(The Return of) BnB Shame #10: The Island (2005)

Ever thought about putting your house up for and AirBnB? If so, did you ever give a thought to the judgment potential renters might give you from your DVD collection? You don’t know how it got there. Maybe it was a gift. Maybe you got it at a 3 for $5 sale at Wal-Mart. Or, perhaps worst of all, maybe you actually like it. Welcome to “BnB Shame”.

Welcome, all! BnB Shame is back again! With us still generally staying away from the theaters… and bed and breakfasts… now’s a great time to check up on the depths of our DVD cabinets or the forsaken dregs of the streaming library.

So how do you end up on… The Island?

In a strange and twisted but absolutely predictable way, the voyage to The Island begins at a port of call known as Mystery Science Theater. One night I had settled in to watch the episode on Parts: The Clonus Horror. It was one of the many I hadn’t seen it before, though I was aware of it by reputation. My wife had turned to me and said, “Why are they making fun of this movie? It’s pretty good.”

I agree. Parts has a great concept at its core. There’s a seemingly idyllic society where everyone seems generally cheerful. After some rigorous training, they’re given the promise to go to some far off place called “America.”

Then one day, one of the participants discovers to his (clonus) horror that they’re all clones, and they’re being bred for spare parts. I had considered putting up a spoiler alert for that line, but the words “parts”, “clonus”, and “horror” are all literally in the title. The concept is solid. However, by the end of the film, my wife was firmly on the side of the Best Brains. This film needed to be mocked. And it was almost entirely by how bleak the ending was.

So here’s the solution: what if we could get that bad taste out? Could there be Parts: The Clonus Horror… but with a happy ending?

Enter… The Island.

So The Island is so similar that the makers of Parts: The Clonus Horror sued over copyright infringement. The presiding court agreed that the case could proceed to trial, yadda yadda yadda, DreamWorks settled the case for an seven figure deal. Having seen both, I have to agree. There are a lot of plot elements that are similar to both. The male and female protagonists becoming close and that triggers red flags among the powers that be. The location of the clone facility in the middle of the desert. The president having a clone. The makers of Parts had a list of over a hundred similarities between the two films. They might as well have filed off the “America” portion of the movie and replaced it with a more vague “The Island.”

Who to blame? Director Michael Bay? Screenwriter Caspian Treadwell-Owen? Steven Spielberg? Signs point to Jeffrey Katzenberg, who Parts director Robert S. Fiveson claims was at the 1979 screening. Katzenberg is pretty much one of the most hatable men in Hollywood, so it’s not hard to pin this all on him.

With that out of the way, I think this may be Michael Bay’s best film.

First off, there are some surprisingly great performances. Ewan McGregor plays a curious, distrusting hero who has the mental capacity of a grade schooler. He also has the unflappability of a Jedi Knight. Then, later, he pulls double duty by playing a second character: the man he was cloned from — a smarmy, devious rich guy who had a strong Scottish accent and loves motorcycles just like the real life Ewan McGregor. Here’s the thing: I totally bought them as two different characters.

Scarlett Johansson, meanwhile, gets to play that rarest of Michael Bay characters: a compelling female lead. That’s all credit to Johansson, by the way. The role is a pretty standard damsel in distress, with Johansson giving the role more soul than it deserves.

Most compelling, though, may be the side characters. Steve Buscemi plays a character who’s generally sympathetic. He plays a custodian who smuggles in some items from the real world and shares a drink with McGregor. He is in a morally compromised position. Unlike Dr. Merrick, the man who runs the facility (played by Sean Bean), he does, in his own way, see the clones as people and not as property. At the same time, he’s a working man. He can’t speak up if he plans to keep his job. His dilemma is painfully real.

The best character, though, may be the late Micheal Clarke Duncan. He can pull off a sort of puppy dog demeanor that makes you want to cry for him with just one glance. He’s only on screen for a few minutes, but he makes all those moments count. You see his elation for being chosen to finally go to “the island” and his sheer terror when he realizes what’s been real going on. He efficiency establishes the horror at the center of the film.

Djimon Honsou is also in this film as a Black Ops soldier, but it’s honestly not his best role. He’s basically doing the “cameo appearance from the Fast & Furious movie” energy in here.

