RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 33: Michael Bay’s “The Island” (2005)


The Players…

Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson (here she is again; the girl’s résumé is seeing more holes than a Castro District Taco Bell), Sean Bean, Djimon Honsou and Ethan Phillips, with Michael Clarke Duncan and Steve Buscemi.

The Story…

Everyday is a good day at The Institute. Lincoln 6 Echo has everything provided for him: virtual sunshine, palatable food, tepid friends and a burning need to understand why the f*ck for?!? His supervisors feel his endless questioning might be a sign of mental defect. Then again, no one has ever argued that insanity was ever caused by exposure to a matchbook underneath the umbrella of The Institute. Then again, is seeking escape—and possible freedom—really all that crazy?

The Rant…

Holeeeeey sh*t. He’s actually covering a Michael Bay movie. Fasten your seatbelts.

You’re probably wondering why it took so long to get around to dissecting a movie by one of the industry’s most notorious schlockmeisters. Well cuz under The Standard, a movie had to have a tepid turnout at the box office and a “don’t believe the hype” rep. Bay’s films don’t usually have that. In fact, they clean up most of the time and people squeal about how fun they are.

The Island is the landmark exception that proves the rule.

Look. I’ve been around long enough to know that Bay’s oeuvre obeys a muse designed solely to entertain. She disregards good acting, coherent plot and any sort of pathos in favor of fun, explosions, humor, explosions, drippy acting in the name of fun, more explosions and—what the hell—defying the laws of physics and general common sense to bring us, what, more explosions? No. Making Martin Lawrence an action hero, that’s what’s up.

It’s easy to beat up on Bay. His craft is obvious popcorn fodder. There’s no cinematic merit in his CV. None of his movies are expected nor designed to win awards (barring for F/X or audio). His crap’s supposed to be FUN! And fun with a capital ‘F’ seems to be sorely lacking in other movies according Bay’s philosophy.

He’s right though! Movies are supposed to be, above all and end all, fun! So why does this former music video director (when, if you think about it, who’s more shrewd about action shots that an MTV svengali) get such a bad rap for trying to drum up a little fun?

Because he does it a dumb way. His movies pander to the audiences’ basal wants and eliminate the need to think. No real surprise there. And if his core audience starts to think about what they’re watching, Bay’s checkbook is gonna get limp. Fast. I’d like to believe that most movie directors care equally about their cinematic vision and how the audience would receive it; a give and take, if you will. Not Bay. There’s a general sense of a “make it big, make it loud, lather, rinse, repeat” formula to his movies. That and a healthy, crossed-finger hopefulness that we’ll just throw out the kitchen sink and hope it sticks. Most of the time, honestly, his theory works…for a little while.

The big problem with Bay’s movies, I think is that they don’t let you really feel anything. They’re like chugging six cans of Red Bull, a fleeting rush of stimulus. I’ve never heard of Bay’s movies leaving a lasting impression, or at least a positive one. Unlike, say, James Cameron’s movies of similar spectacle—despite all their bombast—they possess a degree of economy and earnest drama that Bay’s disposable extravaganzas decidedly lack (I consider Cameron as “the thinking man’s Michael Bay”). There’s a reason why people still revere the original Terminator and Aliens; they are memorable for their straightforward, no-nonsense action, simple but nuanced stories and all tempered with humor and human drama. In a word: subtlety, an adjective either Bay doesn’t know the definition of, or chooses not to. Seeing a Michael Bay movie is a lot like cheap sex: it feels good while you’re there, and you might talk about your conquest in a crude way (usually while drunk in bar) the next day, but it eventually slips out of your mind. Until the frantic phone calls come six weeks later.

Kidding. But really, from everyone I spoke to about him or her seeing a Bay film, most say “Eh” after a while. Not outright complaining or resentment, just resignation to, “Yeah. I saw it. Pass the salt.” I used the first Transformers movie here as an example once. A lot of my friends who saw it (and their tastes are varied as there are waves on the ocean) thought it was great. For a while. Then they began to pick it apart in conversation. Oops. They went and stepped back and thought about it. And got ever more scrupulous when the inevitable, ever-limping sequels were released. The law of diminishing returns was put into effect. Nowadays, no one really talks about the movies anymore (even Bay, who in a rare display of humility, traded off responsibility for Age of Extinction to someone else). What is remembered is a bad taste in the mouth. Granted I base this on a small sample of people, but when every one of them has more gripes than not of a particular film—or director—it gets me to wondering.

