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Monday, May 16, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: The Island (2005)

Director: Michael Bay
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson
Domestic Box Office: $35,818,913

Michael Bay is not a director accustomed to failure - at the box office, at least. His films being critically savaged is par for the course, but failing to rake in the money? That's a slightly more unusual circumstance for him. Sure, the last couple of years have resulted in Pain and Gain and 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi amid the Transformers movies (though it's worth noting that those two middling performers are also two of his lower budgeted movies), but for the most part, Bay has been pretty consistent in delivering critic-proof money makers, particularly during summer. In that respect, 2005's The Island was his first real bomb, a science fiction thriller that cost $126 million to make and only brought in $36 million at the box office - and remains his lowest grossing film to date. Thematically, The Island is arguably the most ambitious film Bay has ever made, playing as it does with large philosophical questions, but there's a reason that Bay is known more for extravagant special effects than compelling character drama: he doesn't know what to make of a character when he or she isn't involved in a car chase, shoot out, or explosion.

The Island starts out promisingly, more or less, with an intriguing set up. The protagonist (Ewan McGregor) wakes up in what first appears to be a high tec retreat of some sort where his every need is meticulously seen to, from dress to exercise and dietary needs, but which is then revealed to actually be a compound in a safe zone where the survivors of a contagion that has wiped out the rest of humanity are kept until such a time as they can go to "the island," the one place on earth free of contamination. We learn that our hero's name is Lincoln Echo Six and begin to get hints that something is not quite right in the compound, where men and women are segregated (much to Lincoln's dismay, given his crush on Jordan Two Delta, played by Scarlett Johansson) and not allowed to have any form of physical contact when they meet in common areas, and where questions are discouraged, particularly those thought up by Lincoln, who is haunted by nightmares and wants to know how it is that "survivors" are still being found and brought to the compound years after the contaminating event. His questions don't sit well with Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean) and with good reason. In truth, the compound is all an elaborate deception designed to keep its residents in the dark about the fact that they are clones, created specifically for the purpose of organ harvesting and (in the case of the women) to act as the carriers of surrogate pregnancies, and that winning the opportunity to go to "the island" merely means that a clone is about to die for the sake of their original. When Lincoln discovers the truth, he and Jordan break out and discover the real world, trying to find their originals and outrun Merrick's agents.

A movie like The Island really makes one appreciate a movie like Never Let Me Go, which covered the same thematic ground but did so with much more empathy, intelligence, and soul (albeit with far, far fewer explosions). In that film, you felt for the characters who turned out to be clones because the story took such pains to depict them as human beings and not merely science experiments, and because it was able to root itself in the real, recognizable world while still being a work of science fiction. It asked big, difficult questions that factored in morality, legality, and humanity, and it took them very seriously. The Island, not so much. The setting of the film is the near-future (2019, to be exact) and the "real" world that Lincoln and Jordan discover is one that looks a fair bit like our own with just a few tweaks here and there to make it look futuristic (and, presumably, to allow Bay to stage a chase scene which involves a hover motorcycle). It also goes out of its way to make the clone characters seem alien, which has the effect of making the level of identification between them and the audience even smaller. The characters seem alien because they're adults who have been "born" into adult bodies and are then educated at the level of children to keep them pliable and obedient and to keep them from having any awareness of what might be going on. The problem with this is that Bay doesn't have the soft, subtle touch necessary to guide the actors in making their characters "childlike" and so they instead end up just seeming blank and weird, like aliens who have assumed human bodies and are discovering our ways but are baffled by them at every turn (something Johansson would play to much greater effect in Under the Skin). The attempt to portray the clones as "childlike" also makes it difficult to buy into the ability of Lincoln and Jordan to craft the plan that will gain them their freedom and expose what's happening, in addition to making it fairly creepy that these two characters, who we're told are operating at the level of first graders, end up having sex.

