Anyone who has ever endured the brute skull crunch of a Michael Bay movie will find that The Island, the director’s stab at icy, dystopian sci-fi, is virtually an art film by comparison. For almost a full hour, the narrative endeavors to withhold information and even smuggles in high-toned references to Stanley Kubrick and Shirley Jackson. There are no undermotivated explosions; shots last for seconds at a time. By the frat-metal standards of
Bad Boys, The Rock, and Armageddon, the pace is downright Tarkovskian. The perhaps deliberate effect of this unusual temperance is that you can’t wait for Bay to start blowing shit up.

In the post-apocalyptic year 2019, Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson are the hottest inhabitants of a regimented colony that, with its retro-future hyperdesign and newfangled smart drinks, has the oppressive vibe not of a supermax facility but of a boutique hotel in the meatpacking district. Residents wear fetching white bodysuits reminiscent of ’60s–’70s sci-fi and the house rules are derived from early-21st-century reality TV: The winner of a weekly lottery is transported to the Island, “Earth’s last remaining pathogen-free zone.”

But as even the trailer reveals, and as should be instantly apparent from the presence of Sean Bean as a doctor with a God complex (poor Steve Buscemi is left to diagnose the condition: “It’s called a God complex”), there is no Island and there was no viral disaster. The sealed-off outpost houses clones who are being harvested for organ donations and have been implanted with fake memories—in this near future, millionaires have the option of purchasing their very own genetic replicants as spare-parts insurance policies. As a cautionary scenario, it’s hardly original but it has bottomless resonance: Adopting a sidelong approach to a similar premise, Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent novel Never Let Me Go is a marvel of sneaky understatement, occluded details and ominous euphemisms adding up to a wrenching investigation of what it means to be human, to be conscious of mortality. But for Bay, restraint means not dropping a fireball on a large urban center within the first act. In a blockbuster season freighted with grim allegory, The Island seems especially dim and literal minded. It recognizes a certain hot-button relevance in its subject, but can’t get beyond thumbs-up/thumbs-down assessments: clones good, science bad. (If someone were to gently point out that the science was responsible for the clones, you suspect the movie would self-destruct.)

When the stars escape into the outside world, Bay himself seems liberated. (From start to finish, though, he fulfills his product placement duties like a pro: The Island, like Minority Report, envisions the future as an ad-saturated consumer paradise; the brazen prominence of the brand names seeks to put the act of selling in quotes, except it doesn’t.) As for the chases and shoot-outs, suffice to say the virtuosic clumsiness of Bay’s action style, simultaneously lumbering and kinetic, reaches a new apotheosis in The Island‘s best sequence. I can’t remember why exactly, but at one point McGregor and Johansson are zipping down a freeway on a big rig, tossing giant metal spools into traffic, percussive dents serving as rhythm section on the concussive soundtrack. This is pure essence of Bay—it’s big, it’s loud, it has no context, and if you show up tanked, I’m sure it’s really quite poetic.

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