Island, The (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

If there are lots of flashes and bangs, and smoke and fire, either your car has just rear-ended a Pinto or Michael Bay has made a new movie. Sometimes, both are disasters. In the case of The Island, there's enough fun to be had that it's almost possible to ignore the stupidity of the story and the cavity that replaces character development. This is a non-interactive video game demo crossed with an amusement park ride. It offers plenty of thrills but nothing else. It looks and sounds good, but satisfies only on the most primal level. For some, this will be enough. Calling The Island a "popcorn, old-fashioned summer movie" is fair, but it's also sad, since it could have been more. But movies that aim low rarely achieve any kind of altitude.

For Michael Bay, this is an opportunity to strike into new territory. This is the first directorial outing in which he has not been partnered with producer Jerry Bruckheimer. It isn't apparent - the movie is just as loud and action-oriented as anything he did with Bruckheimer. In Bay's canon, The Island ranks second - behind the filmmaker's only truly good movie, The Rock, but ahead of such memorable epics as Armageddon,Pearl Harbor, and Bad Boys II. The Island, like Bay, delivers what's expected, and not a thing more. And, although it engaged me during most of its two-plus hour running length, I left the theater feeling a hollow and even a little let down.

To the extent that it takes place in a futuristic setting, The Island functions as science fiction. Really, though, the 2090 locales are just excuses to make things look a little more exotic. The central conceit - cloning - turns into a plot device. Despite the richness of the premise, which asks a number of bio-ethical questions, there is little room for complex moral conundrums once the adrenaline starts pumping. And, for a movie that opens in a field of ideas, it comes as a disappointment to learn that the conclusion is just a big fight with lots of things blowing up. (Rumor has it that the original script, penned by Caspian Tredwell-Owen before Bay became involved and brought in Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci, was more thoughtful and intelligent than the final project. Tredwell-Owen is remaining mum about his opinion of the final product, probably because Dreamworks paid him $1 million for the rights.)

Ewan McGregor is Lincoln Six Echo, an obedient worker in a society whose inhabitants are characterized by their lack of rebelliousness or inquisitiveness. Supposedly, Lincoln is a survivor of a great calamity that resulted in the contamination of the Earth. Now he and a few thousand others live in a man-made safe compound, eagerly awaiting the chance to win a daily lottery and claim its prize: a trip to The Island: "nature's last remaining pathogen-free zone." But Lincoln suspects all is not what it seems to be, and he's right. Along with his best friend, Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson), he seeks out the truth - and it turns out to be shocking. Soon, aided only by a nebbish technician named McCord (Steve Buscemi), they are on the run from the single-minded doctor who runs the compound, Merrick (Sean Bean), and his hired ex-military mercenary, Laurent (Djimon Hounsou).

It's fair to say that Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson are mostly overwhelmed by the fast cuts, frantic action, and relentless musical score by Steve Jablonsky. Being professionals, they take it all in stride, and, during those rare moments when things quiet down, they are granted opportunities to remind us that they can act. Playing second fiddle to the technical aspects of a film is probably old hat for McGregor, who is doing his fourth mega-budget motion picture (also his third one to feature clones), but this is all new to Johansson, whose forte (at least to-date) has been smaller, character-driven films. If nothing else, The Island will get her enough exposure that she'll be able to capture any role she wants. Steve Buscemi, Sean Bean, Djimon Hounsou, and Michael Duncan Clarke round out a cast that's light on star power but heavy on talent.

The Island is reminiscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Total Recall, which used science fiction ideas as a backdrop for lots of fights, chases, and other assorted excitement. Overall, Recall did a better job, at least in the story department. The action is superior in The Island, but that's probably to be expected, since the bar has been raised considerably since 1989. Others may be reminded of The Matrix and Minority Report, but The Island isn't in the same league. Those two movies were the complete package - not only did they follow through on their tantalizing ideas, but they offered a near-perfect mix of adrenaline and testosterone. They leave The Island bobbing far in their wake.

As disposable entertainment, The Island does what it is supposed to do. There are two remarkable car chases (one featuring oversized barbells), flawless interaction between two identical McGregors (one with an American accent, the other with his proper one), some really big explosions, and enough sequences to make a video game designer smile. Don't expect filet mignon with The Island; this is hamburger. If Martin Scorsese is a fine steak house, then Michael Bay is MacDonald's. And watching the movie is akin to eating in that place. It's fast, greasy, and fills an immediate need, but you'd better have the Rolaids handy for the indigestion that follows.

Island, The (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 2:18
U.S. Release Date: 2005-07-22
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1