July 22nd, 2005
While the talk around the sewing circle has been that Michael Bay is taking a bold creative leap forward with “The Island,” don’t believe a word of it. A rotten slice of summer movie entertainment, “The Island” is the same old Bay, blowing up random objects, and photographing everything like a deodorant commercial. Without the light touch of Ewan McGregor, I dare not think how awful this film might’ve been.
Living in a pristine, tightly monitored future world underground, Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor, eagerly giving his all to a fruitless cause) and Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson, looking justifiably confused most of the time) are close friends looking forward to their chance to leave their claustrophobic home and head to an unidentified island where they will find peace and joy. As the years go by, Lincoln becomes curious as to just how far his world goes, and when he probes deep enough, he learns a terrifying secret about his society. This revelation about the real purpose of the island forces him to quickly mount an escape with Jordan, finding hitmen (lead by Djimon Hounsou and featuring lots of bearded stuntmen) and his questionably loyal counselor (Sean Bean, who else?) hot on their trail.
By now, my distaste for Michael Bay has been well established. Ever since his debut with 1995’s “Bad Boys” (a reasonable movie only because he had a small budget), Bay has been on a mission to anesthetize his audience with action movie overkill. Sure, there’s an appetite for his nonsense, and he would be the first person to remind you of his box office totals, but the damage he’s inflicted on the modern action movie aesthetic is criminal.
“The Island” is Bay’s attempt to broaden his horizons, for it features, on the glistening outside at least, a snazzy script stuffed with sci-fi intrigue and paranoia (think “Parts: the Clonus Horror” meets “THX 1138”), a cast featuring beloved dramatic actors, and a break from his usual partner-in-crime, producer Jerry Bruckheimer. These are great ingredients, but you could give Bay Shakespeare, or even a simple Kool-Aid commercial, and the man would mess it up. Contrary to how it appears, “The Island” is the same overdirected mess that Bay has been serving up for 10 years now, only this time disguised as a creative leap forward.
For the opening 40 minutes, “Island” stays remarkably calm. Bay is looking to construct the crystalline, ordered world of Lincoln and Jordan with wide open sets, crisp cinematography (by Mauro Fiore), and the always game McGregor and Johansson, and he almost gets it right. But Bay being Bay, too much of this “future” looks like a Labor Day party at the Playboy Mansion, complete with neon lighting, bikini babes and designer drinks. The opening act sets up Lincoln’s revelation about his home, and I’ll admit, I was gripped, if only because nothing in this area of the film required me to watch glass shatter or plug my ears from all the explosions. Unfortunately, that peaceful feeling doesn’t last for long.
Once Lincoln and Jordan make a break for it, and escape their underground campus, Bay tosses away his mask of cinematic growth, affixes his horns and tail, and lets rip with the most extravagant and disturbingly frantic action sequences he’s come up with to date (and that’s saying something after the free-for-all mentality of the icky “Bad Boys II”). Taking to the streets, the skies, and the skyscrapers of future Los Angeles, Bay wants to decimate everything is his path. He almost succeeds too, with roaring special effects making sure not one frame is left untouched with debris. We watch as a calm freeway becomes a bowling alley for construction gear, the skies turn into a roller coaster as Lincoln tries to master controls of a flying motorcycle, and buildings tall as the eye can see come crashing to the ground, taking every conceivable item in the area down with it. And in traditional Bay fashion, all this is captured with a violently shaky camera and hyper-editing, never allowing the audience a chance to fully see what they are expected to swallow. I’ve never seen a filmmaker so maniacally delighted with chaos and confusion in my life.
Now that Bay has shot his wad with this mid-movie excursion into stunts and glass-shattering, “The Island” settles down and gets back to the plot, but what’s there waiting for the audience isn’t worth the carnage or endless noise. While conceptually fun, what awaits Lincoln and Jordan isn’t all that noteworthy. “Island” ends just like any episode of “Walker, Texas Ranger,” with the good guy vs. the bad guy in a fight to the death, and a bad guy becoming a good guy because he has a moral problem with how the bad guys do business. Heck, “The Island” could’ve used Chuck Norris at this point, because watching actor Djimon Hounsou try to emote anything except jaw-clenching concentration is brutal.
Often photographed like a car commercial (Bay loves his fast toys), and featuring an appalling amount of not-hidden-in-the-least-bit product placement (taking the title away from “Goldmember”), “The Island” ends up looking like every other Bay motion picture, which is to say that it’s almost completely unredeemable. Given this grand opportunity to prove himself outside of flipping cars, deals with the local glass merchants, and casting his Playmate girlfriends, Bay just blindly goes through the summer extravaganza motions once again. Maybe this time the audience won’t be so eager to follow him down his ludicrously bombastic path.
My rating: D