Let’s recall The Standard. The Island is Bay’s first potboiler that tanked straight outta the box office. A needful first. It got lousy reviews—even more so than those of snobby critics—a poor turnout here in the US (it fared better overseas, and probably recouped a lot in video sales; I did rent the thing after all, but this was in the name of a PSA. You’re welcome.), and probably worst of all it tarnished Bay’s reputation.


“But he already had a lousy reputation!” one might cry. To which you may reply, “Shut up, Dad!” But Dad’s right. It’s an open f*cking secret Bay’s output is trans-fat movie goodness. But it makes money. The Island didn’t. When big budget movies don’t make big money, Hollywood gets nervous. The producers get nervous. Bay’s Loki, Jerry Bruckheimer gets nervous, and might get an idea of cutting his losses and steer his eyes towards the next…well, let’s face it, the next Michael Bay.

Hollywood has dozens of such loss leaders like Bay. Such are disposable. Remember Andrew “Under Siege and The Fugitive” Davies? Neither does the 21st Century, despite the millions he made. Bay is a tent pole director. When the summer season seems bleak, give Bay some willing talking heads, a malleable script and a lot of napalm and BAM! Blockbuster gold. He has a gift, such as even sometimes I cannot deny. But it’s fleeting, like staring a campfire with scraps of bark. Lots of smoke, not heat. Gotta splash on some gasoline, and it burns for a little while longer.

Anyway, off to The Island. Told you to fasten something…

Lincoln (McGregor) has everything he ever could need. A clean apartment. A steady job. Food in the fridge. Fresh sheets. Even a best buddy. Everything. Everything The Institute can provide. But that’s not enough.

Lincoln’s utopian world is lacking something. Life. All is routine and schedules. Sure, he’s got three hots and a cot, but something is missing. That and he does not really feel at home at The Institute, with all its rules and regs. There must be a better life than this, a better world to explore, something more.

Then again, there’s the Lottery. And what’s up with this Lottery?

Ah, yes, that. The big ticket out of The Institute and onto The Island, a virtual paradise free of any infection than the corruption of Nature could imbue. Yes, to Lincoln, that’s the place to go; all questions will be answered there. Right? At least that’s what his supervisor, Dr. Merrick (Bean) assures him.

But Lincoln learns that all is not the land of milk and honey that The Island claims to provide, with its supposed comfort and succor. In fact it is an illusion, a prison of the mind, and Lincoln will have none of that. So he runs. He absconds with the latest Lottery winner Jordan (Johansson) in high pursuit of…what? Answers? Freedom? A real life?

Even Lincoln doesn’t know. All he knows now is to run, run as far as he can away from The Island…

Despite my screeds and my purple prose, I am not a movie snob. Really, I assure you. Excepting the annual February red carpet calling call, I simply like movies as is, awards not only withstanding, but ignored. I actually have enjoyed a few of Bay’s movies. Again, a few. I found Armageddon a great popcorn film, starring stalwart, reluctant action star Bruce Willis and pleasing character actor Billy Bob Thornton (did you know that was his first big role after Sling Blade? Neither did I). I also dug The Rock big time. C’mon. It starred Nic Cage, Ed Harris and Sean Connery! A bountiful trifecta if there ever was one!

Regarding Armageddon, I’m a sucker for any movie about outer space travel, be it drooling nonsense with Owen Wilson as comic relief, the fantasy a la Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or the adapted historical fiction like Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff. In simpler words, I’m all about big concepts, and Bay has used those in spades. I’m not so shy to deny spectacle like other movie-going esthetes, be it BIG or subtle. But like with most of the aforementioned titles, I need a little meat on my bones.

Most of Bay’s sh*t only has fat—chewy gristle rather, akin to my cheap, cheap sex line—and it gets pooped out faster than the THC colonic-rattled ass of mine can eject. But still, really, we need that once in a while. I’m not above such things. Dumb fun is still fun at the end of the day. The beef I have with this concept-in-practice, and Bay as a prime culprit, is that a fun movie should stick with you, like a delicious meal. Bay’s films only taste of popcorn, coated with that viscous slime known only as “butter-flavored topping.” It makes you fart a lot hours after consumption. Hours after consuming Bay’s popcorn, you would be farting too, only out of the mouth. Like I said, a year after Transformers release, no one was talking kindly much. Only farting gripes.

I have two big carps with The Island. One is purely about entertainment value, but I’ll save that for later. The other issue I take is that The Island is not original. Yeah, I know, I know. None of Bay’s scripts are. But this time I mean really not original, like the plot was lifted in full from another film, the original writers never credited. The guys who brought you Fringe wrote The Island. I’ll admit I’m a fan of that X-Files-meets-The Twilight Zone serial. I’ll also admit the show had so many plot holes one could drive a Mack truck through the first three seasons. Still, it was a goofy sci-fi lark that if you just went along for the ride, you’d get some entertainment. If it wasn’t for another cult show I wouldn’t have realized the plagiarism at work in The Island.

