The Island is being touted as Michael Bay’s attempt at intelligent science fiction, and for the most part that’s what it is. Bay has taken his talent for blowing stuff the hell up, used it on a fairly sharp sci-fi “what if” script, and arrived at a Fugitive style chase movie that asks a few rather poignant questions about where modern science and old fashioned human selfishness are headed. You may have to squint through all the smoke and exploding cars to see them, but trust me the smarts are there.
In fact, Bay goes more than a few minutes in the film’s opening without even attempting an action sequence; quite a feat for the director of movies like The Rock and Bad Boys II. It’s there that the movie is at its most creative, as the script sets up a Big Brother (George Orwell, not Julie Chen) controlled futuristic environment. As it always is in any good dystopian future, everything is slathered in a thick coat of white. Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) wakes up from a nightmare, and is informed by the computer screen over his bed that his unrest has been registered. Lincoln steps out of bed and takes a piss, only to be further informed by the all-observing computer that his urine is less than optimal. That means a restricted diet later at the communal cafeteria (no bacon) and an evaluation appointment with Doctor Merrick (who, since he’s played by Sean Bean, we know will turn out to be evil).
Lincoln Six Echo we are told, is one of the few remaining human survivors of some sort of global holocaust. The survivors are collected and taken to a climate controlled refuge where they exercise, eat, sleep, and live awaiting their turn to leave their carefully monitored, excruciatingly regimented environment and take up residence on the only uncontaminated piece of land left on the planet, known only as “The Island”. People are chosen to go to the Island by lottery, a carefully managed program that randomly selects survivors to enter the outside world and start repopulating the planet. Once lottery winners leave, they are never heard from again. Lincoln Six Echo has been waiting three years to win the lottery, and his memories of life before his rescue from what they call the “contamination” are pretty hazy. The same is true of his friend Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson), whom he cannot touch due to heavily enforced proximity restrictions.
All of this is of course a total lie, something I’m not spoiling for you if you’ve watched even one of the trailers. There’s no mystery here, The Island tells us from the outset that the naïve Lincoln Six Echo’s world is an utter falsehood, the fun is in watching him discover it, and subsequently escape from it. Escape he does and Bay settles comfortably into his element as the film becomes a wild, energetic chase movie set in a future said to be somewhere around 2050, though it looks more like 2015 to me. For the sake of sanity, we’ll just assume the world doesn’t change as much as you’d expect in five decades. Why not. Actually, if there’s a problem with the movie it is that it’s plagued by a lot of tiny logical gaps like that. For instance at one point Jordan sneaks a gun into a place she probably never should have had one, and a bad guy switches sides for a reason that can only be described as ridiculously out of character. It’s only little nitpicks that plague it, the sort that ought to be forgiven but that some people tend to get hung up on.
The movie’s biggest strength is its cast, sporting brilliant actors like Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, and Steve Buscemi. It’s Ewan that really carries it, nailing heavy dramatic subtext along with close and sometimes ridiculous escapes from trademark Michael Bay fireballs. Scarlett Johansson is less of a factor; she’s not wasted per say, but perhaps a little bit miscast. This seems to be a habit in a lot of her recent film roles, she keeps ending up as a de factor supermodel when her type is nothing of the sort. Her look and style is non-traditional and while sticking her in the role of the status quo beauty as she’s asked to be here isn’t a disaster (Scarlett’s too good to screw it up), it’s another case of a Hollywood misunderstanding the sort of unique talent it’s got on their hands. She’s a little wasted as an action hero, even in a movie that mixes brains in with its brawn.
The action in the film is a true return to form for Bay, who for awhile seemed to be slipping towards the world of annoying, washed out, jumpy editing in the quickly forgotten Bad Boys II. This is the consummate pyrotechnics professional we’re used to, pulling out all his best tricks in a variety of huge, beautifully filmed, high energy sequences. Whatever you think of Michael Bay, when he’s really on his game there’s almost no one better at putting pure, high gloss energy on screen than he is. For a change though, he’s learned to use his fast tempo talents more sparingly, spicing things up with actual dialogue, story, and dare I say it, depth.
The Island is one of those rare movies where everything truly comes together into a complete blockbuster package. It pulls off big budget and thoughtful science fiction all at once, much the way the underrated Alex Proyas flick I, Robot did last year. Like I, Robot, there are a few bumps along the way, but as a total package The Island is without a doubt Bay’s biggest, most well rounded success.