A Victim Of His Own Excess
Hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that lives in a house, a very big house in the country. Everywhere you look these days it's nothing but bad news – not only does a nation mourn the premature passing of Smudge, the Blue Peter cat, but it also seems that the very future of summer moviegoing as we know it is in danger. Apparently, blockbusters just aren't busting blocks the way they used to. The last couple of months have seen a string of hugely expensive flops at the box office, chief amongst them the jet-goes-evil thriller Stealth which even I couldn't be bothered to go and see, and Michael Bay's latest exercise in premature hearing loss, The Island, which I obviously could, or this would be a very short column.
This is the story of Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor, who clearly hasn't yet had his fill of overblown SF), who leads a fairly cloistered existence in a hermetically sealed facility, along with lots of other people in shiny white tracksuits. The reason for this (the hermetic seals, not the tracksuits) is because an unspecified disaster known as the Contamination has left the rest of the world uninhabitable. But Lincoln and the others are kept safe by the noble and decent and not at all cold and sinister administrator of the place, Dr Merrick (Sean Bean) – as long as they follow the rules and do as they're told, they're entered into a lottery, where the prize is a place in the world's last unpolluted paradise, known as the Island. But Lincoln is troubled by strange dreams – and begins to doubt the truth of the world around him. If the world is such a toxic hell, where do new inmates keep arriving from? How can wild animals be getting into the complex from outside? Is the lottery something more sinister? When his comely best friend Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) actually wins the lottery, he decides to find out the truth for himself...
Yes, I can't quite bring myself to completely spoil this film's plot, even though the twist at its centre is public knowledge. Quite frankly, I think that's been one of its main problems, because it's a fairly good twist and could probably work reasonably well on an audience that hasn't seen the trailers or promotional films – not that there's much chance of that. It isn't remotely original in any department, of course: the list of things that donate ideas or sequences could probably go on for a very long time. There's a little bit of THX-1138, rather more of Logan's Run, smidges from things like The Sixth Day, Capricorn One, and Minority Report. The central idea is such a clone of the one in Michael Marshall Smith's brilliant short story To Receive Is Better that I'm surprised writs haven't been issued.
But while lack of plot originality isn't usually a barrier to a film's success (often quite the opposite), the fact that Michael Bay has been making huge action movies in a very distinct way for the last ten years might well be. You don't need to see his name on the credits to recognise his work, well not here anyway – you've got slo-mo low-angle shots of people climbing out of helicopters, sopranos wailing indistinctly on the soundtrack at important moments, significant amounts of very obvious product placement and more carefree large-scale property damage than the average small war. Alumni of previous Bay offerings like Michael Clarke Duncan and Steve Buscemi pop up. And it's all very much in the same vein that he tapped for Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon... and it's lost whatever novelty value it once had. Bay also seems to be running out of steam – a major action sequence is basically a rerun of one from Bad Boys 2 with the numbers filed off.
And it's a shame, because while I've always felt that none of his films really deserved to be smash hits, The Island certainly doesn't deserve to be Bay's great flop. It's by no means perfect – it's pretentious and glib and the plot is riddled with holes and abandoned ideas – but the leads are pretty good (we must be thankful for the downturn in Ben Affleck's fortunes or he might well have been in the McGregor role), Djimon Hounsou is quietly impressive as the hunter Bean sends after them, there are some reasonable jokes, and some of the action is quite impressive. It's also quite impressive in the way it mingles anti-technological bias (it's implicitly deeply hostile towards stem cell research and genetic science in a way your average fundie will whole-heartedly agree with) and criticism of religion (the way the lottery and the island are used as methods of social control are surely a metaphor for the similar functions ascribed to organised faiths by those of an atheistic bent) in a way to gladden the prejudices of virtually anyone.
This is really a very average movie, but it's still better than most of Bay's past work. For me the question is not one of why this particular movie failed, but why all the other ones succeeded. In the meantime, this is undemanding stuff leavened with a few interesting ideas. Still, best sampled without foreknowledge or advance publicity.