The Island

Fast Cars! Hot Girls! Dystopian Futures!
Michael Bay
Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buschemi, Sean Bean
The Setup: 
Bunch of clones live to be selected to go to ‘The Island,’ which is really where they’ll be harvested for organs for their genetic originals.

Having just watched Parts: The Clonus Horror, and liking it a lot, I was curious to see this again. This was Michael Bay’s movie after Pearl Harbor failed to turn him into a director of serious films, and one senses he was still trying to do something different and reach for respect. But this kind of flopped and was sued for essentially being a remake of Clonus without acknowleding its source. Apparently Dreamworks ended up offering a settlement out of court, further diminishing this film’s financial take.

Okay, so it’s 2019, and we join Ewan MacGregor as Lincoln, in the midst of a bad dream where zombie-figures are drowning him. He wakes in his sterile white cubicle, puts on his Puma jogging outfit [we will discuss this film’s insane amount of very visible product placement] and joins society. These are a group of people who live in this enclosure, surrounded by a gorgeous sea and distant islands. They believe that the world outside has been contaminated by a virus, and live to win “the lottery,” at which point they will go to “The Island,” which is “Nature’s last remaining pathogen-free zone,” where they will live and be happy. But Lincoln is not content. He wants different color shoes, variations in breakfast foods, and other consumer choices--he yearns for FREEDOM! He is already a little flirty with Scarlett Johanssen as Jordan, although they are often separated by the guards. He tells his dreams to psychologist Sean Bean, who puts some walking BBs, straight out of Minority Report, in his eyes to do a brain scan. We see people working at Apple computers and wearing Speedo workout outfits.

So Lincoln has a friend in Steve Buschemi as Mac, who works outside the protected zone where the clones live. Lincoln finds a moth there and takes it back to his room. Now, 26 minutes in, we stay with Mac as he sees a clone being “born” out of a plastic bag, and it is revealed officially that there is a nefarious reality the clones are unaware of. Namely, that they’re clones.

That night, Lincoln and Jordan play XBox and drink Aquafina water, then she is selected as the next winner to go to the Island. Lincoln wonders how the bug could be alive if it’s contaminated outside, and sneaks out in the night to snoop. He ends up in a lab, where he conveniently gets immediate and irrefutable evidence that clones are operated on and killed, but do not go to any island. He runs back in, gets Jordan, and they escape in the first of numerous, unending giant chases. During it, they stumble into a vast room where clones are being brainwashed, now providing HER with irrefutable evidence that there’s no island. Convenient! And you’ll notice they both accept this reality pretty much without batting an eyelash. They make it outside and are in the middle of the desert outside L.A.

Okay, so we’re about 42 minutes into our inexplicably two-hour-fifteen-minute movie, and it’s time to dump a massive load of exposition. First, we focus on Sean Bean’s character as our idenitifiable villain, and then see him deliver a speech to a bunch of potential clients in which he explains the ENTIRE clone situation: They are grown as an insurance policy, so if your liver fails you can take one from your clone, or let your clone have a baby for you. The clones are grown straight into adulthood, and Bean tells the clients that they never achieve consciousness--which we know is a LIE! He later explains that if the clones don’t become conscious and have experiences, their organs fail, which I think is some rather specious science. Anyway, this whole thing is a simplification of the moral issues from Clonus, because here it’s about how it’s wrong to kill the clones because they are conscious. In Clonus, everyone KNEW that the clones were conscious and had lives, which required an additional level of moral complication, as the issue was whether this creature was really “human,” since it had been created. Also, that movie was ABOUT moral complication, whereas this one just uses moral complication as backdrop to car chases. Speaking of car chases, we now introduce Djimon Hounsou as the head agent hired by Bean to pursue our two escapees.

Around now is when Bay’s Girls-N’-Guns worldview also comes to the forefront. Lincoln sees a motorcycle, which he has never seen before in his life, and says with awe “I want one!” They end up at this biker bar, where Buschemi as Mac, the VERY guy they’re looking for, happens to be. There is a joke wherein a patron walks in on Lincoln and Mac in the restroom, and assumes that they’re gay. Not much worth getting upset over [any more than anything else, that is], but let me merely point out that the reason this is offensive is the underlying assumption that OF COURSE gays have sex in restrooms. That it is simply their natural habitat, and it further casts gays as those creepy guys that lurk in restrooms where innocent straight men can’t even get a safe place to pee. Anyway, they repair to Mac’s house, where further moral repulsion is the order of the day.

The source of this is Mac’s girlfriend, who is portrayed as a stripper. She is talking to Lincoln and Jordan, when Mac asks her to remember that talk they had in which he told her that she shouldn’t talk. He then sends her out to fetch beer and cigarettes. They then go into her closet to find something for Jordan to wear, and we see that she has French maid and nurse outfits, among other things. So essentially, the movie is casting her as existing as nothing but a sex toy for Buschemi, and the attitude is that this is AWESOME. Of course further adding to the degredation is that this reasonably attractive woman ends up a sex toy to STEVE BUSCHEMI. And the source of constant amazement is that Bay seems not to realize that it is precisely these elements, that he can’t stop including for some reason, that prevent his films from being taken seriously. The movie then goes significantly out of its way to offend when Mac plucks his credit card from Jordan’s hand [who is a clone and thus not at all like a normal woman], with the quite prominent line: “There is one universal truth, and that is you never give a woman your credit card!” If you step back from all those “Yeah, but it’s just a dumb movie” thoughts, can you believe how baldly offensive this is?

So now comes an enormous laugh, if you read newspapers, as there is a super-futuristic hover-train that operates on schedule and has nice, luxurious interiors and is supposedly run by... AMTRAK! Actually, most of the brands featured in this movie are brands that... well, would advertise in a movie like The Island, and baldly portray themselves as cool and forward-looking when the reality is a far different story. So Lincoln and Jordan end up in L.A.--which was shot in Detroit with digital future-buildings added in. They go to a public Internet booth that is branded with MSN Search, with the little butterfly logo [that they have already dropped] and is shot with the logo prominently on glass right in front of our characters, occupying the center of the frame. Then we have the shot above, where we stare right at the screen at the MSN logo as the little butterfly animates and the system delivers precisely the information they’re looking for in the fraction of a second. Thanks, MSN! I guess the wow is now! Or, it was then, at least. Anyway, they’re looking for the people they were cloned from, believing they will help blow the lid off this whole cloning thing. This leads to this chase, and that chase, one of which takes place in a real place in Detroit: A theater that became a parking garage, but left up the remnants of the procenium arch above the stage, all broken and looking apocalyptic with these concrete parking levels right in the middle. Then they go out on the freeway and have a shootout in the street, in which numerous innocent bystanders are killed or maimed, but no matter. And Lincoln finally gets his own cool jet-motorcycle.

They make it to the home of the guy who Lincoln is a clone of, also played by MacGregor, and here we have one of the most obvious product placement shots of all, as we get a literal product shot--below--with a perfectly-lit bottle of Micheloeb occupying center frame as the guy reaches for it, then tilts back and enjoys its cool refreshment. Blah, blah, another chase, and they end up in this huge crumbling building, where we have a retread of the scene from Star Trek VI in which there are two Kirks, both claiming they’re the real one.

Around this time I turned the movie off, expecting to finish sometime, but later it occurred to me: You know what? I don’t have to finish this movie AT ALL. I’ve seen it before, so I know it isn’t all suddenly revealed to be an avant-garde existentialist masterpiece that brilliantly deconstructs modern entertainment--no, it’s just a big, dumb sci-fi movie! And I do not HAVE to watch the ending! And it was such a moment of liberation. So I just threw that shit in the mail.

Okay, so it was fun enough if you’re totally expecting it to be big, moronic Michael Bay entertainment, which is what it was. It’s the exact same Michael Bay movie as ever, with slight sci-fi window dressing. Amusing enough, but like cotton candy, dissolves and doesn’t leave you with much of anything except vague sickness and a feeling that you’re not living your life right.

So there’s no question that this film is just a flat-out remake of Clonus, with a bunch of added large-scale chases. I’d like to know the real story behind what happened--like if the studio knew that all along and just thought they’d get away with it, or if they really didn’t know and the screenwriter sold them tarnished goods. Anyway, Clonus stays focused on the horror and paranoia, and is about examination of the moral quandry brought up by the situation in the film. Here the moral quandry is tossed in because sci-fi films are supposed to have a moral quandry, but that is definitely not the main focus. A lot of the film is like that--it feels like a compilation of cool parts from other films, but never really takes on much life or interest of its own, or becomes its own movie.

One thing I was considering as I watched this is “What keeps this from being serious science fiction?” and the answer I kept having to come to was that its attempts at being “awesome” continually undermined it. As noted, the sci-fi ideas here are just window-dressing to the car chases and shootouts. The emphasis is not on contemplation of ideas, which makes an interesting question of why they felt it necessary to include gestures toward ideas at all. I guess it’s just because sci-fi films have ideas, the way Noir films have fedoras. What makes it all a little sad is that Bay [who was in the press at the time frustrated that this and Pearl Harbor failed to make people consider him a more serious filmmaker] seems not to realize how the “awesomeness,” frat-boy mentality and crass commercialism of the film undermine his ambitions. You can compare this to The Matrix, which also has a lot of awesome car chases and shootouts. Only there they managed to keep the focus on ideas, so that even the car chases and shootouts came off as expressions of the ideas, not distractions from them.

Finally, this movie contains some of the most outrageously obvious product placement ever committed to film. I counted 12 distinct brands showcased, and I have a feeling I didn’t catch them all. And they aren’t just glimpsed in the background, they receive front-and-center coverage, like the outright product shots for MSN and Micheloeb, or the bottle of Aquafina pushed directly toward the camera. Perhaps filmmakers want to pretend it shouldn’t matter--and this film tries to float the [totally specious] idea that these brand names are part of the future experience, but every time what is essentially a commercial pops up right in the middle of a scene, it removes the audience from the scene and is directly aggressing on the audience’s wish to just sit back and get into a story. Resulting in the audience growing more and more angry and feeling used.

Eventually the emphasis on cool gadgets and chases and product placement and de-emphasis on ideas just gives the whole affair an offensive air of cynicism. Movies can be seen as little romances in which they try to seduce you and you give in and allow yourself to like them, and maybe have a rewarding little fling. As you watch The Island it becomes increasingly obvious that this is a relationship where the movie doesn’t respect you as a person and only wants you for your body--in the theater seat.

Should you watch it: 

It won’t kill you but I suspect you have better things to do.

PARTS:THE CLONUS HORROR is the film this is ripped off from, and is quite good although has VERY cheesy elements.
NEVER LET ME GO is the serious dramatic execution of this idea.