A film review by Craig J. Koban
2005, PG-13, 136 mins.
Lincoln Six Echo: Ewan McGregor / Jordan Two Delta: Scarlett Johansson
/ Albert Laurent: Djimon Hounsou / Merrick: Sean Bean /
Starkweather: Michael Clarke Duncan / Jones Three Echo: Ethan Phillip
/ Carnes: Max Baker / McCord: Steve Buscemi
Okay, I must confess: Yes, I am guilty as charged for insinuating on this web site that Michael Bay is the "Anti-Christ of modern film directors."
Hmmm…maybe I was being a bit overwhelming nihilistic and harsh with that sentiment. So, I am going to turn over a new leaf and begin fresh here with my review of his latest film, the sci-fi thriller THE ISLAND, and be as open-minded and objective as possible.
For starters, THE ISLAND is about three times better than his last effort, the cognitive bludgeoning that was BAD BOYS II. Actually, in retrospect, that is not high praise. I gave that film a half star review and called it one of the worst films of 2002, if not of the young decade. Geez, so much for Bay starting anew with his newest opus. Who am I kidding; THE ISLAND is just more of the same from the director of million dollar visuals and ten-cent narrative and characters.
Let me be the first to say that I have not hated all of Bay’s work. THE ROCK was an enjoyable and fun ride, made all the more so by the nice chemistry between its leads, Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage, the latter who occupied an level of frantic energy in his performance that matched the equally kinetic action scenes. Unfortunately, it was all down hill from there. After THE ROCK came ARMAGEDDON, the laughably bad and ridiculous science fiction disaster picture. Soon after that came his version of the events of December of 1941 in PEARL HARBOR, a World War II would-be drama that had both visual overkill and romantic subplots that were about as emotionally grounded and moving as a Revlon commercial. Bay followed that stinker with the mother of all crapfests – BAD BOYS II – one of the more self-indulgent and nauseatingly awful films of the last five years. How self-indulgent? It was a sequel to a film that was not good to begin with and tested my good nature and patience by making me sit through its two and a half hours running time, which was comprised mostly of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence screaming at each other. So, that self-indulgent.
My eyes and ears hurt while watching Michael Bay films. He vividly constructs every frame like it was some sort of glorified eye candy and money shot. Yes, these compositions make for good theatrical trailers, but keep in mind – a film filled with trailer shots does not a good movie make. His films have always played less like cohesive and intriguing works of fiction and more like Calvin Klein fragrance commercials with big guns, bullets flying everywhere, an explosions aplenty.
There is no wit or celebratory joy with his work – it’s all bland artifice and is done with that maddening visual style that seems so feverishly edited and constructed that you begin to wonder if Bay makes films for audience members with attention deficit disorder. Many times while watching Bay’s work there is just so much mayhem happening with such a lightening pace that I fear that I might instantly slip into an epileptic seizure, never to recover. It’s funny, but they place seizure warnings in the instruction books of video games warning of the possible side effects of seeing the images on screen. Why they have not done so for Michael Bay films is beyond me.
So, THE ISLAND, at its very core, is another fetishistic notch on Bay’s directorial headboard. The film is not so much a horrible work of standard Bay-ian indulgence and style as it is a completely botched opportunity for him to try to do something different. First, this is one of his first entries without Jerry Bruckheimer producing, which is not really an altogether bad thing considering that his name is rarely the benchmark of quality. Secondly, he has the opportunity to explore some serious ethical and moral issues – in this case, human cloning – and invest into it with some serious social commentary and thought.
Well, Bay sort of delivers that for the film’s first third, which is creepy, eerie, and involving. However, just when you think Bay has changed his ways for the better, the film degenerates into another one of those annoying amusement park thrill rides that betrays the themes of the story and instead strips it down to yet another routine action film that’s loud, crude, and lacking in plausibility and intelligence. THE ISLAND should have been stimulating sci-fi fare, but instead it becomes a MINORITY REPORT for the intellectually challenged and retarded. Mike, baby, you came so close to doing something with a conscience and a heartbeat, but you let yourself succumb to the dark side again far too easily.
And hey, there is nothing wrong inherently with a good old-fashioned popcorn entertainment. That’s fine, but if you are going to tackle such a divisive issue like cloning, then you should at least infuse it with a bit of investment into its tantalizing concepts. For THE ISLAND to just be a popcorn entertainment is kind of sad as it sets itself up to be about something – a parable of science run amok – and instead becomes something that fails to gain intellectual altitude. Films like TOTAL RECALL, for example, have that perfect mixture of testosterone induced moments of violence with subtle scenes that make you stop and think. There’s no time to really think in THE ISLAND, which seems more akin to blowing stuff up real good and not looking deep into the moral conundrum that it proposes. It’s hard to be serious with your subject matter when it’s inundated by halo after halo of gunfire and bullets.
THE ISLAND, despite its intriguing concept, is woefully derivative at its basic levels, ripping off equal parts of better science fiction films like THX-1138, LOGAN’S RUN, TOTAL RECALL, COMA, and also sprinkles it with the literary conceits of 1984. The film opens in one of those Orwellian, nightmarish, and utopian societies. This futuristic city is sterile and, much like George Lucas’s unappreciated 1971 masterpiece THX, all of its inhabitants wear identical uniforms, are surrounded by TVs that broadcast slogans and motivational instructions, and all seem to engage in the same rigid and redundant daily existence. The world they live in is sealed in apparently from an outside calamity that has killed millions. Most never question the authority, except for Lincoln 1138…I mean…Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor).
