Huh. In Michael Bay’s futuristic-sci-fi-melodrama-allegory-chase movie-whatever the hell “The Island,” Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson play Lincoln Six-Echo and Jordan Two-Delta, named that way probably because it sounds cool. At first they seem human, then we learn they’re human clones, but, wait, they are actually human because of their brain activity, no, they’re not, we just created them a few years ago, but, hold on, they can fall in love — you get the idea. The entire film hinges on the fundamental question of the status of these characters — so are they human? Or are they scientific collateral engineered with human qualities? That’s hard to say. The film is such a muddle that none of the bigger questions it raises are ever resolved on any level except the usual plot contrivances and chase sequences that end with an overwrought payoff and, if we’re lucky, a cheeky one-liner.
But then we remember: In a Michael Bay movie, the narrative isn’t so much an experience as an ordeal we must endure to get from one digital orgy to the next. Bay, the man behind, let’s see, a war epic that thinks Pearl Harbor was 40 minutes of shoot-‘em-up bombast and an apocalyptic thriller about Ben Affleck making animal crackers climb across Liv Tyler’s chest, hasn’t the faintest interest in storytelling, and why would he? His wayward glance focuses instead on the action sequences that he’s famous for, in all their frantic, shifty, cheerfully incoherent glory. His directorial signature is more a loud, obtrusive interruption than a stylistic flair; you have to wonder what his films would be like if all the scenes weren’t cut like an iMovie zealot on a particularly brutal acid trip.
As the film opens, our heroes are in some kind of enclosure supposedly created to protect them from a worldwide viral infection, where they await their departure to “the island,” a screensaver paradise regulated by a lottery that chooses new citizens to leave each day. They have never read “The Lottery,” see, and do not understand that these things are no good unless you buy a ticket. They soon discover a sinister plot of the usual sort, jump ship to Los Angeles and attempt to find their genetic counterparts. All this leads to that blissful “I’m him! … No, I’m him!” cloning-movie moment and possibly the first-ever ready-made product placement written into a film’s screenplay, in the form of Johansson’s omnipresent Calvin Klein ads.
“The Island” is sweetly good-looking and, in its own way, clumsily entertaining, but it never overcomes the burden of its helmer’s jarring signature. To be fair, it’s Bay’s best film in a decade (and, mercifully, his shortest, at a still-trying 136 minutes), but when you come off “Bad Boys II” and “Pearl Harbor,” that just isn’t saying much. The film plays like the most laborious parts of three oversaturated genres — science fiction, the chase movie, the fish-out-of-water romance — all busily thrown around the screen.
Yet even amidst the narrative carnage, there’s still some fun to be had. Johansson, the casually stunning art-house princess from “Lost in Translation,” and McGregor, the mischievously handsome Scot who stole scenes in another blockbuster earlier this summer, sit back and make a romp out of their roles. When their characters finally discover sex, and McGregor — who has slept with half of Hollywood on screen and embraces nude scenes with an unabashed glee — innocently replies to Johansson, “that tongue thing is cool,” it’s a self-referential moment to cherish. The sex scene itself is a wash — unless, of course, you count the way that Bay fucks over hopeful audiences once again. That’s quite a trick.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars