"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Send in the clones
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
The Island

2.5 stars out of five

Dir: Michael Bay

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Sean Bean

As any movie critic knows, the problem with summer isn't the heat, it's the stupidity. Summer is the season of the big-budget action blockbusters, the special-effects spectaculars and the gross-out teen sex comedies all intended to sell popcorn with a mindless combination of car crashes, comic book violence and cleavage--not that there's anything wrong with that.

So what then should we make of The Island, a high-concept science fiction thriller starring legitimate thespians instead of bodybuilders or martial artists that promises to raise all sorts of interesting philosophical questions about identity and bioethics?

Ewan McGregor attempts an American or at least mid-Atlantic accent as Lincoln Six-Echo, a young man living in a sealed facility surrounded by foreboding crags and stormy seas with other apparent survivors of a biological holocaust that no one but the staff can quite remember.

This is the world of 2019: a utopian lifeboat in an ocean of contamination, where everyone but the security guards wears white, works at inexplicably simple lab jobs, and has every need catered to by the staff.

There's no sex or alcohol, and health and diet are strictly monitored, but there are plenty of cartoons, video games and designer drinks. There are even regular public address announcements assuring the white-clad survivors that they are "special" and reminding them that one day they will win the lottery and be sent to the one place that escaped the bio-contamination, the pristine Eden known simply as the Island.

McGregor does a pretty good job of playing the pampered naif in the brave new world who forms a friendship with the attractive and slightly sassy Jordan Two-Delta played by Scarlett Johansson.

But Lincoln has problems. The doctor running the facility, played by the reliably sinister Sean Bean, is concerned about Lincoln's recent tendency to ask disturbing questions. Lincoln's secret acquaintance, a techie "from another sector" played for laughs by Steve Buscemi, hints that things aren't what they seem.

Before long, Lincoln's world unravels when he discovers the Island is a hospital where lottery winners have their organs harvested and that he and his fellow survivors are surrogate mothers and walking spare parts for the so-called sponsors who have provided the genetic material Lincoln and his peers have been cloned from.

He and the latest lottery-winner, Jordan, make a break for it, emerging from underground into a ruined desert landscape

It's a promising opening 20 minutes. Despite blatantly ripping off science fiction classics Logan's Run, THX 1138, The Prisoner and Coma and subjecting the audience to an endless parade of product placement shots, director Michael Bay has managed to get this far without a single car chase, explosion or gratuitous bikini-clad starlet. Could this be that rarest of Hollywood creations--the summer-movie-with-brains?

Absolutely not.

Bay is still the man who made Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon and Pearl Harbor. If he were somehow hired to direct a film version of The Cherry Orchard he'd put three car chases and a shoot-out in it.

Naturally, Lincoln and Jordan's escape poses a host of problems for the people running the secretive facility, and the hired goons are quickly put on the case. After a brief comic interlude and some plot explanation with Buscemi, the film descends into an hour of predictable reality-defying zoom and kaboom as the goon squad pursues the heroes with all the subtlety of the Allied invasion of Normandy. It's the same quick-cutting shaky-camera stuff we have seen plenty of before. Bay even repeats the main highway chase from his own Bad Boys 2.

Johansson, while looking more fetching than ever, goes from a promising start to full damsel-in-distress, can't-even-run-for-her-life-without-holding-the-hero's-hand mode, and after the first 30 minutes is given little to do but look sexy and terrified at the same time.

McGregor has a few amusing scenes playing opposite himself after Lincoln and Jordan track down his sponsor in the hope he can help them expose the clone arrangers, and pronto, so Lincoln can free the slaves.

But for the most part, the final 90 minutes of The Island are typical summer fare. Bay betrays the semi-promising opening by leaving loose ends and holes in the plot that resemble the craters on the moon in both size and number.

If action is all you are after, The Island delivers. If you want interesting characters and a smart script, wait for the studios to wheel out their Oscar hopefuls in November.

The Daily Yomiuri (Jul. 21, 2005)

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