Since his mainstream directorial efforts commenced exactly one decade ago, director Michael Bay has hardly been known for his subtlety. With unthinkable budgets and resources at his disposal over the years, Bay has singlehandedly destroyed what has to be the equivalent of two or three large cities in ordinance. Undoubtedly favoring action and spectacle over plot and character development, color me surprised to find his latest effort, The Island, a corker of a sci-fi action flick. Fear not fans of his guilty pleasure action-fests (such as Bad Boys and Armageddon), there is still no holds barred action and his signature swirling camera around big bald guys with guns. But look under the surface and you’ll find a thinking man’s sci-fi story.
Set in the near future, Lincoln Six Echo (McGregor) and Jordan Two Delta (Johansson) are residents of a Utopian society in which everyone believes they are the survivor of a “contamination.” The compound in which they reside is remarkably clean and everyone is carefully monitored to insure perfect health (after urinating, Lincoln Six Echo is told that his salt intake is too high). The residents work boring factory shifts and appear to serve no real purpose to anyone or anything. The pinnacle they all hope to reach is “the island.” It can be clearly seen from their habitat and everyday a member of the society is chosen at random by lottery to be transferred to the island to live the good life.
Things quickly spiral out of control after Lincoln Six Echo discovers what the habitat is really being used for (forgive my vagueness; the trailers have already done a sufficient job of spoiling any surprises in the narrative, but I will not echo that information here). With the help of McCord (Buscemi), Lincoln Six Echo and Jordan Two Delta find themselves in a race against time to expose the deranged intentions of their superiors to the world.
Bay shows uncharacteristic restraint in setting up the story. The first act flows nicely as we are fed subtle hints as to what exactly is going on within the palatial structure. Once Lincoln Six Echo and Jordan Two Delta escape, however, we are firmly planted in Bay’s world of gunfire and car chases. The difference between The Island and Bay’s previous efforts (with the exception of The Rock, which is still his best film) is that he doesn’t lose focus (at least as much) in the story he is telling. Granted, this is the most challenging and thought-provoking material he has been dealt, which helps to keep our interests peaked. But, after the dust settles and the fires burn out, with The Island we are still left with unanswerable questions, leaving our imagination to fill in the blanks.
The Island is Bay’s first venture without producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and the early buzz seems to be that Bruckheimer’s absence has miraculously turned Bay into a controlled, focused director. Personally, I think Bay wanted to tell a more substantial story, and in that respect he has succeeded.
The performances are adequate, but hardly memorable. Ewan McGregor is given a dual role, and he gets to have some fun with that. As Lincoln Six Echo he is an ever-curious individual who is unable to accept his role in this perfect society. Hardly anyone else ever asks the question “why?” McGregor is a very talented actor, but the material here never calls for anything beyond a sleepwalk for him, especially once he becomes an action hero. Scarlett Johansson, much to my chagrin, is really nothing more than a blonde-haired damsel-in-distress. Screenwriters Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Caspian Tredwell-Owen make next to no effort to develop her character, which is quite remarkable considering her prominence in the story. Judging by the outfits she is given to wear, her main purpose from the getgo was that of eye candy. Johansson is a wonderful actress, which is why it’s difficult to watch her be reduced to such a cardboard cut-out of an action heroine. Serviceable supporting work is turned in by Sean Bean and Djimon Hounsou.
The Island is really two films in one; part sci-fi thinker and part popcorn actioner, but together they succeed as a nice piece of summer entertainment. Fortunately, the story prevails in the end and Bay has taken a step in the right direction in terms of credibility. Unfortunately for him, there’s still many steps to climb. But, the begging question remains: “Is this story really that far-fetched?”
Length: 127 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sexuality and language.
Theatrical Release: July 22, 2005
Directed by: Michael Bay
Written by: Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci & Caspian Tredwell-Owen. Based upon the story by Tredwell-Owen.
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Djimon Hounsou, Sean Bean, Steve Buscemi, Michael Clarke Duncan