In Defense Of...The Island

In Defense Of...The Island

It's almost become a national pastime to hate on Michael Bay and his movies.  For the last four years, he's become defined by the Transformers series, rendering everything else an afterthought.  But back in 2005, Bay was on the verge of pushing his career into more respectable territory.  He'd dabbled in it once before with the critically well-received The Rock, but '05 was something different.  Steven Spielberg had personally taken Bay under his wing and hand-picked him to direct a $120 million epic sci-fi action film for DreamWorks.

Having cast talented, but non-bankable actors (Scarlett Johansson and Ewan McGregor) in the leads, the real star of the show was Bay.  All of Hollywood's eyes were on him to deliver.  The end result was The Island, a costly misfire at the box office if ever there was one, grossing $12 million its opening weekend and only about $35 million in its entire run.  The reasons for its failure are many: a boring, non-descriptive title.  Lackluster marketing.   A crowded summer marketplace.  Middling critical notices.  But what seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle in the years since is one simple fact: The Island is Michael Bay's best movie.

That may not be saying much for some of you, I understand, but I think that's a relatively bold statement to make.  Look, there's no denying Bay's craftsmanship as a visual artist.   Every single one of his movies are impeccably stylish and sexy.  He is one of the great action directors of this generation.  Bad Boys will always have a special place in my heart.  But with The Island, Bay finally gets to work with a screenplay that thrills apart from all the visual fireworks.

The script is credited to Caspian Treadwell-Owen and  Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci.  If those last two names look familiar, they should.  Kurtzman & Orci are two of the more prolific screenwriters working today, with smart mainstream fare like M:I-3, Star Trek, and Fringe under their belts.  The Island's story has one of those instantly compelling sci-fi hooks.  A man (McGregor) in a strictly regimented, Utopian-type facility begins to question his existence, and learns that he's a clone being harvested for replacement parts.  He goes on the run with a female clone from the facility (Johansson) to escape harvesting and is pursued by corporate bounty hunters, hired to bring them back.

The structure of the movie is really split into two halves - both of which work well, even if they don't entirely mesh.  The first half is strictly sci-fi - introducing the environment, the concepts, the characters.  Shades of George Lucas' THX-1138 and Spielberg's own Minority Report are definitely called to mind.  These early scenes prove fascinating, as the technology of the facility and cloning subplot are slowly unveiled.  Bay keeps his visual excessiveness in check, allowing the story to unfold without too many distractions.

But then, once McGregor and Johannson flee the facility, The Island becomes a balls-to-the-wall action flick, featuring a skybound motorcycle chase and some awesomely destructive car chases involving a truckload of giant metal dumbbells.  At this point, Bay can no longer contain his general Michael Bay-ness and may turn off some off the more high-minded viewers who appreciated the sci-fi nuance of the first half.  Not me.  I love it when the action kicks in - seriously, that 20-minute chase sequence in the middle of the movie is one of my top 5 favorite action scenes of the last decade.

The visual effects in The Island are flawless.  A highlight is when McGregor's clone and original come face-to-face and are forced to interact.  The two McGregors occupy the same screen space in an utterly believable manner, and McGregor's performance in those scenes is equally special.  He does a really nice job of distinguishing between the two versions of himself.  McGregor is just one of those actors who is instantly appealing in the right role, and he creates genuine audience empathy for his characters.  Johannson does little more than look pretty, but she didn't seem as annoying back in '05 as she does now.

I still feel that The Island hasn't really gotten the respect or audience it deserves. If only 1/3 of all the people seeing Transformers would have checked out The Island, it might have done better.  A genre effort all the way, The Island gives moviegoers the best of both worlds.  It works as both high-concept science fiction, and as an action spectacular.  It also offers a glimmer of hope that there's more to Bay than meets the eye.

This is the seventh in a series of posts spotlighting the overlooked, underappreciated, and unfairly maligned movies of our time.  Other films given the "In Defense Of" treatment so far include The Next Three Days, Multiplicity, Speed Racer, Meet Joe Black, Alfie (2004), and MacGruber.

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