On The Island

Featuring Ewan McGregor (Velvet Goldmine, Down with Love),  Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), Djimon Hounsou (Guardians of the Galaxy, Constantine, Beauty Shop), Sean Bean (The Lords of the Rings film trilogy), and Ethan Philips (Star Trek: Voyager), The Island is a film I found to be as entertaining as Æon Flux or Ultraviolet. It is also directed by Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor, Transformers film series), so that may explain why, but otherwise, it is such a mediocre film.

According to Roger Ebert:

“The Island” runs 136 minutes, but that’s not long for a double feature. The first half of Michael Bay’s new film is a spare, creepy science fiction parable, and then it shifts into a high-tech action picture. Both halves work. Whether they work together is a good question. The more you like one, the less you may like the other. I liked them both, up to a point, but the movie seemed a little too much like surf & turf.

The first half takes place in a sterile futuristic environment where the inhabitants wear identical uniforms (white for the citizens, black for their supervisors). Big-screen TVs broadcast slogans and instructions, and about twice a day everybody gathers before them for the Lottery. This sealed world, its citizens believe, has been created to protect them from pollution that has poisoned the Earth. There is, however, one remaining “pathogen-free zone,” which looks a lot like a TV commercial for “The Beach.” Winners of the Lottery get to go there.

Yeah, sure, we’re thinking. But the citizens in the white suits don’t think very deeply; “they’re educated to the level of 15-year-olds,” we’re told. There was a time when that would have made them smarter than most of the people who ever lived, but in this future world education has continued to degrade, and we see adults reading aloud from Fun With Dick and Jane, a book that on first reading I found redundant and lacking in irony.

The true nature of this sealed world is not terrifically hard to guess; even those who failed to see through “The Village” may decode its secret. But the inhabitants are childlike and blissful, all except for a few troublesome characters like Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor), who wants bacon for breakfast but is given oatmeal. This inspires him to develop what all closed systems fear, a curiosity. “Why is Tuesday night always tofu night?” he asks his supervisor. “What is tofu? Why can’t I have bacon? Why is everything white?” Then one day he sees a flying bug, where no bug should be, or fly.

Sidestepping some intervening spoilers, I can move on to the second half of the movie, in which Lincoln Six Echo and the equally naive Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) escape from the sealed world, and are chased by train, plane, automobile, helicopter and hover-cycle in a series of special effects sequences that develop a breathless urgency. How the heroes manage to discover the underlying truth about their world while moving at such a velocity suggests they are quicker studies than we thought.

The movie never satisfactorily comes full circle, and while the climax satisfies the requirements of the second half of the story, it leaves a few questions unanswered. We wonder, for example, why a manufacturing enterprise so mammoth could have been undertaken in secret. Were government funds involved? We don’t need to know the answers to these questions, it’s true, but they would have allowed Bay (“Armageddon”) to do what the best science fiction does, and use the future as a way to critique the present. Does stem cell research ring a bell?

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