It's no surprise, really, that a Michael Bay movie puts more care into special effects laden scenes where things get smashed up than it does into character and world building, or simply having any kind of internal logic, and yet the level of narrative and thematic carelessness on display in The Island is still something of a surprise. Suspension of disbelief and all that, but the whole idea behind how Dr. Merrick is running the compound doesn't even really make much sense unless he knows that he's the villain in a movie and needs to make his plans as elaborate as possible. For example, if the clones are born as programmable blanks then why do you even need the mass contamination/existence of the island story in the first place? Why not just program them to believe that the compound is all that the world has ever been? For that matter, why keep them at the mental level of children? Why not indoctrinate them, as if they're part of a cult, to embrace the idea of self-sacrifice? Why, if the male and female clones have to be kept from having physical contact with each other, do the two groups have the opportunity to socialize at all? It seems to me that Merrick created a lot of mythology that he didn't actually need for the management of his project (not to mention all the funding that must have been diverted towards making and maintaining the holographic projectors that allow the compound's residents to see the "real" world and the effects of contamination through windows).

All this is, of course, fairly petty nitpicking. Most films, particularly of this genre, have a plot hole here or an instance where characterization or narrative has been bent slightly and specifically to make the plot and the action setpieces happen (I haven't even mentioned the various times when Lincoln and Jordan are running from their would-be captors, who remind each other that the clones need to be brought back alive and then moments later create an ever-escalating scene of violence in which they have the potential to be killed several times over). What really bothered me about The Island is that it tries to present itself as having something deep and meaningful to say and yet doesn't seem to recognize that its narrative loops put it in direct opposition to its supposed thematic argument. The point of the film is that, despite the way that they came into being, Lincoln and Jordan are human beings and deserve to be treated as such and should not have to be used up and killed in order for the original Lincoln and the original Jordan to live. That's all well and good, but consider this: the way the film plays out, the original Jordan dies because clone Jordan isn't captured in time for her organs to be harvested, and the original Lincoln dies one of the stupidest deaths I've ever seen after the clones find him and he agrees to help them, secretly planning to double cross his clone by handing him over to Merrick, only to end up being shot and killed after clone Lincoln convinces the men holding the guns that he's the original Lincoln, all because real Lincoln gave his clone an outfit to wear that was identical to the one he himself was wearing. Anyway, the film's mission statement is that clone Lincoln and clone Jordan should not have to die just for original Lincoln and original Jordan to live, and yet the way the film plays out, original Jordan and original Lincoln end up having to die in order for clone Jordan and clone Lincoln to be able to live. You can't have it both ways.

All that being said, the utter failure of The Island at the box office is still something of a surprise. Michael Bay's films may not be great, but they consistently make money. I couldn't recall how the film was marketed in 2005, so my assumption was that it perhaps tried to sell itself as something that it wasn't and ended up undone by bad word of mouth as a result, however, when I looked up the original trailer I saw that it was fairly upfront about its plot (even revealing details that, hilariously in hindsight, the screenplay takes pains to keep vague so that it can unfold them one by one as if peeling back layers of mystery). The trailer promises science fiction and big action, so maybe it was the competition? I looked at that, too: The Island was released the weekend of July 22, 2005. It opened at #4 on the box office charts, well behind the previous weekend's openers Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Wedding Crashers and about $200k behind the two-week old Fantastic Four, and the other openers that weekend were Bad News Bears, Hustle and Flow, and The Devil's Rejects, which it beat by $1 million, $4 million, and $5 million, respectively. It was, and remains, the lowest opening weekend for any Michael Bay movie and it's hard to say, exactly, where it went so wrong. It's a dumb movie but... Michael Bay isn't exactly known for making intellectually challenging works of art. It lacks the sense of fun that came through in films like Bad Boys, The Rock, and Armageddon, which are dumb in their own specific ways but still largely entertaining, and maybe that was ultimately the problem. When it came to a choice between a new popcorn movie that took itself too seriously or a string of movies that had already been out for a week or two but seemed more in the summer spirit, perhaps that decision was easy. But whatever the reason it wasn't a hit in 2005, time has not done much to redeem The Island and make it worthy of reconsideration.

Should It Have Been A Blockbuster?: I'm surprised that it wasn't, given Bay's track record, but that doesn't mean the film actually merits a blockbuster-size audience.

1 comment:

thevoid99 said...

I think this, along with North, is the worst film Scarlett Johansson ever did and she admits that the film was terrible and doesn't have kind things to say about Michael Bay. It wants to be a blockbuster version of Logan's Run but has 0 substance. Oh, and the film is brought to you by XBOX.