Bring in the clones 

The Island's eerie ideas go out with a bang

Michael Bay, director of the most high-decibel, destruction-crazed movies in Hollywood, makes an unlikely member of the Culture of Life. In his sci-fi thriller The Island, the perpetrator of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor offers a metaphorical argument against cloning, stem cell and frozen embryo research.

The Island depicts innocent clones who are identical to normal humans but are created to be harvested for spare parts. Initially, The Island generates some skin-crawling paranoia, but ultimately Bay can't resist blowing stuff up, including the film's ideas.

In a closed-off, high-tech community, Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) stands out as a mildly rebellious member of a docile populace. Lincoln and his white-suited fellows, including platonic pal Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson), believe they belong to a lucky minority eligible for an enigmatic lottery. Winners get relocated to "the Island," Earth's last unspoiled paradise following global contamination.

Even more than Lincoln, the audience suspects that the Island is too good to be true. The black-garbed support staff refer to folks like Lincoln as "the products" behind their backs, and monitor them with Orwellian efficiency. The products have no knowledge of God or sex, have never seen children or infants, and can't even get close to each other.

Bay's eye for style over substance fits superbly with the Island's cold, monochromatic environment. For a while, the film feels like being caught in a sterile, controlled society scrubbed clean of human impulses. Lincoln's bad dreams prove unnervingly vivid, as do his eyewitness discoveries that the lottery "winners" only become involuntary organ donors. In one of the film's most chilling moments, we see a hairless adult clone "born" when technicians tear him from a fluid-filled body bag.

Lincoln and Jordan become fugitives outside the community, finding themselves not in a poisoned wasteland, but in the Nevada desert and then a mildly futuristic Los Angeles. But they might as well have escaped onto the set of Bad Boys 2. The Island's atmosphere of sleek suspicion gives way to dumb, aggressive action scenes.

The script's clever invention gives way to corny fish-out-of-water gags with the clones taking American slang too literally. Somehow, the childlike duo proves savvy enough to stay ahead of Djimon Hounsou and his heavily armed bounty hunters. A few Logan's Run-style chases would fit just fine here, but Bay turns the film into a numbing sequence of crashing cars, black helicopters, shattering glass and cliffhangers, including the heroes dangling from a giant letter R on a Los Angeles skyscraper.

The film forgets nearly all of its compelling ideas about social controls and the nature of humanity, although it provides some clever twists when Lincoln comes face to face with his "sponsor," also played by McGregor only with a Scottish accent.

The Island's premise resembles the plot of 1979's Parts: The Clonus Horror (one of the great titles in film history). It's worth bringing up the earlier, lesser flick for its darker, more powerful ending. During the social unrest of the 1960s and '70s, filmmakers offered genuinely apocalyptic visions, as if terrified that the entrenched power structure would destroy either the world or human nature. Grim climaxes, like the final moments of Planet of the Apes or Soylent Green, tried to jolt movie audiences from their complacency.

The Island proves more wishy-washy and inappropriately upbeat. It blames the evil system on a single powerful company, run by Sean Bean's sinister Merrick, and not the cruelty of the ruling class in general. (Merrick's wealthy clients don't realize that their replacement parts come from thinking, feeling individuals.) Any film that substitutes ethical debates for fistfights between characters transparently standing for good and bad clearly doesn't take big issues seriously. For at least an hour, though, The Island's eerie mood almost convinces us that Bay could be a serious filmmaker.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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