2 stars (out of four)
Oh, what "The Island" could have been in the hands of another.
Critical punching bag Michael Bay is rich and famous for taking fantastic and wildly implausible premisesa nerve gas attack from Alcatraz to San Francisco, deep core drilling to stop an asteroid hell-bent for Earth, Ben Affleck in the Royal Air Forceand blowing up everything in sight. From the ridiculous ("Bad Boys II") to the ridiculously sublime ("Armageddon"), Bay movies are often loud, usually loud and always, always loud.
Butclear throat, squirm in chair, feign confidenceI dig that. Or, rather, I dug that until "The Island."
In the past, Bay's hyperactive, hog-wild style was always a good fit for the cornball, blockbuster scripts he favored, but "The Island" has the rare potential to be a class act, and therein lies the problem.
Eerily similar in theme to novelist Kazuo Ishiguro's explosive-free "Never Let Me Go," Bay's "Island" envisions a mid-21st Century in which the human hunger for youth and immortality leads to the harvesting of clones. You're rich and you want to live forever? Clone yourself. And when the old liver fails from too many cocktails or the lungs from a lifetime of Ultra Lights? Swap them out for spares, which, by the way, are in immaculate condition because clones live in an extremely controlled environment, where even the tiniest physical malady, like sodium excess in urine, is detected and modulated.
Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson) are among the hundreds of clones living at an underground facility run by a bad guy named Merrick (Sean Bean). Merrick grows his clones in some sort of poly-bubble filled with goo and bombards them with generic imagesmeant to become memoriesand a piped-in, fictitious back story.
That storythat the clones are really the sole human survivors of a worldwide contaminationis second nature by the time they burst from their goobubble, adult in body, infant in mind. For the next few years, the institute raises its "products" with a quasi-human experience (in order for the clones to develop healthy organs, they need some semblance of a life) and tricks them into believing in The Island, the never-seen-but-much-revered, last uncontaminated spot on the planet. Even clones need a purpose in life, a goal, so Merrick and his polite henchmen lead Lincoln, Jordan and the rest to believe that if they're lucky enough to win the facility's lottery, it's off to the utopian island for them (when, in reality, the lottery is just an efficient way to round up a clone ready for harvest).
It's all ignorance and bliss until Lincoln starts to question his existence, the Island and even the shared memory of contamination, developing the one thing Merrick never accounted for: a soul.
Ten years ago, this might have rang about as true as Billy Bob Thornton asking Bruce Willis to save the Earth. But here, before the Bayisms start in earnest, it's moving and spooky and kind of real, both due to McGregor's slow and convincing awakening and to the familiarity of his surroundings, a cross between Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report" and Andrew Niccol's "Gattaca," a surreal world that by now feels sincere.
Plus, McGregor and Johansson manage to keep their cool, whether confronting unfamiliar sexual attraction or busting through glass. I have not been a fan of Johannson's work, but here, with her trademark deliverylethargic, monotone, sleepyshe's a very believable clone. It's actually the ideal role for her.
(Commenting on a film's product placements is quickly approaching passe, but I should note that she also looks mighty fine in her sleek Puma get-upand that Microsoft lets everyone down at a crucial impasse.)
Though they continue to look good, everything falls apart once Lincoln and Jordan escape to L.A. to find their look-alike sponsors. Merrick sics some ex-special ops on the duo and Bay's thoughtful sci-fi tale quickly devolves into much less sincere territory. Buildings blow up. People blow up. A certain indie actor blows up. Futuristic motorcycle hybrid thingies chase other futuristic motorcycle hybrid thingies. And McGregor and Johansson run and run and run and run.
I'd be in no way deserving of your trust if I hadn't seen this coming, but still: What a letdown. Not only are the moral dilemmas of cloning and the nature of human emotion literally exploded, but aesthetically Bay does a 180, shaking off his stunning underground creation for a highway-bound city with trains and big-rig trucks.
Classic Bay, except it's missing the crass director's fine-tuned rhythm, his feel for adrenaline, his breakneck edits and sense of humor.
So as fond as I am of escapist junk, and as much as there is to admire in "The Island," in the end it's just a big, loud mess. It appears I am finally numb to Michael Bay.
Directed by Michael Bay; written by Caspian Tredwell-Owen, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci; photographed by Mauro Fiore; edited by Paul Rubell and Christian Wagner; production designed by Nigel Phelps; music by Steve Jablonsky; special effects supervised by John Frazier; produced by Michael Bay, Walter F. Parkes, Ian Bryce. A DreamWorks Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:07. MPAA rating: PG-13 (intense sequences of violence and action, some sexuality and language).
Lincoln Six Echo/Tom Lincoln - Ewan McGregor
Jordan Two-Delta/Sarah Jordan - Scarlett Johansson
Albert Laurent - Dijmon Hounsou
Dr. Merrick - Sean Bean
McCord - Steve Buscemi