Island, The: Michael Bay’s Sci-Fi Thriller, Starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson

The sci-fi-thriller-actioner “The Island” is two movies for the price of one. A modestly scaled futuristic drama about human cloning is contained within a typically big and noisy Michael Bay flick, one with the usual quotas of car chases, crashes, and explosions.

While the first and last reels tell a rather interesting, if not particularly exciting, story, the middle section almost forget the characters and the human elements in its aggressive determination to deliver the goods expected of a summer blockbuster. To his credit, Bay seems to be aware of the pressure to balance two different and conflicting, approaches, that of a summer blockbuster and of an intimate human story. “The Island” juxtaposes the demands of an action-packed thriller with those of a more contemplative moral drama. The clash of the two kinds of stories is also reflected in the clash of visual styles. The first reel exhibits a clean, stylish high-tech look before turning into a Bay picture.

The first Bay film to be produced by Spielberg, rather than Jerry Brukheimer, “The Island” benefits from Spielberg’s artistic interference; it’s almost tempting to guess what exactly Spielberg contributed to Bay’s movie. Cast with Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson, both good and versatile actors, if not well-recognized stars, “The Island” pays more attention to characterization and storytelling the flicks we have come to associate with Bay: “Bad Boys,” “The Rock,” “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor.”

Lincoln Six-Echo (McGregor) and Jordan Two-Delta (Johansson) are among the hundreds of residents of a contained facility, The Institute, in the mid-21st century. Like all the inhabitants of the carefully controlled environment, everything about their daily routine is monitored, seemingly for their own good. The only way outand the hope they all shareis to be chosen to go to the Island, a mythical place (kind of paradise), the last uncontaminated spot in the world, following an ecological disaster that took the lives of everyone on the planet.

When first seen, the inmates are watching a recorded message from a former inhabitant, Starkweather (Michael Clarke Duncan), who is elated to have been chosen to go to the Island. But later, it’s Starkweather’s actual fate that awakens Lincoln to the truth behind the lie. Starkweather sets things in motion. After bidding farewell to the other residents, presumably on his way to the Island, Starkweather wakes up on the operating table. In the midst of the surgery, scared to death by what he sees, he starts running for his life.

Lincoln lives in an ordered, regimented society, where every decision is made for the residentsclothes, food, work. Every element is controlled by a totalitarian elite that’s manipulating the people to believe the outside world had been contaminated. The head of the Institute, Merrick (Sean Bean) is deceiving is paying clients that Merrick Biotech is cloning organs that lie in a vegetative state, in compliance with the eugenics laws, set in 2015 to govern human cloning. Periodically, there is a lottery and the winners are promised to go to the Island, where their job will be to repopulate the planet. Most are satisfied with their life.

Lincoln rocks the boat by starting to ask questions. Unbeknownst to him, his full name, Lincoln Six-Echo, indicates that he’s a fifth-generation, or echo-level, clone. In its endless pursuit of progress, science had unwittingly given Lincoln’s generation what turns out to be a fatal flaw. Lincoln is blessedor cursedwith a dangerous character trait, curiosity. McGregor is perfectly cast, since he is an actor with a natural innocence about him; a childlike quality.

The Institute has made different generations of clones, and the echo generation has been a little too good. Genetic DNA is embedded in Lincoln’s memory. He begins to be plagued by recurrent, unexplained nightmares that make him suspicious about the restrictions placed on his life. Lincoln’s curiosity turns to suspicion when he finds out a clue that suggests that all is not what it seems. He goes on a fact-finding hunt that leads to a far more terrible truth than he could have ever imagined.

He discovers that everything about their existence is a lie, that the Island is actually a terrible and cruel hoax, and that he, Jordan, and all the others, are more valuable dead than alive. The people who win the lottery don’t go to the Island; the Island doesn’t even exist. When Lincoln’s friend Jordan is chosen as the next person to go to the Island, Lincoln knows he has to get her out of there.

Initially, Jordan doesn’t share Lincoln’s suspicions; she’s sweet and innocent, knowing nothing other than the containment she’s been living, which is set apart from the “contaminated” outside world. She is totally nave and ignorant, because, like the others, she’s been living in a plastic bubble with no empirical experience of the outside world. Jordan is passive about the restrictions on her life, but she has a bond with Lincoln, which makes her go along with him. Their connection is at first soulful and platonic, but later evolves into one that’s more physical an emotional.

In the film’s key scene, Lincoln tells Jordan, “You have to trust me.” The tale thus reaffirms what we have known from other American films, that in case of conflict between dictates of the mind and those of the heart, the heart wins. In other words, “The Island” is another sci-fi, in which the inner-directed hero is motivated by instincts rather than knowledge.

The tale uses effectively the well-worn device of “time running out.” Indeed, after a quiet, visually stunning first segment, “The Island” becomes a chase picture. Lincoln and Jordan’s daring escape to the outside world theyve never known, one that risks their lives, takes at least one hour of the film’s running time.

Once they are away from the prying eyes of the Institute, the innocent friendship that the couple had shared before deepens into something more emotional and meaningful. The forces of the Institute, headed by Laurent (Djimon Hounsou), the leader of the security team, relentlessly pursue Lincoln and Jordan. The couple has only one goal: to survive.

A decade or two ago, a futuristic actioner about human cloning might have been perceived as bordering on the impossible. However, following recent revelations in the news, the notion of cloning is quite contemporary. In fact, reality has so quickly caught up with what was once unimaginable, that the film’s time frame was moved up from the late 21st century, in which screenwriter Caspian Tredwell-Owen had first set his story. The change of time frame makes the tale more accessible and scarier.

We all know that human cloning is inevitable; it’s a matter of time. The questions that the film raises are: Who’s going to be the first Will it be done legally or illegally and what will the consequences be Science is fueled by both curiosity and demand. Scientists can already grow certain human organs outside the body. But what if they could give humans any organ or part of their body without any apparent ramifications.

What makes the yarn more immediately involving is its lack of an outsider’s perspective, be it a researcher or other observer. Unlike most stories of this kind, in “The Island,” the POV is that of the clones themselves. This subjective perspective, just like the one in Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” makes the tale much more emotional and personal, and one that operates on multiple levels. On one level, this is a story about science going awry, but on another, it’s also about seeing the world through the innocent eyes of victimized human beings.

Problem is, “The Island” is not very scary and it reveals too many clues about the villain’s identity. Viewers these days are so savvy and knowledgeable that they present a challenge for filmmakers. Bay does his best to sustain tension, but sophisticated moviegoers would be able to detect early on the villain of the piece.

That said, as far as storytelling is concerned, “The Island” represents the most developed narrative of the films made by Bay, a director known for craftsmanship in handling big chase scenes, numerous locations, massive sets, digital and other special effects. Before “The Island” becomes a typically Michael Bay picture, there’s strong characterization, a new element in Bay’s oeuvre. “The Island” might signal a turning point in the career of Bay, whose movies have shown technical expertise, boasting the sensibility of a big kid blessed with a childish sense of playfulness.