Sunday, December 11, 2005

Film Review - The Island

What draws audiences today to science-fiction thrillers set within the ‘not too distant’ future? Can it be the mystery, the intrigue, or the fear of the change that could potential swipe mankind into an alter environment we are unfamiliar with? Only in recent years has this particular genre in filmmaking been as successful as it seems to be for modern audiences. Total Recall, starring the now governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Back to the Future – Part II were the only ones to have crossed the one-hundred million dollar mark until Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, which debated whether it would be just for someone who was predicted to commit a murder at a particular time to be arrested and sentenced when they had committed no crime, rejuvenated the genre. Many, if not all, of the films set in the near future deal with issues that will likely never take place (for example, robots gaining a conscious mind and rising up in revolution against their human overlords), though they may certainly seem probable in one way or another. But Michael Bay’s first departure from producer partner Jerry Bruckheimer and the Walt Disney Company, which owns Touchstone Pictures, the production company which has distributed many of his films, will likely change that. Stem cell research is just one of many issues at the forefront of the national debate and it won’t be long until cloning, specifically with humans involved, is the topic of discussion at every breakfast table in the country. This is precisely the issue on which Bay’s film, The Island, touches upon.

The story for The Island, an invention of the minds of the creative writing duo behind J.J. Abram’s “Alias” television series on ABC and Paramount Pictures’ Mission: Impossible III, is without hesitation the most daring and trenchant concept to come down the box office pipeline in several years. Sadly, with all due respect to the courageous directives of Michael Bay and the creative team behind the speculative project, in a year of tired retreads and timidness on the part of studio executives unwilling to compensate the bottom line for the sake of creativity and originality, this may not speak profoundly toward audiences which is why it would not be all that surprising, albeit begrudgingly accepted, if this imaginative feature film were initially ignored. The Island’s premise is a mixture of the themes of two cautionary tales – humanity’s dangerous pursuit of knowledge through science and its unquenchable desire to conquer death, even to the point of usurping the role of God, seen in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus and the manipulative power of a totalitarian-like state such as the Institute to control the imaginations and emotional functions of its inhabitants, seemingly as George Orwell depicts in his science-fiction novel, 1984.

Ewan McGregor, fresh off the anticipated success of the final installment in the epic Star Wars film series, exemplifies magnificent chemistry with co-star Scarlett Johansson and offers up a wide range of emotions as his character Lincoln Six Echo goes from being a relatively content innocent to an unnerved transient doing whatever he can in order to stay alive. In a small way, minus of course the motivational killing spree set against his creator’s loved ones, Lincoln mirrors Victor Frankenstein’s monster in several ways. He remains essentially nameless in the movie, referred to only as if he were a product and not an actual human being. Lincoln simplistically examines the world around him with a childlike curiosity about him which matures as his knowledge of the world around him grows. And there exists in him upon escaping from The Institute the desire to bring destruction to his creator(s). Lincoln’s ability to question his existence and environment in which he lives demonstrates that no matter how advanced scientific technology becomes, the presence of God’s hand in our creation can not be entirely erased, as in The Institute’s need to retain the basic concept of ‘life’ for its products in order for them to remain functionally viable. Scarlett Johansson has more of a ‘laid back’ performance in the film in comparison to McGregor’s upfront action persona through a portion of the picture and since it fits exactly with the characteristics and situations of the individual characters in the story, it works well as it is. Her illuminating presence onscreen however can act as somewhat of detriment to her, particularly when others within the film comment about it. The first time a bystander compliments Johansson’s character on her looks, it is a bit amusing, more for her confused reaction then anything else, but as the joke is regurgitated at verbatim throughout the rest of the picture it becomes increasingly annoying. Okay, we get that she’s hot – let’s move on, shall we? Why continue stating the obvious?

Sean Bean is perfectly disquieting as Merrick, head of the Institute. Merrick is many ways directly parallels Victor Frankenstein from author Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel. His intentions on embarking on this venture of human cloning may very well have been for the right reasons (at least within his own mind); although there is no clear evidence from the film to directly support this theory. Sadly, as the old saying goes, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. The fact that he hires a band of mercenaries to capture the missing clones instead of sending his own men or notifying the Defense Department demonstrates his inability to take responsibility for his creations when the tide turns against him and in the process more lives were lost and damage created then was necessary. With much arrogance he views himself as God on Earth, fiddling with forces he does not quite comprehend and has little, if any, control over (evident through the Echo-line’s retention of the human curiosity characteristic), able to renounce his creations on a whim only to have them turn against their creator.

Michael Clarke Duncan as the clone of famous national football player Starkweather is quite possibly the most disappointing aspect of the film’s cast. This has nothing to do however with his performance, which in fact was quite genuine, but rather it had more to do with the amount of time onscreen. For as relatively famous as Michael Clarke Duncan is, this seems too small of a part for him to usually accept and may have worked just as effectively with a lesser known actor. The clone’s sole purpose is to act as an insurance policy to its client. In this case, he provides a healthy liver to Starkweather who no doubt has rotted his away through excessive drinking and partying in light of his football fame, though no reason is given with the film’s storyline. The scene in which surgeons begin to open up his chest to remove the liver when he regains consciousness and attempts to force his way out of the operating room only to be dragged back to his death is positively gut-wrenching to witness as it should be.

Overall, The Island firmly stands as director Michael Bay’s most enterprising, proficient, and poignant project to date, which, as far as his detractors in the media and throughout Hollywood are concerned, may not be saying all that much. Though the Hollywood foreign press may be unwilling to accept it, The Island should speak volumes to studio executives across the state of California. In a year in which we have borne witness to increasingly declining box office sales as Hollywood continues to senselessly flood the marketplace with vapid sequels and fortuitous remakes, director Michael Bay’s exposition on the issue of human cloning and how science, albeit beneficial in the long run for society, has its moral limits stands out as the season’s sole originative piece. What is truly unique about The Island is that it sets itself apart from a box office entirely devoid of controversy, as opposed to last year when The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 dominated the political headlines for months, the science-fiction thriller numerous issues and/or concerns that currently stand on the forefront of the nation’s pitched political battlefield. While decidedly the moral implications involved with the concept of human cloning for the purposes of extending life is the main focal point of the picture, The Island also raises questions, albeit indirectly, pertaining to the extent stem-cell research can or should be taken in order to preserve human life. Abortion and genocide are additional underlying issues present in a scene in which the remaining Echo-line of clones are decimated near the end of the movie. Totalitarianism and fascism are also highlighted briefly and there can even be distinguishable hints referencing Communism and Nazism with one scene in particular near the end of the film that is eerily reminiscent of the Holocaust. Will audiences likely notice these themes on their own, let alone care about them? Sadly, no, as many will likely be expecting mindless action-packed entertainment from director Michael Bay. Unfortunately it seems as though The Island, easily this year’s most innovative and startling motion-picture event, will likely go unnoticed by a majority of mainstream American audiences.

My Rating: ***** out of 5 (Grade: A+)