The Island

August, 2005, Thriller

Directed by:Michael Bay

For the first half hour or so, director Michael Bey, (Bad Boys 1 & 2, The Rock, Armageddon, and Pearl Harbor) pulls off a neat trick here, gleefully presenting arguments against unrestrained stem cell research and human cloning in the guise of straight forward science fiction. Unfortunately, Bey abandons his fey examination of artificial human reproduction in favor of the gigantic action set pieces which have become his trademark. It’s too bad; starting with delicious techno-slyness, the director makes an uncomfortably persuasive case that those of us who could afford to do so might go to truly hideous lengths to retain our peak physical capacities as long as we could kid ourselves no one was getting hurt in the process. 

To prove his point, the director fashions an elaborately detailed underground incubator in an abandoned nuclear facility in the desert southwest in which Dr. Merrick, a villainous scientist, promises the rich and powerful individually tailored replacement parts. Armed with DNA samples and appropriate personal histories, Merrick assures his clients that his process creates a cohesive but inanimate mass of stem cells which can be manipulated into whatever the client’s future needs may be. What he doesn’t tell them is that he’s growing clones, (encased in giant, creepy Ziploc bags) and after they’re being appropriately programmed, they’ll be forcibly removed from their plastic placentas and turned into worker drones under the illusion they’ve fortunately survived a near-global destruction of the earth’s surface. The clones are kept “on ice” with the promise they’ll one day win a lottery which will allow them to go to The Island, the planet’s only remaining natural paradise. Winners do indeed occur, but instead of going anywhere, they’re “processed” for whatever body part is then required by their human counterparts.

Ewan McGreggor, the Scottish actor most recently playing one of the cardboard heroes in the second Star Wars trilogy, headlines here as Lincoln Six Echo, the unsuspecting clone-in-waiting to Tom Lincoln, race car designer and all-around venal sexist pig. Following a moth to freedom up a shaft in the underground bunker, Six Echo and his main subterranean squeeze Jordan Two 

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Delta, (Scarlett Johansson) travel to Los Angles, hoping to enlist human Tom’s help in exposing Merrick and his grotesque manipulation of human life. An improbable case of mistaken identify ensues, allowing Six Echo and Two Delta to vanquish the wicked doctor and release their fellow clones on a windswept bluff in the Southwest as a thunderously reverential musical score celebrates the moral and philosophical triumph of the human spirit over wrong-headed scientific attempts to strive for immortality.

As long as he keeps his audience underground, Bey does a terrific job of presenting his case in the kind of eerie hyper-normality reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Merrick’s staff heavily suppresses any expression of emotional behavior in the clones; logic and order are meticulously observed and the gadgets Bey employs to convey this antiseptic environment are impressively intriguing, thoroughly claustrophobic and viscerally repugnant. Bey’s master stroke (and most compelling moral statement) occurs when Merrick presents his case to a group of future client “investors”; in response to a question about his prior failures, the doctor insists that early-stage scientific experimentation, however flawed, is always justified by the opportunity for ultimate success at some point in the future.

  But once the escape occurs, the director shifts focus, delivering a series of chase scenes which allow him to dial up the mayhem, (and volume) that has become his highly bankable trademark. The first of these, a thrilling freeway pursuit involving a truckload of box-car wheels, creates an adrenaline rush almost as riveting as that produced by Gene Hackman in The French Connection, but Bey’s subsequent action sequences wander off into noisy irrelevance. Never one to settle for a polite burp when a room-clearing belch can be delivered, the director abandons his original premise and the serious issues it raises to serve up another hackneyed exercise in overwrought destruction; by the time Bey’s badly telegraphed climax has arrived, the audience will be as relieved to escape the theater as his clones were in getting out of subterranean maximum security.

Macgregor and Johansson are both accomplished actors, with a number of small, thoughtful pictures to their credit. But the lines they’re provided here never rise above the banal, and Johansson is quickly reduced to wide-eyed, damsel-in-distress irrelevance. Sporting a permanent pout, (has she decided to enter the Angelina Jolie lip-enhancement sweepstakes?) and an annoyingly sing-song delivery, this usually impressive young actress comes across with all the flair and creativeness of an inflatable sex doll. Sean Bean creates a nicely smug and irritating Dr. Merrick, but everyone else in the cast has little to do but wander through what ultimately becomes a hyperactive exercise in devastation.

Caspian Tredwell-Owen’s script borrows shamelessly from other mad-scientist movies, from the original Dr. Frankenstein to Logan’s Run. If you can discipline yourself to walk out on this one after the first chase scene, and ponder the implications of the director’s initial premise, you’ll enjoy yourself; if not, see George Lucas’ little-seen but highly regarded THX 1138 on DVD instead.       

   

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