the clones aren't there, and when the clones ask a question about what they're talking about, are shushed and told to get back to their exercise.
Then this guy George achieves the goal all the clones are waiting for, and gets to go to America! He bids a tearful goodbye to his girlfriend, then goes. He is taken to an operating room where he is told he must be sedated before his trip. We have numerous shots of George's innocent, trusting face, knowing something bad is about to happen. Sure enough, once he passes out, he is embalmed alive [creepy!], then put in a bag and gassed. He wakes up long enough to struggle sadly in the bag. This entire premise, that there's this group of clones kept in a compound, all dreaming of going to America, was lifted intact for The Island, where they all yearn to go to the mythical Island.
Meanwhile, our hero Richard, played by Timothy Donelly, is questioning his environment, and not getting any answers. All of his fellow clones are blindly trusting and just find believing whatever they're told to be the best course of action. I'm sure we've all been surrounded by groups like this. One conceit the movie plays with--that is an interesting idea, but the enemy of drama--is that the clones are purposely kept as mental children, who barely understand anything. Good sci-fi idea, but it's hard to get interested in a character that is a total bimbo, and they have to try to walk the line a bit with Richard. One day a passing group of other clones happens by, and this blonde Lena falls off her bike, and meets Richard. They were never supposed to make contact. We see a control room monitoring them, and giving instructions to have both of them watched for any aftereffects of their unplanned meeting.
Richard and Lena sneak off to meet at night. They express their doubts about the compound, and both are dumbfounded to hear the other express thoughts they have never heard voiced. Then they discover sex, and make sweet, hot clone love. The DVD extras make clear that the sex scene was crammed in with the sole purpose of making the film more marketable. Richard decides that he's going to do some snooping and see what he comes up with. The whole thought terrifies Lena.
Richard sneaks into a big complex, and soon finds his own scientific file--written in 8th grade girl penmanship, it's kind of funny--and watches a video that explains the whole facility, which is Clonus. It allows those rich enough to create a clone they can use for organ transplants, should they ever need one. Again, this idea, the entire premise of the movie, lifted wholesale for The Island. Richard watches the video and is stunned, and here's what I was saying about the movie trying to have it both ways regarding his intellect--if he was truly kept a naive simpleton, he would have no conceptual basis to grasp what he's seeing at all. But that would be dramatically boring, so here he simply DOES understand. The tape, by the way, explains pretty much EVERYTHING you might want to know about the whole corpotaion here. He steals the tape, there's a chase, he finds the room of shrink-wrapped bodies, chase, chase, and he finally escapes.
SPOILERS > > >
So Richard wanders into L.A. and walks down a street of porn shops, etc. This is supposed to be a big shock to him, having existed entirely in his sealed-off little world, only now, to us, this world looks so alien that it’s hard to realize what a difference it’s supposed to be to Richard. He is spotted by the police and shot at. Eventually he falls into the garbage outside the house of Keenan Wynn as Jake, who finds and takes him in. Now, Keenan Wynn is a character actor with over 200 films to his name. I knew him from the early version of The Killer Inside Me, Orca, Laserblast and The Dark… and from all these, I know that every time he shows up, he’s FANTASTIC, regardless of how crappy the movie around him is. This film is no different, as he brings a very real, grounded energy to his part of a couple [with Lurene Tuttle] that expertly deliver quite lived-in bickering as they listen to Richard’s story. Richard has photo and name of his “part,” that is the original “counterpart” he was cloned from, and Jake takes him over there to figure out what’s going on. This is back in the days when people would actually help others.
Okay, so here where I start going “Okay, that’s odd” to “Wow, this is really kind of homo” to “Holy shit, this is THE GAYEST SCI-FI MOVIE EVER!” We begin with seeing the above shot, pretty much out of the blue. This is Rick Knight, son of Richard Knight. He blabs for a while, then gets out of the pool and joins his dad at the table, standing slightly longer than he needs to with just his torso and crotch showing [below]. Then Jake walks in, saying he needs to talk to the Dad, who claims to know nothing, so he brings Richard the clone in. Dad Richard is totally unaware of who he is, but notices the resemblance immediately. Rick goes over and gives him the once-over as well, which at first seems like simple curiosity, but later might seem like the first stirrings of true love. They all go inside and watch the tape Richard has, and are kind of blown away. Dad Richard says “Well, I’ll ask my brother Jeffery,” who just happens to be the Senator who is likely to be the next President!
