The Island (review)

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Attack of the Clones

[spoiler, unless you’ve seen the TV ads and trailers and know absolutely nothing whatsoever about the film]

Welcome to THX 11-Michael Bay! It’s not a science fiction movie, but an incredible simulation!

Actually, it’s more like a grand tour through a galaxy of science fiction movies: Look, there’s Coma! Hey, it’s The Truman Show! Ooo, The Matrix! Wow: Logan’s Run! Cool, look, GATTACA! If Michael Bay’s movies are theme-park rides, The Island is, in its first half, kinda like It’s a Small, Small Brave New World: just sit back and enjoy the scenery as he chugs through a history of celluloid speculation.
I almost thought, in that first hour, that I was gonna have to suck it up and admit that Bay may have actually been trying something new… new for him, that is. Sure, it’s all terribly derivative, and it all looks like an Armani ad, but that’s just his way, the adorably fetishistic director, but hey, if you’re gonna fetishize anything, if you’re gonna make love to your subject matter, it might as well be Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson instead of offshore oil rigs exploding into mushroom clouds or 18-wheelers flying through the air to crash almightily on the freeway or whatever. (Frankly, Sean Bean could have done with some fetishizing here, too, but he is the villain after all, and I suppose that cars bursting into flame are morality neutral and hence appropriate for fetishizing while it would simply be wrong to visually worship bad guys. Except… it’s Sean Bean!)

I almost thought, Could Bay (Bad Boys II, Pearl Harbor) actually be pulling off one of those paranoid pseudo SF flicks about how there’s more going on in the world than you know, but oh boy do you suspect? The self-contained city that Lincoln Six Echo (McGregor: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Robots) and Jordan Two Delta (Johansson: In Good Company, A Love Song for Bobby Long) live in is sparkling clean and well-regimented and safe and secure and cuddly and boring as hell. Lincoln wonders why he can’t get sneakers in any color other than white (because that’s the only color Robert Duvall wore in THX-1138, silly boy!), and whether the world outside really is contaminated, and does The Island — the paradise to which everyone aspires to win a spot — even really exist? Could Bay actually be deliberately making a metaphor with the nefarious and false “contamination alerts” — the Orange Alerts of the city — as opposed to his usual accidental stumbling upon some negative and evil cultural signifier, of which is own work is usually the best example?

The answer, in a word, is No. He’s got the What If? part down at least as well as one of those crappy Sci Fi Channel Originals, but it turns out that the answer to the What If? — in this case, What If people could grow clones of themselves as organ farms or baby machines, and keep the childlike clones hidden away from the rest of the world in a pretend city? — is the answer to all of Michael Bay’s What Ifs: Stuff explodes, beautifully.

So it turns out that it doesn’t matter that all the promo material on the film — TV ads, trailers, everything — reveals the story’s twist — Lincoln and Jordan and all their fellow citizens aren’t survivors of a global disaster but rich people’s insurance policies — because all that happens after the secret is revealed is that Bay can finally get down to doing what he loves to do: Stomp and crash and burn and destroy as Lincoln and Jordan escape into the real world — just 20 minutes into our future — and must be recaptured. (You can practically feel Bay heave a big sigh of relief at the halfway point, like this is what he’s been killing time to get to all along.)

For an action movie, The Island really is like a supermodel convention, as Handsome Dr. Evil (Bean: National Treasure, Troy) hires Beautiful Mercenary (Djimon Hounsou: Beauty Shop, Constantine) to retrieve Gorgeous Rebel (McGregor) and Even More Gorgeous Tagalong Movie Girl With Nothing To Do But Look Fabulous (Johansson). It’s to distract you, perhaps, from the litany of howlingly funny absurdities that start piling up in the film’s second half, each of which on its own should have stopped the plot in its tracks and when, taken together, constitute a Three Stooges routine of cascading damage to cinematic integrity (not that this is something that concerns Bay). I’m talkin’, everything from a minor plot point requiring a famous celebrity to have a listed phone number to the huge transgression of allowing a route of escape to remain in plain view in a heavily trafficked area for hours and hours, in a place where security is intense.

But it might all be worth it for the car-chase/crash/exploding sequence featuring giant barbells getting scattered across a freeway and wreaking vehicular havoc that is a veritable orgy of destruction — it may well be the Michael Bay-iest thing Michael Bay has ever shot, so empty and so pointless and so hilariously excessive that it says more about Michael Bay than it does anything else… not that he ever appears to have anything else to talk about than his own obsession with luxuriating in cartoon violence. All the other ridiculous action in The Island — including a fall from 70 stories up onto the streets of Los Angeles that our heroes walk away from — even approaches the barbell thing in all its manic glory.

And if the flick’s not worth it for that, it’s certainly worth it for the scene in which Ewan McGregor wrestles Ewan McGregor as Lincoln confronts his progenitor. There’s something totally hot about that.

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