Back in the 90s there was this TV show called Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (MST3K for short). Perhaps you’ve heard of it. For the uniformed, MST3K was a show about comedy writers (okay, one writer and a bunch of puppets) mocking and heckling sh*tty B-movies with improv and wisecracks. Pretty simple device, got lots of laughs. One of the movies they skewered was a drippy sci-fi action flick called Parts: The Clonus Horror. The plot goes like this: we have a clandestine super-science lab where the men in white coats are growing human clones as livestock so to harvest their organs for their dying, super wealthy clientele. Of course the clones are ignorant of their design or fate. All they know is exercise and schooling, so that one day they may “graduate” and go to “America.” One clone happens upon a scrap of garbage that looks like no artifact found in the compound and starts asking questions. One question leads to another until the inevitable happens and the rogue clone escapes with his clone gal pal in search of their clients to expose the horrible truth.

Sound familiar?

Clonus was shot back in 1979, a quarter-century before The Island. It was a sh*tty movie then, and the recycled plot isn’t aging well. And Island writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci were rightly sued for their penning of this “original” script, causing mass chaos and legal action that drained the studio’s wallet.

Apart from but akin to the plagiarism, one thing in the world I truly detest is deception. Cruel, willful deception, that is. PT Barnum once said that the world wants to be deceived. I’m sure he meant that from an entertainer’s standpoint, furthering his business. With The Island, and others of its ilk, the producers were hoodwinking ignorant audiences into scamming their money. From a businessman’s standpoint. Like I’ve said before—in contrast to Barnum’s philosophy—I firmly believe that Hollywood assumes audiences are idiots; producers do their bread-and-circus thing and watch the disposable income burn up. Clonus was not a blockbuster, and next to no one has ever heard of it, let alone seen it (not even Kurtzman or Orci, allegedly), but to be so lazy and attach a lame stolen project to a usually reliable, sure-fire blockbuster filmmaker like Bay and just figure the unwashed masses would come in droves, ignorance notwithstanding—probably not ever caring—is incredibly cynical and callous. Tinsel Town just flipped the bird to Middle America and waited for the cash to roll in.

Only it didn’t.

The crowds were indifferent and/or befuddled by this lazy movie. Steven Spielberg had to sell off his benighted DreamWorks Studio to compensate for the film’s loss leader status. Kurtzman and Orci were sued. Bay’s already questionable status was reassessed. Much face was lost.

Barnum was also credited to claiming that no one ever went broke by investing in Americans’ ignorance, or something like that. Oops. Let’s hope some Hollywood fat cats learned a valuable lesson. Probably not, since this wasn’t the first time and won’t be the last time a debacle like this drops. Live and learn?

The main issue I take up with The Island is a simple one: the movie is dull. Now again, Bay’s films are never designed to be Academy Award winners. But at least The Rock, Armageddon and Transformers weren’t boring. The Island is simply one long chase scene that runs—so to speak—for over two mind-numbing hours. See Lincoln. See Jordan. See them run. Run, Linc, run! For over. Two. Hours. Me? I ran to the john three times just to move my legs and relieve myself, apropos of the running time. No pun intended there.

Okay, I’ll pull back on the rancor. I’ve already gone into overly great depth as what was wrong with The Island. Most movie snots draw straws to pick out which aspect of the chosen Bay movie was the worst. The matter is moot; we’re talking f*cking Bay here. Rememeber, do not think too much. Here, lemme show ya somthin’.

Just to shake it up some, here’s what I actually liked about the movie. Surprisngly, there was more to like about The Island that would usually be thrown to curb in most of Bay’s movies. Some stuff almost approached cinematic merit, and such merit is often kicked to the curb for Bay’s oeuvre. Most of the time.

First off, there are some nice visuals. The Institute has a definite 1984 or THX-1138 vibe here, all monochrome sterility and angles. Until it’s not. The Institute is in essence a farm, and we expect the livestock to be well cared for. But as we peel back layer after layer of levels and sublevels, the Institute’s sectors get grimier and grimier, the caretakers get less nice, the technology goes from background noise to hostile intrusion, all of it dwindles downward until Lincoln pops his head up into the Mojave. Thanks to the cinematography, all the sets here have a sense of openness, regardless of all the hustle and bustle within the Institute and later in downtown future LA. The world is just huge to Lincoln. It feels that way at home, too. It’s a nice metaphor. It’s an obvious one, but for Bay at least it’s direct.

