Looking back at Michael Bay’s The Island

2005’s The Island was a rare box office misfire for director Michael Bay, despite the star presence of Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson. Ryan looks back at Bay’s sci-fi dystopia…

Few directors are as adept at blowing things up as Michael Bay. Just look back over his back catalogue: Bad Boys. The Rock. Armageddon. Pearl Harbor. Every single one contains at least one gigantic explosion.

Over the past 15 years, Bay has steadily honed his talent for filming destruction on a vast scale, culminating in last year’s Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen, in which Egypt is flattened by giant robots.

More comfortable with conveying big screen spectacles than human interest, Michael Bay’s one attempt at a slightly more nuanced film, the wartime romance, Pearl Harbor, was widely derided.

In 2005, meanwhile, Bay attempted something a little different. A dystopian sci-fi starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson, The Island was a world away from the gung-ho action of his last foray into the genre, Armageddon.

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It’s 2019, and in an eerily sterile underground facility, Lincoln Six Echo (McGregor) and hundreds of other inhabitants live a dull but safe existence, sealed off from an outside world apparently ravaged by a deadly virus.

Gradually, Lincoln realises that not everything is as it seems. Far from lucky survivors, the facility’s inhabitants are little more than cattle, artificially grown in sacs of goo and later harvested for their organs.

Grown to order for ailing millionaires, the clones are the brainchild of Dr Merrick (Sean Bean, who just about keeps a lid on his broad northern accent), and referred to as “products”.

Realising the truth, Lincoln and wide-eyed love interest Jordan (Johansson) escape to the real world, and with the help of lowly worker James (Steve Buscemi), attempt to track down the human doppelgangers who commissioned them.

For the first hour, Bay is remarkably restrained, with the usual stylistic excesses associated with his direction kept to a minimum. Merrick’s futuristic facility is a spookily quiet place filled with mysteries, gradually unfolding at a measured pace.

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And when Lincoln discovers the cruel truth behind his existence, it’s surprisingly effective. One scene in particular, in which a woman has her newborn baby heartlessly torn away from her, before she’s mercilessly subjected to a lethal injection, is possibly the most powerful, unexpectedly disturbing moment in any Michael Bay film.

For close followers of the sci-fi genre, Lincoln’s revelation will come as little surprise. The Island‘s plot is strikingly similar to the low budget 1976 film Parts: The Clonus Horror (so similar, in fact, that the makers of Parts apparently filed for copyright infringement, which DreamWorks later settled out of court).

Comparisons have also been made with Logan’s Run, Michael Marshall Smith’s 1996 novel, Spares, and Philip K. Dick’s The Penultimate Truth, which all appear to have inspired the writers of The Island.

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Derivative though it is, the first half of The Island is nevertheless well constructed. It’s when Lincoln and Jordan make their escape that Michael Bay’s more familiar directing style resurfaces, and his film clicks over into summer blockbuster territory.

Pursued by a group of mercenaries hired by Merrick, The Island devolves into a long, tedious chase sequence. Vehicles are crashed, buildings damaged and, having resisted for almost 90 minutes, Bay finally unleashes one of his trademark huge explosions.

The pregnant air of pessimism set up in the film’s first half gradually deflates, and The Island ends on an unequivocally happy note, as Merrick is punished for his evil abuse of science, and the subjects of his cloning are set free in a cheesy sequence that recreates Saatchi & Saatchi’s 1989 ‘face’ commercial for British Airways.

In fact, there are many parts of The Island that look distractingly like an extended TV advert. The opening dream sequence, in which McGregor and Johansson lounge around on the deck of a futuristic luxury yacht, looks like the promotional footage for an expensive brand of perfume.

Then there’s the product placement. In the future, it seems, every citizen in Los Angeles will drive a Chrysler, and the evil Dr Merrick is thoughtful enough to provide his army of clones with a well-known brand of trainers.

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Despite these distractions, there are isolated moments in The Island that almost achieve greatness. The baby stealing sequence mentioned earlier, and a scene in which Michael Clarke Duncan attempts to escape from an invasive operation, only to be dragged screaming back into the theatre, are startling in their cruelty.

A moment where McGregor’s character has a swarm of tiny robots invade his eye is also a memorable one, though it’s likely that, if handled by a director like David Cronenberg, it could have been far more unsettling than it is.

And this, sadly, is movie’s greatest stumbling block. Whether due to the interference of studio bosses desperate for plenty of crowd-pleasing action, or due to Bay’s lack of interest in directing a measured sci-fi feature free from mass destruction, The Island fails to hang together as a satisfying whole.

It’s not difficult to imagine an alternate version of The Island, where the intrigue and tension of the first hour or so is maintained right to the end, and where the poignant struggle of its child-like characters is more full explored.

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Instead, The Island‘s potentially fascinating themes of individuality, and the moral responsibilities of science are cast aside for yet more of Bay’s stylised camerawork, car chases, and gigantic explosions.