Skip to main content

Sir, I have one question. Where do all the tubes go?

The Island
(2005)

(SPOILERS) Michael Bay would probably have been better advised to remake the Michael Caine The Island, which has just the kind of excesses that would better suit his tastes. Instead, he attempted to tackle a nominally cerebral actioner and so strove to expose that it really has little going on under the hood. The Island, set just over a year ago (it begins on July 19, 2019) is at its best when it’s focusing on the plot rather than the rather rote spectacle. Which is to say that the second half of the picture becomes something of an endurance test. Michael Bay films are too damn long!

By this point, Bay had already turned the events of Pearl Harbour into a rousing action fest (when an Oliver Stone-esque conspiracy tale would have been considerably more interesting. But then, Stone didn’t even go near that with his The Secret History of America documentary series). Perhaps he fancied proving he wasn’t just the guy who could out-excess himself with Bad Boys II. It’s hard to figure for certain, as The Island is visually amped up to eleven even in conversational scenes. Perhaps Bay was making up for his undercharged leads.

McCord: Oh no, why do I get to be the guy who tells them there’s no Santa Claus.

Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson are entirely bland presences as clones – or Agnates – Lincoln Six Echo and Jordan Two Delta. You might suggest that’s the point, but if so, that’s why you need actors with more natural presence. Hollywood quickly got the message with McGregor, who wouldn’t be headlining a big studio production again until last year (although, arguably the star of that was Stephen King, while the CGI bear was the main attraction in Christopher Robin). In fairness, he is quite good as his Lincoln’s human original, an unapologetically libidinous weasel…

Johansson had just segued to adult roles, and would soon segue to Black Widow; she’d never have a problem getting good parts, but would face much bigger problems in making an indelible impression. Both actors being swallowed up by a Bay production bears noting; while the subject matter definitely didn’t play to the director’s strengths in this case, he undoubtedly needs leads who can anchor his maximum carnage. The strange thing is, the likes of Mark Wahlberg and Shia LaBeouf are able to do this.

The Island has a sprinkling of notable supporting presences – Kim Coates and Steve Buscemi, with Ethan “Neelix” Phillips proving just as annoying sans prosthetics – but mostly fails across the board. Sean Bean is forgettable renta-villainous-scientist Doctor Merrick, presumably cast because he could deliver competent action moves at the climax rather than because he makes a convincing genius. As the guy employed to retrieve the clones, Djimon Hounsou is possibly the least discreet operative since… well, the last Michael Bay movie. Michael Clarke Duncan meets a grisly fate. The consequence is that, with the rare exception, the movie feels very one-note, pedestrian and uninvolving, particularly once the second half has devolved into inconsequential action.

The Island was Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci’s first credited screenplay. Caspian Tredwell-Owen came up with the idea, although DreamWorks settled with the creators of Parts: The Clonus Horror (1979) for coming up with a very similar idea. That itself is interesting, as I’m unsure how much The Island is really about cloning. Kurtzman and Orci had graduated from TV, notably Alias, and would soon be widely loathed for their contributions to/crimes committed against Star Trek and Spider-Man; Kurtzman is still wreaking carnage on the former (although, it’s rumoured such wanton desecration may soon end).

McCord: The life you think you has before” the Contamination”? It never happened.

The Clonus Horror concerns an isolated desert facility where clones are bred for the elite (including a US President). They are intermittently awarded the honour of going to “America”. Sound familiar? It’s pretty undeniably similar to The Island, just not as upbeat for the main parties. But you’d be forgiven for thinking the set-up of isolated innocents in a sealed environment fed a lie about their world and eventually acceding to a reward or change of status isn’t so dissimilar to Logan’s Run (for going to the Island, read the rite of Carrousel).

Essentially then, one might very easily see The Island a reset tale, illustrating how easy it would be to raise an oblivious populace (as Cristof says in The Truman Show: “We accept the reality of the world we’re presented. It’s a simple as that”). In this case, it’s as simple as telling the tale of the Contamination. It takes someone capable of seeing the limitations of the lie (Lincoln) to disrupt the enforced order of things and seed others’ doubts (most amusingly, the confusion over where all the tubes go).

Lincoln is the equivalent of a Flat Earther, or a Truther (like Orci). Winning the Lottery in this environment becomes the equivalent of religious salvation or retirement (significantly, the clones have no knowledge of sex or spirituality: “What’s God?”). The Island “is the one thing that gives them hope…. Gives them purpose”. It represents something to invest oneself in above all else. Knowledge and understanding are withheld, such that the clones are “educated to the level of a fifteen-year-old". So pretty much as we are, give or take.

