spoilers… this film embodies some of the definitive characteristics of a worthwhile hollywood film. many deride hollywood cinema as sweets for the masses – empty films without character, artistic merit or thoughtful plots. though i acknowledge the great deal of truth in this assessment, i think it’s a bit simplistic and elitist. first, what’s so wrong with film as pure entertainment? i enjoy decasia, koyaanisqatsi and un chien andalou as much as the next guy, but i also feel the need for a balance in my cinema; that’s where hollywood films find their worth. secondly, there are some fine examples (die hard, kill bill, matrix, terminator, etc.) of hollywood pictures that rise above the stereotype and actually combine “low” entertainment with “high” art. the island is one of those pictures. i don’t mean to group it in the same category as the aforementioned, but it’s a solid film with plenty of fodder for those in the audience who choose to reflect. i’m also not saying that the message, or questions raised, are as refined, cohesive or synthesized as something like foucault’s “discipline and punish,” but we are talking about a multi-million dollar film, so i think the standards should be adjusted accordingly.
the island takes place 15 years in the future (a bit too soon, if you ask me) where cloning has been perfected and turned into big business. johansson and mcgregor play clones secluded from our world in a compound that ensures the clones are in good health in case the original humans need a donor organ or the like. clones are spawned at the same age as the original human and are mentally unsophisticated as a result. essentially the clones are treated as products and the compound acts as a farm. in order to keep the clones under control a metanarrative is constructed. the details are murky, but essentially it involves an apocalyptic contamination which prevents the clones from wanting to leave the compound. sex and love aren’t taught to the clones, close personal contact is prohibited, and everyone is monitored at all times. when one of the clones leaves to provide their counterparts with an organ transplant the rest of the people in the compound are told that that person has won the lottery. when someone wins the lottery they supposedly go to an island free of contamination – it explains the person’s disappearance and gives the clones something to hope for. think thx-1138 and you’ll have an excellent idea of the atmosphere, both visually and psychologically. indeed, the entire film plays like a hybrid of thx-1138, the matrix, a clockwork orange and blade runner. one advantage is has over blade runner and thx-1138, though, is the presence of comic relief; that, and it’s not directed by george lucas, which is generally a good thing. i digress…
let me use that slight of lucas as a segue to my opinion of bay. i haven’t seen the bad boys films, but i have to admit that i enjoy the rock and armageddon for what they are. pearl harbor was syrupy and contrived. so, going into this picture, i wasn’t too sure what to expect. i know he can make a good picture and i know he can make a bad picture. also, i generally i don’t like johansson. she’s a decent enough actress and has the ability to be good looking, but her “best roles” have either left me uninspired (lost in translation) or uninterested (girl with a pearl earring, horse whisperer, love song for bobby long). in other words, i didn’t go into the picture with strong expectations in either direction.
philosophically it’s not as ripe as the matrix, but it certainly is ready to be intellectually harvested. right to life issues, the existence of a soul, nature vs. nurture, the issue of identity, politically implications of cloning technology, the nature of memory, etc. it’s the kind of film that you really should watch with someone. i liked that the island is initially portrayed as a desired location, like heaven. but as the film progresses the compound where the clones live turns out to be the true island; and in this sense it is an inversion of heaven and hell. the clones’ compound is like the garden of eden with the head scientist as god. but it’s inverted because god is evil and the clones are pure (remember, though they appear to be older, they’re only 2-3 years old in most cases). what makes it even better is the message that curiosity (traditionally seen as sinful – pandora, “curiosity killed the cat,” the garden of eden story, etc.) is something to be embraced – it ends up setting mcgregor and johansson free.
late in the film ewan mcgregor confronts his outside version and there’s a standoff between the two of them and the person hired (played by Djimon Hounsou) to contain the mcgregor/johansson escape. ewan vs. ewan had me thinking about the nature of identity. each version competes to convince hounsou that he is the real version of mcgregor’s character. we live in a world where the original has essentially lost its worth. every cd is equally important. with paintings we still value the original, but more and more we value the copy as much as the original because there isn’t any practical difference between the two. will this trend continue to the point where a human clone has the same value as the original? if so, what’s wrong with that? equal, but different? questions for the ages, but the interesting thing is that the film lends itself to these questions and interpretations – something many blockbusters don’t do.
the minor stuff: the set design was quite good and the special effects were transparent. i didn’t like the large number of product placements (from beer to cars to video game platforms to credit cards), but i guess that’s what i meant when i said that this film embodies the definitive characteristics of a hollywood film.
when i watch a film i ask to be entertained, educated or otherwise moved on some level. when i watch a hollywood film i expect to be only entertained. occasionally a film like this comes along which has characters i can sympathize with (hounsou, mcgregor and johansson), an engaging plot, a message, the potential for intellectual readings, some comic relief (not completely reliant upon buscemi, by the way), and solid technical attributes. sure it’s derivative at times and a little too long, but, from what i’ve seen, this is the best film of the year.Watched in theater