Saturday, July 23, 2005

REVIEW: The Island

Review contains some information that can be considered minor spoilers if you haven't seen any trailers for this film yet.

A common misconception about Michael Bay movies is that they are "unpretentious," mostly due to the common misuse of the term "pretense" to describe only "highbrow" materials or artistic aims. In truth, "pretense" refers more accurately to the attempt by a peice of art to be visibly "more" (usually "more important") than it actually is through a layering of elements. In this sense, Michael Bay movies are all about pretense: His whole style has been, from the start, imbuing action vehicles with exaggerated pretense toward glamour and mythic imagery. He loves magic-hour sunset cinematography, especially when linked to something as vulgar as a car chase or John Woo-wannabe shootout. He loves big, dramatic statue-of-a-greek-god hero shots of actors, especially when they're everyman action guys in street clothes or a law-enforcement uniform.

In "The Island," (his first directorial outing not under the wing of Jerry Bruckheimer,) Bay has finally been presented with a screenplay that aptly matches his visual style at overblown pretense: Here we've got a paint-by-numbers "cautionary scifi" which is cautionary in the broadest strokes and almost completely junk in terms of it's science. A bloated, plodding, formulaic chase movie lurching forward under the heavy pretense of having "something important" to say about medicine and humanity in the biotech age.

It was sadly innevitable that the subject of cloning would yield a bad paranoid-scifi epic sooner or later, but it says something about the level of accuity that "The Island" is playing at to note that even with all the new science and frontiers involved in cloning in the real world, the film remains almost a total knockoff of "Parts: The Clonus Horror" which was made in the 70s. In other words, there's nothing new to see here.

Ewan McGregor, who ought to have known better, is Lincoln (get it?) Six Echo. He lives in a big, sterile facility that looks the shopping mall "city" from "Logan's Run," along with thousands of other oddly-named people who go about wearing the white skinsuits from "THX-1138." It could be that all this theft from prior movies is some kind of subtle gag, since the film is about copies of things... but I sort of doubt it. Lincoln (get it?) and his best pal Jordan Two Delta, (Scarlett Johanssen,) along with everyone else, believe that they are the last survivors of some vast contaminatory holocaust, and that their regimented lives are preparation for a (randomly selected via lottery) trek to "The Island," the last uncontaminated place on Earth. Lincoln (get it?) is starting to get antsy, though: he's troubled by nightmares, and begins to suspect that there is no Island.

After nearly a solid hour of beating heavy-handed foreshadowing into our heads, the truth is revealed and proves Lincoln (get it?) right: The facility inhabitants are actually clones, organ banks for a biotech firm's wealthy clients, and the whole contamination/island story is just there to keep them docile until parts need harvesting. Lincoln (get it?) and Jordan bust out after learning this and go on the lamb, pursued by a bounty hunter (Djimon Honsou) hired by the head baddie (Sean Bean, regrettably not named Hitler SixSixSix Badguy) and the film becomes an extended chase sequence for the remainder of it's duration. What it adds up to is that Bay gets to stage another scene of cars dodging junk falling off a truck, and Lincoln (get it?) gets to go and try playing Great Emancipator of his fellow clones.

The film is obviously striving to be a kind of topical, Spike TV-skewed riff on "The Matrix," but it lacks the brains or the conviction to arrive at such. It dwells obsessively on the "science" of it's junk-science, and only looks junkier as a result: We're expected to believe that, when the ability to regrow tissue with a vial of mere stem-cells is looming on our horizon, that in a film set at the tail end of the 21st century the most efficient way to get spare parts is have a giant city full of functioning adult clones wandering around dining at juice bars and playing virtual-reality kung fu games? Seriously? Beyond that, the film soon jumps the science-rail entirely and gets into the old standbys of "genetic memory." Please, make it stop.

The good points are few and far between: The otherwise dull action scenes get a momentary lift thanks to a cameo by the big flying motorcycle thingees from "Halo," and Steve Buscemi has a fun turn in his reccuring role as "Interesting Wildcard In Otherwise Formulaic Michael Bay Movie Guy." And it wouldn't be much of a cloning movie without an amusing scene of an actor acting against his digitally-replicated "self," would it?

Much hay is being made right now about the "politics" of this film, but having seen it I think it's giving "The Island" far too much credit to infer that it has the depth necessary to be propaganda for anything. The fact is, the anti-choice legions are going to latch onto this film as "one of their own," reading it as an anti-Embryonic Stem Cell Research parable that makes their point by recasting the microscopic stem cells as full-grown marquee-name actors, and there's really nothing that can be done about that one way or the other. Yes, it's depressing to think that you, me or someone we love may one day die of a curable ailment because research was held back amidst serious debate on the personhood of petri-dishes... but it would be wrong to place any real blame for this on "The Island," however below-average a movie it is in it's own right.

(That said, there's a rather blunt line about midway in that sounds very much like a reference to Terri Schiavo, another unwitting-icon of the anti-choice movement. Hm...)

Eh. You may choose to see "The Island" in political terms. I myself mostly saw it as a dull, formulaic movie and would honestly reccomend that people not see it, period. Four other movies came out this weekend, along with an expanded screen-count for "March of The Penguins." See one of those.