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Filmmaker Michael Bay is well aware that his films are pretty much loathed, detested, and reviled by most film critics. And when a movie is loathed, detested, and reviled by a whole lot of film critics, that generally means that the movie at hand, well, it probably sucks. But don't tell that to the teeming throngs of multiplex monkeys, because Bay's last three efforts (Bad Boys 2, Pearl Harbor, Armageddon) were huge moneymakers all across the globe. Yes, Michael Bay knows full well what the film critics think of his films -- and it's obvious he couldn't care less. But after enjoying the hell out of The Island (despite its solid catalog of flaws) I'm beginning to think the guy just might be on the lookout for a few brownie points.
You name it, sci-fi wise, and it's bound to be found in The Island: Blade Runner, Gattaca, Minority Report, Logan's Run, The Matrix, Coma, hell, even the 1970s obscurity known (to a few of us) as Parts: The Clonus Horror is picked clean and gussied up for a modern audience. There's not a whole lot in The Island that's entirely new or even remotely unique ... which helps to give Bay's latest flick a "greatest hits" sort of vibe. And, like they say, if you're going to steal, you might as well steal from the best.
The Island is about an underground colony full of clones, "replacement part" humans owned by millionaires on the outside. The clone population is blissfully unaware of their social status, and from the moment they're created these poor souls have little to look forward to -- outside of winning "the lottery" and being rewarded with a trip to "the island." I'll spoil the plot no further, but any astute movie geek who's seen the film's trailer can probably tell you what "the island" represents, and let's just say it doesn't involve Jeff Probst, Gilligan or Mr. Rourke.
Ewan McGregor plays Lincoln Six Echo, the only clone who dreams of a world outside of the pristine and gleaming colony. And when the shocking truth about his life and lineage come to light, Lincoln grabs a hold of his favorite lady clone (Scarlett Johansson) and hightails it into the "real world" as a gang of manhunting mercenaries give feverish chase.
And that's pretty much the long and the short of The Island, although there are several deft and surprisingly clever touches along the way. It might not be brain surgery (heck, it's hardly even a tonsillectomy), but I say Bay deserves points for trying something grander and more thought-provoking than the merciless brain-rape that was Bad Boys 2. The Island truly is a movie of three distinct and clearly delineated acts. Act I is pure sci-fi stew, with lots of shiny settings, lofty concepts, and gee-whiz gizmos. Act II is pure chase, escape, and more chase. Act III is kind of a mess, as if Mr. Bay wasn't exactly sure how to marry the slick sci-fi stuff to his overpoweringly kinetic action material, and so the movie just sort of wanders toward a conclusion that's quietly satisfying at the same time it's predictably simple-minded.
But for most of The Island's 130 minutes, it's just a helluva fun ride. (And this is coming from a guy who considers Bad Boys 2 and Pearl Harbor two of the very worst Hollywood movies of the past ten years.) It almost seems as if Bay took an early shine to directing something with half a brain, and then just decided, about halfway through, to re-focus on what he likes best: huge, illogicalal, and hyper-kinetic mayhem of the craziest sort -- and if it weren't for his hard-working and consistently excellent pair of lead performers, I'd be calling The Island "a great opening hour followed by a quick descent into helpless mediocrity."
One thing I cannot overlook is the overwhelmingly obnoxious number of blatant product placements. Practically every ten minutes sees the introduction of a new brand, from Xbox to Puma to Aquafina to MSN -- and about a dozen more in between. It's almost like Bay and his synergy-loving producers were hell-bent on pissing off even those audience members who were enjoying the movie, just so long as the corporate sponsors are kept happy.
But if I can sit here and gripe about plot holes, product placement, and a hearty handful of other speed bumps, and still give The Island a solid 4 (out of 5) stars, that's gotta tell you something about the good stuff. From the borrowed-yet-still-fascinating sci-fi material to the huge and dazzling action scenes, taking into account the superlative work from McGregor and Johansson, and including the "quieter" moments that Bay allows to patiently percolate -- The Island is a damn good bit of fun. And call it "damning with faint praise" if you like, but The Island, clearly visible warts and all, is easily the best film of Michael Bay's career.
Video: I've heard a few complaints about this anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1) transfer ... but I just don't see the flaws. True that much of the flick has a bleached-out or over-saturated color palette, and Bay sure does like to monkey around with his lenses, but as a guy who saw The Island twice during its theatrical run, I think the DVD transfer is pretty damn excellent.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround only, which sounds perfectly raucous and chaotic, but if ever there were a flick that screamed for an ass-kickin' DTS track, it's The Island. Optional subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.
Extras: Even as a big fan of the movie I cannot honestly recommend the Michael Bay audio commentary all that much. The guy seems more than a little smug and self-adoring, and his comments focus mainly on the technical side of the equation. Frequent gaps in the chat-track indicate that a second participant would have been very welcome indeed. As an Island supporter I enjoyed a few of the anecdotes and insights, but this is hardly an A-level commentary track. Also included is a 15-minute featurette called The Future in Action, which focuses mainly on the action & FX side of the production. Certainly better than a fluffy EPK piece, but hardly one of the most revolutionary featurettes you'll ever see.
Extras-wise, that's it. One suspects that DreamWorks plans to do a big, swanky Special Edition sometime down the road, but considering how the movie did in its domestic release ... I wouldn't hold my breath.
If I'm allowed to haul back and textually savage the guy who subjected me to the ceaseless visual filth that is Bad Boys 2, I think it's only fair to dole out the praise when the same filmmaker manages to keep me entertained for two hours.
The Island is sketchy and messy on several levels, but it's also plain ol' escapist fare that boasts a lot of zing, two characters you'll actually care about, and just enough of a brain to keep me you being insulted. I may end up being among the minority when all's said and done, but The Island simply worked for me, and at times it worked supremely well.
Portions of this review reprinted from my theatrical review at HBS.com.