The Island - Review - Variety
By Justin Chang
10 July 2005
"The Island" is no paradise. In his latest exercise in sensory overkill,
producer-helmer Michael Bay takes on the weighty moral conundrums of
human cloning, resolving them in a storm of bullets, car chases and
more explosions than you can shake a syringe at. Frenetic actioner
about refugees from a genetic cloning plant starts off intriguingly,
burns up its ideas in the first hour and pads out the rest with joltingly
repetitive action sequences. Given Bay's built-in, mostly male audience,
DreamWorks and Warner Bros. look to harvest decent if not spectacular
opening returns, though specimen's long-term viability is far less assured.
It's the year 2019, and Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) is one of
several hundred survivors of a cataclysm that left the whole world
contaminated, save one place -- the eponymous Island. This lush
retreat, Lincoln and the other refugees are promised, will one day
be their home. For now, they're kept in a lavish but sterile research
facility, where authorities force them to wear identifying wrist bracelets;
their moods, diet and metabolism are carefully monitored; and
male-female "proximity" is strictly forbidden.
Suspicious by nature and prone to prophetic nightmares, Lincoln finds his
worst fears confirmed after Starkweather (Michael Clarke Duncan),
selected by random lottery to go to the Island, instead winds up on
a slab. When his friend and burgeoning love interest, Jordan Two
Delta (Scarlett Johansson), is the next one to win the lottery,
Lincoln grabs her and together they stage a jailbreak. Alarmed
by the breach, sinister mastermind Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean, adding
another to his gallery of villains) hires a mercenary (Djimon
Hounsou) to hunt them down.
One of the small charms of "The Island" is that its test-tube protags,
far from being hardened heroes, are a pair of brainwashed innocents,
sealed off from the outside world and generally lacking in social smarts.
McGregor exploits this most winningly, affecting an earnest gee-whiz
streak and speaking his lines in a boyish, slightly higher register.
Faring not so well is Johansson, usually the subtlest of actresses, who
in her first major action role has been encouraged to make a shrill,
bombastic spectacle of her character's cluelessness.
Another downside of Lincoln and Jordan's ignorance is that by the time
they realize what's up -- that they're walking "insurance policies,"
raised only to supply organs for their genetically identical owners --
auds will have long since figured everything out.
While the essentially surprise-free narrative plays catch-up, there's little
to do but sit back and admire Nigel Phelps' gleaming production design;
the biotech facility, in particular, suggests a cross between a day spa, a
spaceship and a maximum-security prison. Yet even here, Bay's direction
zips along at such an unmodulated rush, so eager to get on with the next
set-piece or expository line of dialogue, that auds will have precious little
time to soak up the images, much less allow their potentially troubling
implications to deepen and resonate.
Setting and premise conjure countless visual and thematic echoes from other
films, including "The Matrix," with its paranoid dystopian vision and roomful of
sticky birth-pods, and even "The Truman Show," with its 24-hour surveillance
cameras and megalomaniacal controller. One scene, featuring an army of
mechanized, eye-scanning spiders, is lifted straight out of the more
convincingly futuristic "Minority Report."
The references feel thoroughly secondhand; Bay ultimately is interested in
the science and ethics of cloning only insofar as they provide a backdrop
for all the vehicular chaos he's set to unleash. (Ancillary moral: Clones
are human, too.)
In terms of spectacle, pic is a pileup of kinetic mayhem, as Lincoln and
Jordan's first actions in the real world include dodging bullets, destroying
several police cars and crashing a hovercraft into a skyscraper.
Yet for all the vertiginous camera movements and ace visual effects, the
action remains tension-free and largely incoherent, thanks to attention-
deficit editing by Paul Rubell and Christian Wagner.
Scribes Caspian Tredwell-Owen, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci save their
best lines for the superbly snarky Steve Buscemi, as a facility staffer who
comes to the clones' aid (and has a priceless exchange with "Ghost World"
co-star Johansson in the process). And pic has sly fun with Lincoln's and
Jordan's "owners"; former is played by McGregor in an effective second
role, while latter is glimpsed in Johansson's real-life Calvin Klein ad.
Other product placements, particularly by Aquafina, are too numerous to
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