Regarding being direct, I dare claim amid all the chasing, there were rather subdued touches, and (again) not very Bay. Some nuanced plotting is present, with allegory and further metaphor. This might’ve been one aspect that contributed to The Island’s box office pooch-screw. Bay’s audiences usually expect Bay films and all their obvious contrivances, fingerprints and pratfalls. Instead here, Bay was approaching a little depth; a message of sorts, and his vast flock puked such an aberration back down their throats. I’m not passing judgment; I base this claim against my reluctant Bay fanboys.

The Island in whole—despite or maybe because of its difficult origins—is a bare bones mash-up of campy 70s sci-fi dystopian movies, like Logan’s Run or…well, Clonus. This all might be unconscious homage, but it’s probably just rip-off. And Bay is ultimately a rip-off artist, but a very savvy one. He knows, if only on a vestigial level, he hacked into pulpy goodness circa late 70s/early 80s zeitgeist with The Island armed to the teeth with a 21st Century budget. After all, his is whole catalog is steeped in total—I mean total—suspension of belief. You gotta be in the right mindset to enjoy Bay’s films, with those delta-waves oozing freely through your brain. And what easier way is there to do this than drag the past moderate successes against a green screen? Correct. Add more explosions.

But then again…

Let’s just say Bay was just getting in touch with his inner 7-year old JJ Abrams, waxing nostalgic about those avocado and goldenrod hued space operas from the Carter administration. I think he might’ve took advantage of the studio money and made a film just for himself, for his pleasure. A tribute to those time-wasters just like Logan’s Run, THX-1138 or even Soylent Green. If that was the case, he was a genius. If that was the case. I don’t think the audience bit; the tally says so. Still, that’s something I considered while watching the movie, and I couldn’t help but muse over and made me crack a smile. For a nano with certain scenes, I approached feeling good—fun—about The Island. I actually began to suspend my belief and looked for what’s good with The Island.

Y’know what else I found good with The Island? The casting and the acting. Really. Barring Johansson’s usual oblivion, McGregor, Bean, Honsou and Buscemi all deliver solid, if not enjoyable roles. Especially our lead McGregor (in a double role!). From Renton to Lincoln, he’s always been a likeable bloke, with that million-dollar grin and rapier wit even with the low-lifes and scoundrels he plays. He never seems like a guy you couldn’t go out and have a pint with. The naïve that McGregor applies here to Lincoln is almost the only thing that advances the already razor-thin plot. His wide-eyed, “what the hell is going on?” attitude is on the mark. It’s only until the end of the movie that his acting out of character gets jarring, so for most of the film you can get behind him.

Sean Bean as Merrick is channeling a classic movie baddie: the mad scientist. Only this time, his ethics are warped by a force more sinister than madness: corporate greed. Merrick may be a scientist, but he’s got a business to run here first. The clones are not human, they are cattle. Where we see people Merrick sees hearts, livers, eyes and dollar signs. And he’s always gotta protect his overhead, that’s why he maintains the Institute as a clandestine, off the grid chopshop for the ludicrously rich cabal that need his unique services. Neither science nor service is Merrick’s honest motivation here. It’s his bank account, and very little is more distressing to a businessman worth billions at risk for losing said account. Remember all those very public financial bailouts in 2008? Right. Failed folks like Merrick could be searching for a way out, like with Eva in the bunker.

Steve Buscemi is naturally funny, regardless of his looks or his roles. Even when he tries to be scary (Fargo), silly (Airheads) or straight (Trees Lounge), he’s always comedic, and uses this to great advantage. In The Island, he’s the dues ex machina, more or less; he’s what propels Lincoln’s quest forward, as well as planting the initial seed. As always, Buscemi steals the scenes he’s in, and his rapscallion tech guy McCord is no exception. Yeah, he only gets a few scenes, but his hammy on screen time is precious, and probably the only honest comedy in the movie. The Island has a big balloon head to deflate, and Buscemi acts as the pin. (SPOILER) Too bad he gets waxed in the second act.

Now Honsou is a wild card. He’s best known for being the heavy. His characters are not exactly villains, but definitely toe the line. Here he’s a special ops guy, and essentially a dogcatcher armed with a flotilla of helicopters and a Hell’s Angels team of toughs sent out into the world to bring Lincoln and Jordan in. The same vapid blockhead operative he played in the dreadful Push gets a reprise here. But this time it works. Honsou can best be described in one word: suave. He can be smooth as well as earthy. In The Island, Honsou’s bounty hunter Laurent is charismatic despite being hard, and is the yin to Lincoln’s yang. Both characters are slow to learn what the Institute is all about, and their dichotomy adds a little undercurrent of tension in how the bland story plays out. You know, acting. No amount of explosives can correct an action movie’s threadbare plot than a little character depth can.