There are some nice touches here, Kurtzman and Orci recognising the struggle to make sense of a world that does not. Phillips’ Jones Echo Three uses numerology to attempt to make order of the processes controlling his environment (suggesting that those selected for the Island can be predicted). Unfortunately, his system is so convoluted it comes out as nonsense (in a world where the conspiratorially minded can have a tendency to brandish rudimentary numerological or gematric tools wherever one looks, to “make sense” of things, that sounds about right).

McCord: Well, just because people want to eat the burger, doesn’t mean they want to meet the cow.

But from the cloning point of view, the movie doesn’t have too much to say. The Island uses the classic Hollywood set up of a bad seed going out on a limb (meaning order will be restored once the picture ends). We’re asked to believe the Department of Defence is unaware that Merrick has been breaking the Eugenics Law of 2015, which instructs that clones may only be grown if they remain in a persistent vegetative state (such a precondition is an all too believable “safeguard” for permitting such activity). This at least acknowledges the prospect of public objection to such unethical behaviour; Never Let Me Go, another cloning pic, leaves it as an unaddressed elephant in the room. 

Employee: Looks like we have a fine product.

According to Merrick, it was discovered that clones could only become suitable donors for their rich doubles through being grown fully conscious. He and his employees, aside from Buscemi, maintain a dissociative state towards their humanity, as one would expect. “It’s a product… not human” and “They have no souls”. Desensitisation is such that they are in fits of laughter at the traumatic escape attempt by Starkweather Two-Delta (Duncan).

Lincoln: A dump? Take it where?

There’s no real attempt to investigate the identity of the clones beyond these markers, though, or the process by which Lincoln develops the memories of his original. Once Lincoln and Jordan escape the facility, much of the potential is dropped in favour of hyperbolic action sequences and determined escalation, such that by the third act, Lincoln is delivering a more than serviceable impression of his human counterpart.

Perhaps Orci and Kirkman’s reticence is because, in contrast to their 9/11 parable Star Trek into Darkness, they feel the jury’s out on actual cloning. It is, after all, one of THE big conspiracy theories, with frequent evidence of glitchy clones breaking down cited on YouTube, be it Hillary, Eminem or numerous news anchors. Equally, there’s dispute as to whether what we are seeing in many of these cases really does represent clones; maybe they are variously deep fakes, doubles, or MKUltra subjects springing a leak. Or something else besides. You have a line of this kind of duplicate narrative running from The Beatles through to Dave Chapelle. It could be another smoke-and-mirrors psyop, masking what is really going on. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that Donald Campbell’s explanation for celebs and politicians’ prominent black eyes related to lurid tales of Vrill/aliens possessing them (soul scalping), in tandem with accounts of underground cloning centres/fight clubs. Currently, that has been supplanted by association of the black eye with adrenochrome – which, not dissimilarly to The Island, also promotes the elite cannibalising victims to sustain their youth and vitality.

Guard: You two, watch your proximity.

Then there’s the side of The Island that may represent predictive programming. It’s set in 2019 and concerns secretive and illegal activities that favour the elites. Those subjugated are required to maintain a safe distance from each other and fed lies about the dangers of their environment (the idea of global contamination “keeps them fearful of going outside”).

Lincoln: Why is everyone wearing white all the time?

Ultimately, though, The Island offers slim pickings. There’s some nice production design from Nigel Phelps (Bay didn’t like his big train, but the Coma-esque room where clones are indoctrinated with key words – “You have a very special purpose”; “I want to go the Island” – is memorable). Unfortunately, though, Bay’s frenetic style and Mauro Fiore’s complementary cinematography tend to avoid letting anything stand out. Sometimes such an approach can distract from the issues with plot, but in The Island’s case, it shows up that everything is pretty shallow.





Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

Other monks will meet their deaths here. And they too will have blackened fingers. And blackened tongues.

The Name of the Rose (1986) (SPOILERS) Umberto Eco wasn’t awfully impressed by Jean Jacques-Annaud’s adaptation of his novel – or “ palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel ” as the opening titles announce – to the extent that he nixed further movie versions of his work. Later, he amended that view, calling it “ a nice movie ”. He also, for balance, labelled The Name of the Rose his worst novel – “ I hate this book and I hope you hate it too ”. Essentially, he was begrudging its renown at the expense of his later “ superior ” novels. I didn’t hate the novel, although I do prefer the movie, probably because I saw it first and it was everything I wanted from a medieval Sherlock Holmes movie set in a monastery and devoted to forbidden books, knowledge and opinions.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.