So we see Richard meet up with Jeffery. You’ll notice, interestingly, that the movie basically shifts almost entirely away from Richard, our protagonist so far, and suddenly starts following entirely new protagonists. And amazingly, this DOESN’T torpedo the movie, as it easily could. Jeffery asks Richard about the tape, which Richard didn’t mention, and immediately Richard knows Peter is lying. He gets the whole deal: Jeffery bought him his own clone, unbeknownst to him, in case anything ever happened. Richard is all shocked, saying it’s murder, but Jeffery says “Clones are not humans! They’re things!” You’ll find that all the moral issues come flying at you from all sides, through extremely loaded/stilted dialogue, from now until the end of the movie. Jeffery says it’s bigger than he is, and Richard better just get over it if he doesn’t want to swim with the fishes.
Now here was a kind of interesting kink. Right after indignantly insisting on the WRONGNESS of it all to his brother, Richard goes home and tells Rick that it’s all just nothing, they should just forget about it. He’s scared, and he knows they’ll lose their lives over it! But Rick, who should NOT clear space on his mantel for any impending Oscars, says that this isn’t his dad talking, and demands to know what’s really going on. This speech, in Rick’s voice and while he’s wearing that outfit, made me write in my notes: “Rick is SUUUUUUUUPER-DUUUUUUUUPER GAY,” and about now is when you start putting together this subtext that Rick is the gay son who fell in love at first sight with Clone Richard, who, by the way, is a young version of HIS OWN FATHER!!!
Then Clone Richard comes out of the bedroom just in time to hear Dad Richard say he's not really human, which causes him to have an outburst! Rick runs to comfort him, coming up behind him as seen above. Then Clone Richard runs outside. Rick--go to him! He does, finally throwing him down face-first on a Rick's hot bright yellow Lotus, then turning him face to face and struggling with him, assuring him that he wants to help! [below] Rick delivers still more noble speeches as he tells his father he's taking Clone Richard back to Clonus so he can rescue Lena, whereupon they take off. He drops Richard off at the mountains outside, and receives a nice thank you [no kiss?]. But--spies are everywhere!
Meanwhile, Lena has been captured and tortured, and Richard had a dream she was being lobotomized. Jeffery shows up at Dad Richard's home with some thugs, and they don't WANT to torture Richard... Which is a pretty powerful scene, what with Jeffery wanting to avoid torturing his own brother, but also needing to protect his candidacy. It's around here I thought "Wow, this is pretty complex on a character level!" They capture and torture Rick, eventually killing him! Dad isn't far behind, stabbed by his own brother, and they both get tossed in the swimming pool! That was kind of a surprise.
We then have another wonderful scene of gentle bickering between Wynn and his wife, when suddenly--the house blows up! Surprise, again. Then we join Clone Richard as he breaks into Clonus and tries to find Lena. Now, movie conventions have led you to think that Richard is going to get out, expose the secret to the press, and everything is going to turn out okay. He sees Lena in a window and goes in to rescue her, when he's grabbed--and sees that Lena has been lobotomized, and is now a blank, smiling automaton! Another baldly satirical statement is delivered to David for coming back: "What's the matter? Don't you like America?"
Finally we see Jeffery giving a stump speech ironically declaring his committment to human rights, when Bernie from the Daily Sun comes in, and asks a pointed question about Clonus--he has received the tape from Jake. So while it leaves us with the implication that Clonus will be exposed, all of our heroes are dead, and the film ends with a shot of David, frozen in a plastic bag! Downer! Only I love that the film has the nuts to subvert expectation like this. You can bet The Island doesn't end with all our heroes dying.
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I liked it a lot. It's great to have serious science-fiction that remains mostly about ideas and moral questions, and it gets remarkably complex in its last half. One also admires its courage in having such a downer ending.
This, as I mentioned, is one where you have to get past the cheesy elements--and there are many--and stay focused on the ideas. There are many folks out there who cannot [as evidenced by several IMDb comments about how this is stupid and boring], and none of this is helped by the fact that this was made fun of on Mystery Science Theater. So some see it as simply an object of derision, and it does indeed supply them much ammunition, but personally I love that the movie has the courage to present those cheesy elements and trust you to stay with its ideas and get through them.
There are numerous extras on the disc, including a director commentary and 30-minute director interview, for those devoted fans who have made this a lasting cult film. I, however, am not among that cult, and frankly they just went on a bit too long for my level of interest. I watched a bit of the director interview and listened to a snatch of the commentary, trying to determine if there was an intentional gay agenda at work with the presentation of Jeffery, but didn't find any conclusive evidence. What I did find indicates that director Fiveson is quite pleased with himself and ready to accept any and all adulation his film might garner, as he bemoans the quality of actors he was able to get and wonders at his own genius for shooting on the fly and yet editing it all seamlessly together.
This made me crazed to see The Island again [which I did, and it's just as awful as ever], and that made me crazed to see Logan's Run again. So at least some good came out of it.
If you like serious, intelligent sci-fi and can withstand some cheesiness to do it.