Monday, July 7, 2014

The Island (2005)

Director: Michael Bay                                     Writer: Caspian Tredwell-Owen
Film Score: Steve Jablonsky                          Cinematography: Mauro Fiore
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Sean Bean and Steve Buscemi

Well, Michael Bay has redeemed himself in my eyes, at least marginally: he made a film that is actually watchable. Sure, it’s a rip-off, Logan’s Run combined with Coma, but it’s a combination that works. Throw in a bit of The Blue Lagoon, Total Recall, and The Matrix, and you have the basic idea of The Island. Of course the best thing the film has going for it is the cast, with the possible exception of Ewan McGregor in the lead role. I’ve always found him less than convincing, a poor man’s Kenneth Branagh, and so the film suffers in that respect. But Scarlett Johansson is solid, as are Sean Bean and Steve Buscemi, and the support from Djimon Hounsou, Michael Clarke Duncan, Ethan Philips and especially Brian Stepanek. That said, the script is a weak one, which is to be expected in a Michael Bay film. And there is an overabundance of special effects, also per usual, and the whole thing is overlong, another annoying feature of the director. Still, it is a compelling film and, rather than off-putting, it was watchable to the end. And for Michael Bay, that’s saying a lot.

The film begins with a dream sequence, a nightmare that Ewan McGregor is having in which he and Scarlett Johansson are drowned by bald, anonymous looking men. As he wakes up the water recedes to find him in his bed, a nice touch with the special effects. Clearly he lives in some future world, trapped indoors, dressed in the same white running suits as everyone else with computers monitoring his every move. Johansson is one of his friends and they are continually warned about spending too much time together. The world has apparently survived a cataclysmic event that has poisoned the atmosphere. Survivors like themselves are continually being rescued from the outside but there are no children. Pregnant women who go into labor are immediately given free passage to “the island,” a tropical paradise that is the only inhabitable place on earth. But McGregor has questions and his doctor, Sean Bean, has no answers. McGregor is supposed to be happy and yet his dreams are troubling to Bean. To escape the monotony, McGregor sneaks out of the residential area and into the technicians’ level to talk to Steve Buscemi who has alcohol and an attitude that McGregor finds refreshing.

It’s when he’s down an the lower level that he inadvertently discovers a moth and follows it up to a level he’s never seen before. There he discovers the pregnant women who are supposedly going to the island are being euthanized after delivery, as are other “lottery” winners who have gone to the island. Since Johansson has just been selected to go, he races back to save her and they begin their improbable run to discover the truth. The film is very much a rehash of Logan’s Run, but with a bit more motivation thrown in. The palm crystals in the earlier film are replaced by bracelets, and instead of hedonistic sex and pleasure in their limited lives, the newer utopia has an emphasis on physical fitness and abstinence. But the same promise of a perfect new life beyond this one as a way of placating the masses--a religious allegory if ever there was one--is still very prominent. One of the conceits of the film is that the people are only given enough education to keep them at a fifteen-year-old level, which actually works to Michael Bay’s advantage in making the uninspired dialogue believable.

Even so, the major flaw in the plot is the explanation for McGregor’s dreams which, if you think about it for more than a second, makes absolutely no sense at all. The special effects, of course, are impressive as always. And while the second half of the film turns into more of an action/chase picture, it does work with the overall structure to provide some satisfying viewing. No suspense, mind you, as there is never any doubt that the protagonists will live, even with the great effort Bay goes to in order to convince us they might not. Steve Buscemi is the real star of the film for me. His sarcasm is obvious and predictable, but it’s the actor himself who makes it rise to the level of entertainment. Sean Bean, however, is not used as effectively as he could have been, but again that’s due to the script. There is no real discussion of the ethical dilemma involved or any characters who really wrestle with the implications in a real way. Because of that it diminishes the overall thrust of the piece and ultimately makes it a fun but unimportant sci-fi adventure film. The Island certainly isn’t great cinema but it is fairly effective entertainment, and with lowered expectations can make for worthwhile viewing.

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