Dir. Michael Bay, 2005, USA, 136 mins
Ewan McGregor, Scarlet Johansson, Steve Buscemi
This year marks the release of an exciting sci-fi saga set in the near future in which hard-working clones are promised an idyllic retirement on a paradise island. One of their number discovers that this is only a cover story, however, and that the clones are simply exterminated and their bodies recycled for human use. But let's stop talking about David Mitchell's bestseller Cloud Atlas and concentrate on Michael Bay's new blockbuster, The Island , in which Ewan McGregor and Scarlet Johansson play - yes, you guessed it - two clones under the illusion that the city they live in is a safe haven from a contaminated world and that if they win "the lottery", they'll end up on the eponymous island instead of on an operating table having their organs removed for the benefit of the rich and famous.
In truth, Bay's film feels like a patchwork of every dystopian thriller you can lay your screen-writing hands on, from Huxley's Brave New World to a 1978 low-budget shocker with the rather wonderful title of Parts: The Clonus Horror. But in fairness to this much-maligned director, he does bring some intriguing new ingredients to the mix. The complex in which his clones live is like a Utopia for the 16-25-age bracket that Hollywood targets these days, with its sleek, trendy bars, maze of sports activities and attractive branded clothing. But the film suggests that such ephemeral pleasures pall quickly in comparison to the thirst for knowledge about who we are and where we come from. Is arch blockbuster-merchant Bay subtly inciting the kids to follow their '70s ancestors and leave consumerism behind to kick against the establishment?
Another element that differentiates his film from the usual dystopian fare is its cheeky vein of sex comedy. The clones have had the concept of sex removed from their minds to avoid obvious complications, so when they finally break out into the real world, there's much scope for misunderstandings and innocent bafflement at double entendres . Here, Bay makes good use of his stars whose attractiveness is matched by their inherent likeableness and clean-cut image. McGregor, particularly, gets to show off his lighter side when the clones meet his real-life counterpart, a Scots boat designer, who leers delightedly over Johansson. (It also allows McGregor to use his own accent for once, a mercy for those still cringing at his "Alec Guinness" in Star Wars.) In fact, judging by the evidence of this film, Michael Bay demonstrates more flair for comedy than he does for his usual action-drama, so it's even more disappointing when the last half of the film disintegrates into elaborate car chases and shoot-'em-up set pieces.
But the real victims of this approach are the ideas thrown up by Caspian Tredwell-Owen's screenplay. His portrayal of a world where people are farmed for their organs raises questions about the ethics of cloning and modern medicine. The film plays with suggestions of the Holocaust when we see the clones enter an extermination chamber en masse , while the shots of embryo sacs being slashed open when their cargo is no longer wanted are so potent that one could argue that The Island represents Hollywood's greatest contribution yet to America's ongoing anti-abortion debate. There's also the cute touch of calling the city's law-enforcers censors - an implication that their real-life namesakes are part of society's way of covering up the truth?
But these ideas are no sooner hinted at than they're dropped unceremoniously as Bay moves on to the next breathless chase and more giddy camera shots of McGregor and Johansson pounding down corridors. It's enough to make one wish this prototype could be quietly put down and reanimated as the black comedy it should have been in the first place.
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