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The Island

Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.
I’ve never enjoyed a Michael Bay movie, but I’ve come to grudgingly respect that he must be on to something. I skipped Bad Boys, but caught The Rock in the theater in 1996, and found nearly every aspect of it hugely off-putting, starting with the rapid cutting, and carrying on through the disorienting action, the one-note characters, and the hokey and/or borderline-hateful humor. It was like a Tony Scott movie, but cranked up and dumbed down, which was no mean feat. I hoped never to see anything like it again. Most of the rest of the world disagreed, however. And so began the season of the Bay.
I used to toss around an article idea in my head called “The Rise And Fall Of The Summer Blockbuster,” tracing the progress of the big summer movie from the clever likes of Jaws to the prefab spectacle of the late ’90s and early ’00s, when Bay loomed large both with the movies he directed—Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, etc.—and the movies he influenced. Jerry Bruckheimer produced all of Bay’s movies up through Bad Boys II. When he wasn’t making Bay movies, he farmed out the Bay aesthetic to other directors, who repurposed it in movies like Gone In 60 Seconds and Con Air.
It was a long headache for those of us not taken with the Michael Bay magic. And while I remain unenchanted, I think I’ve started to understand how that magic works. Try watching one of Bay’s movies and pausing on every shot. (Beware carpal-tunnel syndrome.) Bay has a hell of an eye and a nice sense of composition. There’s a lot of effort behind each shot, and a lot of shots to house that effort. My mind boggles at the amount of work that goes into a Michael Bay movie, and I’ve got no doubt that he’s the hardest-working part of the machine.
On a second-by-second basis, Bay knows how to make exciting movies. But it’s the absence of connective tissue between those seconds—I have no idea what was going on in that final fight scene in Transformers—that always pulls me out of the movie. Well, that and an overwhelming sense that all the effort being applied to the movie’s spectacle neglects things at the core, like story and character. I always get the sense that more thought has been put into the way smoke spreads against the side of a building following a mammoth explosion, or the texture of objects visible for milliseconds as they fly at the camera, than why stuff is blowing up, or who’s fleeing those flying objects and that fireball.
Cultural infamy and curiosity factor: Which brings us, at last, to The Island, which I watched on purpose. Why? I could plead some combination of masochism and morbid curiosity. It is, after all, a notorious flop—err, financial disappointment—that momentarily ended Bay’s winning streak at the U.S. box office. (Overseas audiences were more intrigued.) It probably has more to do with my willingness, even eagerness, to watch anything involving spaceships or monsters or dystopias or whatnot. My co-worker Kyle Ryan is on record as being averse to anything involving “wizards and shit.” That isn’t a view I share.
The viewing experience: The Island is science fiction in more than just window-dressing, too. Its premise plays with some pretty interesting ideas. (Although the source for those ideas proved a matter of some contention.) Caspian Tredwell-Owen wrote the first screenplay, which was then rewritten by the team of Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci. They wrote Bay’s Transformers, but are also responsible for the promising-looking forthcoming Star Trek movie, and they’re writers and executive producers behind the reasonably clever TV series Fringe. Regardless of how much the film owes to other sources, the first hour or so of The Island delves into the ideas at hand in with more depth than Bay usually brings to his film’s stories.
The Island opens on a facility in which a bunch of healthy-looking people walk around in jumpsuits (or “speedsuits,” to use Venture Bros. parlance), exercise, read Dick And Jane primers, eat a strictly controlled diet, and wait to be called to “the island,” the last place on Earth unspoiled by some tremendous cataclysm. Amongst them are Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson, who enjoy as firm a friendship as the powers-that-be will allow, sharing tips on how to get an extra serving of bacon, and exchanging smiles over cocktails of juice and other healthy ingredients. (It’s all weirdly similar to the headquarters on Dollhouse.) But there’s a twist to all this. [Four-year-old SPOILERS follow.]
There is no island. In fact, there never was a cataclysm. Everyone in the facility is a clone of someone wealthy being kept around for spare parts, should a health problem surface. When that happens, the clones are taken out and killed, and their organs harvested. It’s an interesting concept, one whose bioethical implications have some resonance with stem-cell research and other contemporary issues. (Squint a little, and you can see the whole thing as one long anti-stem-cell screed, complete with Holocaust-inspired imagery.) I’m not sure what the film wants to say about those issues, however. It’s certainly anti-using-humans-as-organ-banks. But how it actually feels about the clones remains unclear. All begin life in a childlike state. Some remain that way. Some get peevish. Others, like our heroes, get curious. But exactly what they are and what they say about how we define humanity remains largely unexplored.
Worse, the movie loses pretty much all curiosity quickly once McGregor and Johansson find their way out into the world, with some help from Steve Buscemi. At this point, it turns into one long Michael Bay-style chase scene amid some handsome, heavily branded near-future production design. (The product placement in this film is pretty ridiculous; even the clones use Xbox-branded equipment, even though they aren’t exactly going to be able to spend their clone money on Microsoft goods.)
I’ve never been a fan of the way Bay shoots action scenes, which is a pretty big stumbling block when it comes to enjoying his movies. The second half of the film is pretty much a washout for me. And while I’ve liked them both elsewhere, McGregor and Johansson don’t really help. They’re supposed to be blank slates, of course, but they mostly seem a little sleepy. And I’m not sure how to explain the scene in which they discover sex, when we’ve already been told that they have no sex drive.
That said, putting aside the not-really-my-views political undertones, the dull characters, the feeble attempts at humor, the incoherent action, the didn’t-need-to-be-this-epic-in-length approach to storytelling, and a climax that involves McGregor essentially finding and flipping a giant off-switch, this is my favorite Michael Bay movie. If that’s the film equivalent of having a favorite dental procedure, so be it.
How much of this experience wasn’t a total waste of time? I’m going to be generous and say 50 percent. It kept my interest in a not-bad-enough-to-walk-away-from sort of way. And it is exceedingly striking in the moments when Bay lets viewers focus on an image. But watching a Michael Bay movie means sitting through stretches where the dialogue is reduced to this verbatim transcript:
Ewan McGregor: “Hold on!”
Scarlett Johansson: “Look out!” [Crash.] “Look out!”
Ewan McGregor: “Hold on!”
True, Bay cuts that nonsense with some actual ideas here. Maybe that’s why audiences didn’t respond. Based on Transformers, it seems like a mistake he’s unlikely to make again.