The sci-fi adventure The Island (2005) raises troubling philosophical questions that continue to divide our nation, namely: Is Michael Bay a talented filmmaker or a hack? Mr. Bay is, of course, the most successful and distinctive director (other than Tony Scott) to come out of Jerry Bruckheimer's over-the-top action factory. He's gifted us with The Rock, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, the Bad Boys pictures, and this one camera move that swoops around a character while they're standing up. He's famous for pushing Eisenstein's montage theory well past the point of singularity editing his action scenes so rapidly that geography and coherence become well, they just become sort of pesky. Among film snobs, the easiest thing in the world is to dismiss Bay as a smirking frat-boy lobotomizing moviegoers one overedited, sun-dappled shot at a time. But may we dare to declare the man's work a "guilty pleasure"? May we note that his peculiar, idiot-Americana aesthetic is consistently applied? That he almost always gets funny performances out of grade-A supporting actors, especially Steve Buscemi? That he sets out to do nothing but create corny, violent, ludicrous, sentimental action fluff (and yes, this includes Pearl Harbor)? And that, in fact, he's pretty damn good at it, as far as that sort of filmmaking goes? All of which brings us back to The Island which manages to be simultaneously the best and worst film of Mr. Bay's career. For its first third, it actually sets up an intriguing premise, as long as you don't sweat the details too hard: Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) is a jumpsuit-wearing inmate at a sort of fascist health spa that houses the last living humans after a global plague. The place is nothing so much as a wicked spoof of L.A. values people are forced to work out, drink Aquafina and veggie cocktails, and suffer perpetual health screenings, and they're only educated to the level of a 15-year-old (perhaps not coincidentally, the age of the ideal Bay audience member). It's a big high school, basically, and periodically, a lottery is held to send a lucky inmate to "The Island nature's last pathogen-free zone." It's like THX 1138 by way of a Pilates class, and it's surprisingly sharply sketched. But Lincoln also has a 15-year-old's rebellious streak, and he's plagued by nightmares so beautifully shot they might as well be Ban du Soleil ads. And so of course he coincidentally finds out that the lottery's not all it's cracked up to be, and thus flees the facility with the young woman he chastely adores (Scarlett Johansson).
* * *
There's no point in spoiling the surprise even if the film's advertising campaign does a good job of it but suffice it to say that whereas many sci-fi filmmakers would follow the tradition of '70s lowbrow sci-fi and make revealing The Island's secret the climax of the story, Bay uses it as an excuse to stage an hour's worth of cool chases with concept cars and jet cycles. He also drops blatant references to Total Recall, The Matrix, Blade Runner, Logan's Run, Coma, North by Northwest, classic "Star Trek," and even Heat. For about two-thirds of the film, this works beautifully. Bay has a knack for creating a sort of hilariously slick Rolex futurism why of course, in the future, with fuel undoubtedly overpriced and scarce, people will drive V12 Cadillacs and sail in gigantic, angular cigarette boats! A central chase with jet bikes, people falling off buildings, and cars smashed and flipped by giant train axles is outrageously fun. And there's strong supporting work by Buscemi as "the guy who tells kids there's no Santa Claus" and Djimon Hounsou as the sleek, conflicted mercenary chasing McGregor and Johansson (although, after half an hour of blowing up half a city and yelling "Go go go!" at his underlings, it's inadvertently hilarious when Hounsou tells one of his thugs to "do this quietly.") Unfortunately, in the final third, after Lincoln confronts his own darker self (after a fashion), The Island profoundly loses its footing. Our heroes return to their prison to confront their former keeper (Sean Bean), and it's idiotically overblown, ill-advised, and anticlimactic, forcing the audience to consider the story's empty profundity and loose ends including one pointless subplot about Lincoln's cellular memory, plus a conversation between Bean and Hounsou that dares to suggest that The Island is metaphorically exploring the ethics of stem-cell research. Uh, okay. It's all finally too chaotic and silly to keep our disbelief suspended, and it undermines the not-entirely-dull satire of the picture's opening third and the hypercaffeinated fun of its middle. DreamWorks' DVD release of The Island features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with an ample Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix. Michael Bay offers a commentary track which includes several long pauses and a fair amount of self-serving anecdotes while the only other extra is the behind-the-scenes featurette "The Future in Action" (15 min.). Keep-case.