Michael Bay is a piece of work.
— Michael Clarke Duncan
Boom boom boom. If you’ve seen the ubiquitous tv trailer for The Island, you already know that cars crash on a highway, buildings explode, and director Michael Bay thinks he’s made a great summer movie. And indeed, the thing is what it looks like — loud, fast, and fulsome, with very pretty, very athletic bodies in white jumpsuits running and leaping. What else do you need to know?
Not much, actually. With a storyline cobbled together from a dozen superior predecessors and an extensive product placement line-up (MSN, Puma, XBox, Aquafina, Cadillac, Ben & Jerry’s) that makes it appear 127 minutes of commercials, The Island seems a self-contained bit of blockbuster brilliance. It might be noteworthy that those white outfits are formfitted to a couple of stars who don’t usually toss themselves in front of fake explosions, Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson. They run around in an efficiently digitized near-future scary-scape, occasionally propelled by ethical questions about cloning. But in truth, none of this matters much. It’s a Michael Bay popcorn movie.
It’s 2019, and Lincoln Six Echo (McGregor) is disturbed by nightmares that run counter to his conditioned belief that the “island” is a paradise, the last unscathed location in a post-apocalyptic world. Waking in a sweat morning after morning, he goes to see the doctor, Merrick (Sean Bean), who oversees the facility where he and other Puma-track-suited compliants exist while awaiting their call to the island. The doctor tells him not to worry, but Merrick’s face reveals his dark duplicity. No one ever said a Michael Bay villain was hard to spot.
For the moment, Lincoln and his best friend/virtual games opponent Jordan Two Delta (Johansson) go along with the regimen. He occasionally rebels by trying to get around the diet designed specifically for his metabolism and hereditary proclivities, or sneaking visits with adorably gnarly McCord (Steve Buscemi), his buddy in an underground engineering area (typically drippy, mechanical, and shadowed). But he’s mostly complacent, thinking that he is “special,” just as he’s been programmed to think.
Soon enough, though, Lincoln discovers that his dreams have a basis in reality, or at least the reality proposed by this simplistic science fiction action flick. (What follows is not a spoiler if you’ve seen the film’s trailer.) Rather, he’s being haunted by “genetic memories,” because he and his community are all clones, paid for by wealthy people (politicians, businessmen, sports and entertainment stars) who plan to use the clones’ organs, genes, and even wombs in order to prolong or enhance their own, “original” lives. As the clones have lived sheltered, “special” lives, this news doesn’t exactly make sense for Lincoln (the emotionally stunted community members read at a first grade level, a plot detail that argues for pursuing an education).
As McCord patiently explains it to Lincoln and Jordan, “You’re not real, you’re not a real person like me, you’re copies of people out here in the world.” Their memories are generic implants, general story parts mixed and matched to seem “individual” (this is a short step beyond the personal memories bestowed on Philip Dick’s replicants some decades ago). Not incidentally, such story parts work like stereotypes, partly offensive, partly tedious, fully familiar (girls and boys are raised in the institute to accommodate someone’s tired idea of gender appropriateness). The deceptions multiply: Lincoln and Jordan discover the world beyond Merrick’s facility has not been destroyed when they escape (while being chased by scary dark-suited men with guns). They duly head to Los Angeles, land of lovely surfaces, via futuristic transport — hovering trains, designer cars, superswift motorbikes, and black helicopters — so the film can indulge in all manner of special-effected vehicular mayhem.
(And what comes next might be considered thematic spoilers, though you’ve likely posed these moral dilemmas for yourself already.)
This action is a result of Merrick’s desperation to keep his operation secret: it seems that the folks who purchased all these copies of themselves have been told the clones are persistently vegetative (“not human”), so any harvesting process might be understood as non-lethal. “We have a product on the loose!” exclaim the institute’s security forces, “With a female product in tow.” To ensure the products are recontained, Merrick hires a mercenary crew to hunt them down. Led by former Special Forces officer Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou), who predictably (especially if you’ve seen a Hounsou movie) comes to a particular, historically motivated understanding of breeding people for money. The other visible black man is a football star named Starkweather (Michael Clarke Duncan), or rather, his clone, whose vigorous resistance to harvesting surgery initially reveals the truth to an understandably horrified Lincoln.
The Island moves surprisingly slowly, considering the sheer volume of its action sequences. It also leaves hanging any number of ethical, scientific, or technological problems, getting by instead on some slick jokes about corporate and commercial excesses. That is, it makes the same sorts of observations made more dourly in the films from which it borrows ideas and images, including THX-1138, Blade Runner, Soylent Green, Coma, A.I., and The Matrix. It’s easy enough to target rich people like Lincoln’s original (a daredevil-for-money named Tom Lincoln) and arrogant sorts like Merrick (as McCord helpfully informs Lincoln, the doctor has a “God complex”), as the problem allowed by the technology then appears to be a matter of bad individuals, not broader cultural or political systems.
The more difficult dilemmas attending this plot are conveniently left out of such self-designated summer fun. When do clones “become” people? How are political and financial processes implicated in technological developments? How does money dictate individual and community access, comprehension, or desire for either? Why are so many of these clones Caucasian? Obviously, it’s not the business of The Island to address such questions. It is its business to showcase Jordan and Lincoln’s sometimes antic, sometimes frantic educations, as they learn how to run in slow motion, spend money on plastic, speed through traffic, and kiss in soft focus.