The Island (2005)

To many film critics, director Michael Bay is the devil. He’s the man behind such ADD-edited hits like Armageddon, both Bad Boys, and Pearl Harbor. Each film was more or less savaged by critics and each film was a hit. Bay has always said he makes popcorn movies for audiences and never listens to the critics. That would probably be a good thing since they don’t exactly have a lot of nice things to say about Bay and especially his editing techniques. But how would someone like Bay, who dreams about blowing stuff up with every night’s sleep, handle material a little more subtlety than, say, corpses filled with drugs being thrown at oncoming traffic (see: Bad Boys II or better yet, don’t)? The Island is Bay’s first film without uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer and it’s also Bay’s first encounter with science fiction. Can he make The Island into another popcorn miracle or will his blockbuster tendencies get the better of him?

In the year 2020, the Earth has been contaminated by pollution. The survivors live in a series of isolated towers and are monitored, given strict diets and jobs, and even matching white jump suits. There is an upside to this life; every so often there is a lottery where the winning inhabitant gets a trip to The Island, the last uncontaminated spot on Earth. They’ll spend the rest of their days living it up in paradise, or so they think.

Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) has been at the facility for three years. He has questions for the good doctor Merrick (Sean Bean, your go-to guy for villains when you can’t afford Al Pacino), the man in charge of the place. Lincoln questions his purpose and wonders why he keeps having recurring nightmares with images he can’t place. He’s also been having a very close friendship with Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson), though they?re not allowed intimate contact and the living quarters are separated by gender. One day Lincoln finds a butterfly on a different level of the facility and investigates the higher levels. In a few minutes time, Lincoln discovers the truth about the facility: it’s a station harvesting clones to keep rich people going when they need an organ or two. There is no Island but there is an operating room that you won’t return from. Lincoln escapes back into the facility’s population but springs into action when he learns Jordan has been selected to go to The Island. He fights the facility’s staff, grabs his girl, and the two are off to learn the truth of their world and to live.

McGregor is on autopilot with this one but still manages to have some fun, especially when he’s playing two different versions of himself (“What’s with all the biting?”). Johansson looks more beautiful than ever but does little more than stare vacantly. It doesn’t help that a majority of the dialogue after the half-way mark consists of one-word shouts like, “Go!” and “Move!” and of course, “Lincoln!” The best actor by far in The Island is Michael Clarke Duncan who plays a clone who wakes up on the operating table. His mad rush of screaming, tears, confusion, horror, and betrayal may be some of the finest two minutes of acting from the year. Duncan’s cries will hit you square in the gut.

The fish out of water scenario does provide some fun moments of humor, like Lincoln being confused by the phrase “taking a dump.” The Island also asks how people who have never known sexuality deal with their expressions of sexuality (plus it doesn’t even come close to viewer discomfort of something like The Blue Lagoon). The always welcomed Steve Buscemi provides the biggest laughs in the movie as the wise-cracking outsider who helps the runaway clones.

It’s comforting to know that in the future product placement will be as large as ever. I?m normally not too offended by product placement in ads, but The Island seems like it’s contorting to show company names. In one scene, Jordan gazes at an image of herself in a perfume ad, and it’s a real ad Scarlett Johansson did. This got me thinking, what if The Island‘s villains were really today’s actual flesh-and-blood movie stars that wanted fresh parts. The real McGregor and Johansson would become the bad guys. Unfortunately, it seems a little too meta to pull off for a Bay film.

The Island is an intriguing sci-fi movie that doesn’t know what to do once it gets to the surface. As soon and our clones go on their Logan’s run, the movie devolves into a series of bloated, mediocre chase scenes. If the first half is Bay at his potential best, the second half is Bay at his lazy, expected self. The chase scenes aren’t too lively and, except for a late subplot involving McGregor playing dual roles, The Island wilts as soon as it turns into an action movie. There doesn’t seem to be enough plot for this overlong 140 minute movie. Bay’s requisite chaotic grandeur and spectacle has a ho-hum feeling and dulls the viewer right when they should be racing with excitement. Bay’s done this all before and better, and that’s why the first half is so exciting a change for him. It’s thoughtful, tense, interesting, well plotted and visually fun, and then we regrettably hit the second half and it all goes downhill from there.

The movie limps to its over-extended climax and saps all the potential from the opening. The Island really is two disjointed movies slapped together. The first hour is a classic science fiction setup and we are given morsels of information like bread crumbs, which heighten the tension. The second half is an unimaginative, plodding thrill ride that never seems to take off. Sure, the first half may be derivative of a hundred other sci-fi films (most notably Parts: The Clonus Horror) but the second half is derivative of a thousand other action movies. I’ll take smart sci-fi over dumb action most days, even during the bombast of summer. It feels like The Island began as a scary sci-fi film and in order to make it to the big screen the studio had to piggyback a lifeless action movie on top of it. The Island‘s action sequences feel like Bay fell asleep at the wheel.

It may seem like I’m being over cruel about The Island, but the reason I lambaste the second half is because I was so thoroughly entertained by the first half. For many The Island will be enough to quench their summer thirst, but for me it only showed flashes of life in the first half. Once all the explosions, noise, and flying debris kicked in, The Island transforms into any other dumb action movie. Such promise, such vision, all quickly flushed down an embryonic feeding tube. Even if someone prefers the noisy second half they would still take issue with the first half, calling it slow and boring. Fans of Bad Boys II and Logan’s Run don’t exactly mix well. How can a movie possibly work this way?

Bay may be a master maestro of explosions and gunfire, but The Island flat lines when it transitions from thoughtful, eerie sci-fi parable to rote action flick. This feels like two very different movies slapped together, and most audiences are going to like one half stronger than the other so the film won’t work. The action sequences feel unimaginative and all of the film’s potential gets stranded by its about-face in tone. We’ve seen all of these things before, and that’s what’s most regrettable about where The Island leaves you after flashing an iota of glossy potential. Bay may not be the devil but he’s certainly losing his edge, and The Island would have been all the better for it.

Nate’s Grade: C+

About natezoebl

One man. Many movies. I am a cinephile (which spell-check suggests should really be "epinephine"). I was told that a passion for movies was in his blood since I was conceived at a movie convention. While scientifically questionable, I do remember a childhood where I would wake up Saturday mornings, bounce on my parents' bed, and watch Siskel and Ebert's syndicated TV show. That doesn't seem normal. At age 17, I began writing movie reviews and have been unable to stop ever since. I was the co-founder and chief editor at PictureShowPundits.com (2007-2014) and now write freelance. I have over 1400 written film reviews to my name and counting. I am also a proud member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA) since 2012. In my (dwindling) free time, I like to write uncontrollably. I wrote a theatrical genre mash-up adaptation titled "Our Town... Attacked by Zombies" that was staged at my alma mater, Capital University in the fall of 2010 with minimal causalities and zero lawsuits. I have also written or co-written sixteen screenplays and pilots, with one of those scripts reviewed on industry blog Script Shadow. Thanks to the positive exposure, I am now also dipping my toes into the very industry I've been obsessed over since I was yea-high to whatever people are yea-high to in comparisons.

Posted on July 26, 2005, in 2005 Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Part of “The Island” was filmed in the area around Beatty, Nevada. The plateau is right across the highway from the ghost town of Rhyolite. which is located between Beatty and Death Valley National Park. This is an area I know very well.

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