Of course, there’s gotta be a fly in the proverbial ointment. Not every role is well-played, and I’m focusing the lens on Johannson. Her non-acting style is rather amusing, and hard to tell if it’s deliberate or not. What’s funny about her nothingness is that it proved prescient from her breakthrough role in Lost in Translation. There it worked well, her as pawn, rudderless and innocent. It doesn’t translate well to action movies. Now granted, I never saw her act in The Avengers; I never caught the film (Again? With the beer cans? Come on), but her bit part as the future Black Widow in Iron Man 2 left me with a yawn, despite her well-choreographed kung fu moves. She’s not an action hero, there’s too little, well, action there. Don’t get ahead of me. There are plenty of cool female action heroes out there. Sigourney Weaver of the Alien franchise, Linda Hamilton as Terminator’s mother-of-the-future (Wait. Cameron again. Hmm). Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark and more recently, Carrie-Ann “Trinity” Moss of The Matrix fame and also Kate Beckinsdale of the pulpy Underworld series. Somehow Johansson’s pretty face is supposed to make up for her ultimate damsel-in-distress-disguised-as-sidekick schtick. It didn’t fool me, and since she’s so low-key, how the hell does she keep getting roles in action films? I thought a prereq was to be, y’know, active.

Oddly enough, the various tech flourishes with the reliable acting—a thing that usually assists in a movie’s success—were all present here, and should’ve made for a zippy pace. But The Island has got to be the slowest Michael Bay move I have ever seen. Again, that damned pacing. And yet, this tempo flaw might’ve been a strength. Although deliberate, the calculated sighs dispersed here and there allow the audience to breathe, if only to get choked again moments later. Maybe here, Bay was trying, however slightly, to inject a bit of philosophical musing to temper his stock-in-trade bravado. If this was an attempt at allegory, then good for him. If not (and it probably wasn’t), it was too bad his audience failed to follow the trail of crumbs. It felt like with The Island, Bay was trying to ape Cameron. It didn’t work. It had to have flow, with reliable breaths of pathos. Here they were sputtering. I’d like to believe that Bay tried.

I’d like to believe that.

So, what have we learned? First, don’t plagiarize. Second, don’t attach your plagiarism to a jillion dollar investment. Third, Bay’s films are chewing gum, and people like it that way. Fourth, people are stupid. Fifth, don’t let a hack, former Coca-Cola ad director play with nice things, even when he wears silk gloves. And finally, don’t let said director infamous for big budget ka-boom-o-fests try to stretch himself. Just let the guy blow sh*t up and not rock the Hollywood budget boat.

“Politeness and civility are the best capital ever invested in business. Large stores, gilt signs, flaming advertisements, will all prove unavailing if you or your employees treat your patrons abruptly. The truth is, the more kind and liberal a man is, the more generous will be the patronage bestowed upon him.”

Barnum again.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. The Island is boring, and—believe it or not—doesn’t have enough explosions. It’s a boring B-level sci-fi flick adapted to fit a big budget movie. And it’s not even an original boring big budget movie. Pass the salt.

Stray Observations…

  • “What kind of tests?” “Nice tests.” Bean at his most sinister.
  • Was Bay repaying a favor to Michael Clarke Duncan? He got star billing in the opening credits and was only on screen for, what, 8 minutes?
  • “God’s the guy that ignores you.”
  • I need a flask like McCord’s. I need one.
  • “At least you had a bike.”
  • Looks like in this future LA finally solved the mass transit issue.
  • “Educated to the level of a 15-year old.” Not unlike the typical Bay demographic. Zing!
  • What’s with all the signage? Is it something to do with finding one’s way? Bay was never much for subtleties.
  • I noticed the 1984 prints in Merrick’s office. I’ll leave it at that.
  • “Boy, you’re in for a treat!”
  • Nice promo for Cadillac here. Even when Dad came by and caught me watching this movie, he said, “That’s a nice Cadillac!” Now I’m no gearhead, but I’ll trust my father’s Porsche-owning opinions.
  • Whenever I keep looking at the timer, there’s a problem.
  • “You still think there’s an Island?”

Next Installment…

It’s tough to put a crappy summer vacation in perspective when you’re stuck in the airless station wagon, sitting in the cargo bay, just staring out the window from The Way Way Back.

One thought on “RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 33: Michael Bay’s “The Island” (2005)

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