Movie Review: The Island

The Island is the closest thing so far to a good Michael Bay film. Damning with faint praise, yes — but bear in mind that most of Bay’s filmography to date (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys and Bad Boys II) deserves to be damned with loud damns.

Ideas Matter

So let me repeat: The Island is Bay’s best film to date, and Bay’s best effort to date at a meaningful, thoughtful film.

[Editor's Note: This film contains much strong action and violence; some profane, obscene, and crude language; fleeting pin-up images; a disturbing childbirth scene; an on-screen sexual encounter; and a couple of toilet scenes (all non-explicit); as well as a couple of theologically confused remarks. It is not suitable for children or teens.]

A sci-fi parable about human cloning, The Island is the first Bay film in which ideas actually sort of matter. Even better, its ideas regarding the essential conflicts between human cloning and human dignity are more or less in the right direction.

While it suffers from the same exploitative, gratuitous over-the-top action violence and trashy sexuality as every film from Bay — auteur of exploitative, over-the-top Hollywood trash — these flaws are comparatively restrained in this outing. And while Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Djimon Hounsou, and Sean Bean are inevitably somewhat wasted, it’s certainly Bay’s best ensemble to date, and the actors do what they can to class up the joint.

Unfortunately, whatever cautionary or entertainment value The Island may have must be considered stolen goods. The premise, plot, and even specific plot points have all been essentially plagiarized from another film, one that Bay and writer Caspian Tredwell-Owen (presumably the real culprit) can confidently count on few viewers flocking to multiplexes (and later DVD stores) having even heard of, let alone seen.

Audiences may be reminded variously of The Truman Show, Total Recall, Coma, or The Village . Fans of cult sci-fi may notice overt echoes of Logan’s Run, Gattaca, or THX-1138. The real source, though, is a 1979 sci-fi cheapie called The Clonus Horror, probably best known as the subject of a satiric drubbing by the cut-ups at “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”

The plot convergences between The Island and The Clonus Horror are so overt that the “Movie Connections” links for both films flatly describe The Island as a “remake” of The Clonus Horror, even though the Clonus Horror filmmakers aren’t credited and don’t seem to have been offered any compensation. (Note: Spoilers follow.)

Paranoia Cinema

Both films posit an isolated colony whose generally good-looking, docile, somewhat mentally impaired residents are closely monitored and controlled by mysterious overlords, and whose lives are dominated by the myth of a remote paradise (“America” in The Clonus Horror, “the Island” in The Island) that residents know only from images and where they all hope to go someday. In both films, when residents depart the colony, ostensibly for the mythical paradise, it is cause for celebration.

Then, however, one resident manages to escape from the colony, and discovers the terrible truth: The residents are actually clones, created and maintained as organ donors for the wealthy and powerful, including important politicians. Residents who leave the colony believing they are headed for the mythical paradise are in fact killed and their organs harvested.

This discovery leads the hero to return to the colony to rescue a beautiful female clone, whom he takes with him back to the real world on a desperate quest to find their original selves. Needless to say, the decadence and sophistication of the real world is bewildering to the naive, childlike clones. However, they manage to enlist the aid of a sympathetic human who helps them stay one step ahead of the assassin(s) sent after the clones by their nefarious makers, who insist that their clones are things, not persons.

Those with any familiarity with downbeat 1970s sci-fi and/or paranoia cinema will have no trouble guessing that The Clonus Horror is likely to have a rather different ending than a 2005 action blockbuster. Still, the theft seems so direct as to border on the insulting.

Maybe Bay thinks this sort of theft is all right because nobody seemed to mind when Clint Eastwood did the same thing to Bay himself, incorporating about as many plot points from Bay’s Armageddon into Space Cowboys as The Island steals from The Clonus Horror.

On the other hand, Space Cowboys only stole plot points, not the whole premise of the film. Besides, Armageddon was such a blockbuster that Eastwood’s theft seems like harmless tweaking; The Clonus Horror was a low-budget bomb, and if the basic story pays off at the box office in Bay’s version, the original creators deserve their share of the compensation and credit.

Anyway, Eastwood stole from a bad film to make a decent one, while Bay stole from a mediocre cheapie to make a mediocre blockbuster. As Picasso didn’t quite say, bad directors plagiarize, talented ones steal.

As this suggests, even prescinding from the whole plagiarism issue, The Island isn’t exactly a good film. The plot has some bone-headed gaps in logic — not to mention physics — and among its other offenses offers yet another tiresome variation of the exhausted “comic” scenario in which two male characters argue or confront one another in such a way that bystanders mistakenly take them for gay lovers. If I never see that one again (I should be so lucky), it’ll be too soon.

Maybe Next Time

On the other hand, some of Bay’s outsize action set pieces are genuinely entertaining; McGregor and Johansson are engaging; and with the embryonic stem-cell debate currently in the Senate, any cultural red flag regarding clone-and-kill technology is a welcome thing.

That this comparatively passable effort was preceded by Bay’s utterly despicable Bad Boys II, and looks to be followed by a live-action adaptation of the Transformers cartoon — which it’s hard to imagine as anything other than a bludgeoning, soulless exercise in CGI chaos — is hardly surprising. In his ten years directing feature films, Bay seems to have consistently alternated between Bay-fests in some way mitigated by partially redeeming qualities or some nominal effort in the direction of restraint or class, and all-out Bay-fests essentially devoid of redeeming qualities.

In fact, Bay’s career seems to be following a pattern similar to the odd-even Star Trek movie rule, which holds that the best Trek episodes are the even-numbered ones (II, IV and VI), and the odd-numbered ones (I, III, V, and VII) don’t measure up.

Bay’s worst films have likewise been the odd-numbered ones in his career. His first effort was the offensively trashy, ultraviolent Bad Boys, with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as swaggering, foul-mouthed Miami cops. His next film, The Rock, was only somewhat less objectionable, but benefitted from more sympathetic leads in Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery, and was a step forward of sorts.

Bay then went on to chart new depths of cinematic overkill in Armageddon, a comparatively inoffensive entry that remains a landmark in bad movie style, the biggest, loudest, dumbest sci-fi film this side of Battlefield Earth. His fourth film, Pearl Harbor, wasn’t a lot better, but at least you could feel him making a half-hearted effort at popcorn respectability.

Perhaps Bay is picking up speed. His fifth film, Bad Boys II, was possibly the vilest of the lot, but has now been followed by The Island, which, while not a good film, is easily the Bay film I would soonest see again. Perhaps after Transformers he might make a movie I can actually recommend.

(c) 2005 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Steven D. Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register and appears weekly on Ave Maria radio. His website offers in-depth reviews of both contemporary and older films, evaluating them for moral and spiritual worth as well as artistic and entertainment value.

For complete ratings for this film and hundreds more visit the Decent Films Guide website.

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