Lincoln has grown tired of the monotonous nature of his life and those around him. They all seem to do the same things over and over again and all hope to be winners of a state imposed lottery, which picks one person everyday to be taken away from their claustrophobic lives and relocates them to “The Island”, the only pathogen free area on the planet. The commercials look enticing and the citizens flock around the TV monitors every day like religious zealots who hope and pray to be the next one.
Okay, this would all lead one to think, “How stupid are the citizens of this underground society to believe in such tripe?” Well, they are definitely not the sharpest knives in the drawer. We soon learn that all of them have a basic rudimentary scholastic level of a 15 year old (there is a very funny moment when a class of citizens reads aloud in unison FUN WITH DICK AND JANE). For the most part, the people here are docile, nice, and hopelessly naďve to the point of inducing us to slap them. They are horrendously inexperienced and unsophisticated at their core, not to mention that they are virginal creatures of habit (even standing too close to another member of the opposite sex can get you in trouble, a theme that seems completely borrowed from THX). Yup, you even touch a pretty girl's arm and you get an instant "proximity warning" from he authorities.
As with all sci-fi parables, there is always a lowly misfit, outcast, and rebel that questions everything. He is Lincoln and he asks the questions that all underground citizens in a sealed in futuristic environment would, like why he can’t have bacon for breakfast and why is Thursday always Tofu night? It also does not help when he finds a flying insect that clearly belongs to the outside germ-ridden world inside the sealed in city, which clearly raises some red flags for him. Without given anything more away, and within no time, Lincoln uncovers some evil truths and he and his “best friend” Jordon Two Delta (Scarlet Johansson) manage to escape their sanctuary and into the outside world with the authorities and the mad doctor behind the city, Merrick (Sean Bean, playing essentially the same role he played in countless other films) hot on their trails. Oh, they soon discover that the outside world is not, in fact, polluted. Go figure.
Well, there is some of THE ISLAND that I liked. For starters, Ewan McGregor manages to keep things earnest and sincere despite all of the havoc and pandemonium around him. I also liked the work of Steve Buscemi in a key, yet small, role as a figure that helps both Lincoln and Jordan. Also, there are some virtuoso moments of visual effects, such as the reveal of the underground city, a great chase scene involving hovering motorcycles (that seems a bit too familiar to a similar scene in RETURN OF THE JEDI), and some truly great work that involves the same actor playing two versions of themselves in the same shot. Many films in the past that have tried this appeared a bit too obvious in their techniques, but the moments here in THE ISLAND are amazingly seamless. It’s literally like they cloned a copy of the real actor. Furthermore, I really enjoyed the first third of the film in the futuristic society where it introduced us to some interesting developments and then has a payoff to lead us to believing that this film will become something.
Well, that is precisely what’s wrong with THE ISLAND – it’s cheerful disdain with being anything thought provoking. Instead, it quickly goes into full-on action mode and never, ever looks back and then finally, when all of the explosions and fires are out, it ends unsatisfactorily. The film becomes a video game designer’s wet dream, with action scenes so incredibly over-the-top and rough that you begin to wonder how Lincoln and Jordan manage to survive unscathed most of the time. Also, when it has been established that those that are chasing them, led by a military tactician Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou, in a completely wasted role) have so much technology on their side, I find it completely implausibly that the heroes could ever escape them. Lambert also occupies one of the biggest groaner scenes of the year, and changes his motivation and alliances so fast that it’s hard not to laugh at the screen with mocking incredulity. THE ISLAND, on top of all of these problems, is about twenty minutes too long for its own good and in its absorbingly long running time it failed to answer one key question - how in the world could any world government be ignorant to the real truths that Merrick's underground "factory" offered?
Mr. Bay, when are you going to make a film for grown-ups? You obviously have taken great pains and labored intensely over the years to make mindless entertainments for most adolescents who could care less about anything approximating intelligent and captivating. Yet, I think that it’s time for you to take a step back and make a film for adults. We all know that you are a gifted visualist and are competent at filming a shot and making it glisten with the radiant and aesthetic glow of a Maxim cover page spread, not to mention that you blow things up as well as any modern film director. I think its high time that you strip yourself away of all of your wicked excesses as a filmmaker and deconstruct your tone and style way, way down. Less is always more, and I would still like to think that there is a great film in you that inspires thought as much as it wows us with its kinetic energy. Joel Schumacher did just that with most of his work after the disastrous BATMAN AND ROBIN...why can't you?
THE ISLAND is a good start in a different direction for Bay, but it still left me feeling dizzy in terms of where I thought it could and should have went. There is a smart movie here buried underneath all of Bay's gratuitous and mindless direction. If anything, Bay needs to exercise restraint in his style and methods, even when he feels compelled not to do so. THE ISLAND is still an over-directed and bombastic mess, but at least there was an attempt to try to deliver a premise with promise. A film with such a neat and stimulating concept should not be so hopelessly and shamefully dumb. Shame on you...yet again...Michael Bay. Maybe one of these days you will come to your senses and learn how to make something truly compelling.