Peace and Tranquility Await You
I am more than happy to extol the virtues of Michael Bay's directing style. Say what you will about his films, movies that generally have a distinct "bro culture" to them as explosions flare and beers are guzzled, but the man can absolutely direct his way around action sequences. We touched on this before with our look at The Rock, a film with action so good it was ushered into the Criterion Collection. The man knows how to plan, shoot, and pace action like none other. It is fair to say, though, that he can very often get lost in the spectacle.
The Rock is a fantastic example of Michael Bay acting in a controlled manner with a solid script. He benefits from a story that is just a degree or so away from being a "like Die HardThe 1980s were famous for the bombastic action films released during the decade. Featuring big burly men fighting other big burly men, often with more guns, bombs, and explosions than appear in Michael Bay's wildest dreams, the action films of the decade were heavy on spectacle, short on realism. And then came a little film called Die Hard that flipped the entire action genre on its head., but..." and then plots very solid action around that story. It's the right kind of material for the director. Audiences loved that movie, just like they loved his previous effort, Bad Boys. That film, too, was a collaborative effort, melding Bay's direction with the comedic stylings of Martin Lawrence and Will Smith. Bay had a string of hits during this time, including Bad Boys and The Rock, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor (which, despite cultural opinion after the fact, made a boodle of money), and Bad Boys II. But then there was The Island.
You would think Michael Bay working on a bombastic sci-fi film would make for an instant hit. The issue here is that the film has a lot of different ideas it wants to serve and it absolutely doesn't understand how to handle any of them. It wants to be a "question your reality" think piece, a romance, a bombastic action film, and a fugitive hunting thriller, and all of that gets slapped together in a script that's way too stupid to actually understand how to make any of that work. It's a high concept sci-fi work pitched at the low-brow dude-bros that are Bay's bread and butter. There's a lot of ways that you could fix this film to make it work, but I think in this instance, the most important change to make would have been getting rid of Michael Bay.
The film focuses on Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor), a man living in a giant, controlled world. He's a survivors of an apocalypse that wiped out most of humanity, a cataclysm that made much of the world (outside of this safe and protected bubble building) uninhabitable. If you live in the facility, you're safe. You get fed, you get cared for, you have a job for the betterment of humanity, and you get to make friends with other survivors and life a peaceful life. And, if you're very good, and very lucky, you might just get sent to the Island, the last remaining paradise on Earth.
Everyone in the compound wants to go to the Island. Lincoln's friends, Starkweather Two Delta (Michael Clarke Duncan) and Jones Three Echo (Ethan Phillips), talk about nothing else. And there's Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson), the woman that Lincoln likes, and he'd really love to go to the Island with her some day. The only issue is that Lincoln feels like there's something wrong with the compound. It's supposed to be a comfortable, safe place but Lincoln starts to question is reality. Things break, people are mean, and this little slice of happiness doesn't feel so happy at all. Is there something going on? Is there something they're not being told?
The set for The Island is pretty decent. It doesn't really break any ground with its concept -- a compound presented as a safe place that eventually is proven to all be a lie -- the film has a good idea and it tries to do a lot with in. I frankly think the first act of this film, when it plays in the territory of a sci-fi dystopian thriller, is the strongest part of the movie. Trying to learn what's going on while these innocent characters go about their lives oblivious to the falsehoods all around them provides a lot of energy to this first act.
It's not perfect, mind you. The writing for this film, in all three acts, has the subtlety and grace of a lumbering baboon drunk on Michelob Light (which you'll see the can for more than once). It has big ideas but, time and again, it can't really help but smash you over the head with it. "Is the director of this facility an evil man?" Of course he is. Not only is he played by villain character actor Sean Bean (and, yes, this is one of the many deaths Bean has portrayed in his long career), but he practically twirls his metaphorical mustache in every scene. The film is blunt, is what I'm saying.
It also loses its way pretty hard once it moves beyond the complex. I won't spoil what happens after the first act (at 18 years I'm iffy on the statute of limitations for spoilers here) but suffice it to say that the story for these characters becomes rather flat and dull. It goes from a high concept idea to a rather more basic chase film, losing much of the interesting energy the early part of the film had to offer. You want to like these sections because the first act actually gets you invested in the characters, but the inevitable, lazy plotting detracts from the story that could have been.
A big issue, too, is that the action here just isn't that good. Bay uses a lot of CGI in the film to supplement his action, and it feels like he doesn't have a firm grasp for stunt direction once it moves into computers. His deft touch and solid direction for practical action found in his early works is gone here, replaced with lazy cutting and shooting. Te praise you can lay on Bay's works absolutely isn't deserved here at all. I wanted to like the sequences we got, including a pretty neat highway chase with a flying jet-bike and a big fist fight much later in the center of a computer data silo, but the CGI was distracting and the actual action was hard to follow. This is Bay as it most self-indulgent, for sure.
Thing is, I think there could possibly be a good movie here. Maybe even a good action film. The first act is solid and with a less brain-dead director it's possible the thrilling sci-fi dystopia storyline could have been played up even more. The concept of humans living in what they think is the last safe refuge for humanity, only to have the wool pulled from their eyes, is a solid and compelling one. It feels like something Philip K. Dick could have written, containing that right mix of paranoia. Instead we get Michael Bay's dude-bro, "Philip K. Dick-joke" pastiche instead.
The fugitive storyline, too, could be interesting. Lincoln and Jordan on the run, pursed by shadowy agents as they try to learn a world they don't understand. There could be legitimate fear and horror conveyed here, if the film knew what to do with it. It doesn't, of course, and it squanders every opportunity to mine thrilling, thoughtful sci-fi from its setup. But you can see how the potential was there if it hadn't been directed by Bay. And, well, let's also mention that Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci were writers on this film and considering many of their other works -- Transformers, Watchmen, Eagle Eye -- they're as much to blame for this mess.
The Island is frustrating because, with a game cast and a big budget, this had the potential to be a really solid sci-fi adventure. The team behind it, though, failed the story and created one of the first legitimate bombs in Bay's career, hauling in only $162.9 Mil against a budget of $126 Mil. Sorry, Michael Bay, but this is clearly where your work started to falter.