The paranoid nature of the film are also directly in the wheelhouse of the two other screenwriters: notable conspiracy nuts Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. While I hate, hate, hate it when they force their worldview onto beloved properties like Spider-Man and Star Trek, they are easily the right guys for a movie about people who are lied to every day about their purpose in life. They come to the same cynical conclusion about the mercenary nature of humanity as Fiveson did 36 years prior… only one was formulated in the aftermath of the Vietnam War while the other from the profiteers from the War on Terror. You want these guys to be wrong, but that would mean having to figure the entire last half-decade. The most harrowing difference: 1979’s Parts had far more faith in the integrity of the news media.

Another interesting element is the ethical dilemma. In one scene, Scarlett Johansson makes a phone call to the woman she was made a clone of. It turns out that she had been in a terrible car accident, and that she needed Johansson’s organs to survive. The person answering the phone is the child of the comatose woman.

It doesn’t change our idea of who’s in the right. We know from the onset that the clones are human. The people who approved of the program, though, may be in the dark. They’ve been told that the replacement organs are being grown, and the clones never gain any consciousness. While it’s easy to root for Scarlett Johansson, the woman who likely had no idea about the unethical origins of the product is doomed to die.

I have to tip my hat to Bay for including that scene. Everything else that happens is such a black-and-white in its presentation fo good versus evil. I mean… all the clones are wearing white togs while the bad guys are all decked out in black, for Pete’s sake. Sean Bean becomes a cackling villain, going full Nazi as he orders the “defective” clones to be sent to the gas chamber. Scottish Ewan McGregor condemns by implication all the cloning signatories by selfishly wanting his clone to return to the facility. This is even after the point that he realizes that his clone is sentient. Sure his death will be tragic, but how else are you going to guarantee replacement organs to harvest in two years time?

So when we’re confronted with a kid who will soon be without a mother because she is unable to get an organ transplant, it complicates matters a little.

The Island completely shifts gears halfway through when it stops being a sci-fi/conspiracy film and become… a Michael Bay film. That means EXPLOSIONS! CAR CHASES! SMASHING THROUGH THE SIDE OF A GLASS BUILDING AND HANGING OFF A GIANT COMPANY LOGO!

AND THEN WE DO IT ALL AGAIN! This is no joke. Just when you thought he car chase sequence was over, another one swiftly swoops in to take its place.

Roger Ebert’s review (three out of four stars) has a great quote on the matter:

“The Island” runs 136 minutes, but that’s not long for a double feature. The first half of Michael Bay’s new film is a spare, creepy science fiction parable, and then it shifts into a high-tech action picture. Both halves work. Whether they work together is a good question. The more you like one, the less you may like the other. I liked them both, up to a point, but the movie seemed a little too much like surf & turf.

The film becomes less compelling in one way, but more compelling in another: the last half becomes a test run for Bay’s Transformers films. IMDb says that certain unused scenes from The Island were re-used in a later Transformer film, and I believe it. And what can I say? Unlike a lot of special effects from the mid-2000’s, Bay’s actually holds up. It still confusingly paced, overly loud, and head-ache inducing.

I grew used to Bay’s style a long time ago, though. It’s got its own unique style, one honed from his years of directing commercial adverisements. Some of the shots are legitimately breathtaking, such as the crowds of white-suited clones streaming out into the desert as helicopters circle ahead. Bay’s teal and orange palette may have gotten overused in the 2000’s, but they’re not wrong about how it accentuates human skin tones. For those of you reading who are developing an essay on Michael Bay and the auteur theory, don’t sleep on The Island.

The more crowd pleasing ending was far more satisfactory to my wife, though it made less sense than the ending for Parts. I imagine given Kurtzman and Orci’s worldview, they would have opted for the same. Still, the realities of a summer blockbuster means you need to have the audience walk away and feeling good.

Although… The Island didn’t do all that well in theaters. It’s a bit of surprise since even Bay’s worst reviewed films usually do rather well. I suspect that the film was too high concept for general audiences. They can get on board with hot shot cops, an asteroid about to threaten the Earth, or transforming robots that feed on 80’s nostalgia. But a paranoid conspiracy where clones are raised to be harvested for their organs? Shoot, maybe they should’ve gotten Darren Aronofsky to direct for a far small budget.

In a way, though, this makes the film even more interesting: Michael Bay tacking a very 70’s sci-fi concept in that unmistakably maximalist style. The clones live in a closed off society where they’re led to believe the rest of the world is uninhabitable. So why is everything branded with Aquafina, Puma, and Xbox logos? Such is the curiously specific madness of Michael Bay.