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August 01, 2005

Moviegoing: "The Island"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

In terms of silly-fervent, earnest pretentiousness, there's the movie of "The Fountainhead" and then there's everything else. Some pinnacles can simply never be scaled again. That said, Michael Bay's new meatball epic "The Island" plants a flag a respectable way up that same mountainside. It's a very long summer blockbuster -- 148 minutes -- and god knows it has its longueurs and its uninspired touches. Still, there wasn't a minute of it I didn't find richly entertaining.

Until now, Michael Bay has been known as the over-the-top egomaniac who has directed numerous Jerry Bruckheimer action-adventure spectacles: "The Rock," "Armageddon," "Bad Boys II." Bruckheimer and Bay are loved and loathed for MTV-i-fying the action-adventure movie. Cut-cut-cut. Strobe-strobe-strobe. Dolby-dolby-dolby. Bay has been seen as either delivering exactly what teen boys everywhere have always wanted or as dragging the art of the movies into the toilet.

With "The Island," Bay has gone out on his own, and in true egomaniac fashion has made an over-the-top sci-fi chase fantasy that is also a personal statement. In a computerized, biotech future, Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson and lots of other workerbees in white pyjamas are tending to cyberdrudgery while spending their spare time keeping fit, eating fake food, and playing overblown videogames. So what are these funny glitches in the system ... ?

It's all getting out of hand, Michael Bay is saying: the glitzy gadgets, the modernist architecture, the biotechnology, the virtual this and the cyber-that � It's driven by greed and vanity. And the mess we're driving ourselves into? We're doing it to ourselves. Most important: In the midst of it all, what's becoming of our humanity? Are we really living, or are we just holding on until we finally attain a reward that -- shhhhh! -- doesn't really exist?

(I pause briefly to blush and admit that I agree with much of what Bay is saying.)

Part of what makes "The Island" delicious is that these observations are made and these questions are asked in the form of a Michael Bay movie. If "The Fountainhead" was a melodrama of ideas, then "The Island" is an MTV-style action-adventure sci-fi chase movie of ideas.

Aside from giving evidence of having something on his mind, Michael Bay does nothing in this movie that he hasn't done in all his previous movies. Cut-cut-cut. Strobe-strobe-strobe. Dolby-dolby-dolby. His action scenes still consist of a lot of flashing lights, crunching sounds, whip-panning, and frantic Kodo-style drumming. His change-of-pace passages still look like perfume ads or hunky spreads in Maxim. For no good reason, standoffs still take place in glamorously decrepit, large vaulted spaces. Hordes of sinister black helicopters still swerve and duck. Tough guys still throw guns and hardware to each other and then yell "Go! Go! Go!" The backlighting budget on "The Island" was as generous as it was on all of Michael Bay's other movies.

Watching "The Island" is like discovering that a guy you vaguely know who has always done nothing but grunt and whistle has begun to use his grunts and whistles to express opinions about the big issues of the day. "He's a primitive genius," whispered The Wife, who loved the film even more than I did. She's right: "The Island" made me think of Ed ("Plan 9 From Outer Space") Wood gone rock-video and then given the budget of "Intolerance."

Ewan seems likably amused to be at the center of all the sparks, rumbles, and gunshots. Scarlett sprints, punches, and puckers up, looking like the ripe, lucky, conceited, not-much-of-an-actress that she is. Those knockers � Those lips � Those atrocious line readings � Where's Roger Vadim when you really need him? What a self-pleased, pouty protagonist for an arty sex film Scarlett Johannson would make.

The film "The Island" most resembles is Kathryn Bigelow's giant sci-fi bomb "Strange Days." But it's sooooo much more fun. Like Bay, Bigelow had hold of a Great Big Metaphor, and she was trying to use the sci-fi action-adventure form to Make a Statement. Bigelow's talents are more chic than Bay's. Bigelow started off as a downtown New York City artchick, and when she applies her skills to action spectacle the results can sometimes make for memorable pop entertainment, as with "Near Dark" and "Point Break." But with "Strange Days," Bigelow came a-cropper. She bogged down in her own metaphor and failed to invent ways to keep her movie in action.

Bay has the hustle to keep his movie on the move, and the shrewdness to give his metaphor the occasional narrative spank. He has something else that Bigelow -- who has some taste -- will never have, namely complete and utter shamelessness. I was in heaven, for example, when the heroes decided, in the movie's final act, to target the bad guys' "hologram tower." What the -- ?

It's Bay's shamelessness and idiot drive that really hit the movie into the outfield, come to think of it. Michael Bay is one of those new-style alpha males -- grown guys whose fantasies concern having big dicks yet who have never left their X-boxes behind: alpha boyz.

As far as the traditional grammar of film goes, Bay's an illiterate -- or an a-literate, or something. He has his energy and his ego, and a very small bag of tricks. His head appears to be full of nothing that isn't recent-vintage pop culture: silvery car ads, "The Matrix," Tom Cruise movies, other action-adventure spectacles, "Gattaca," his own hits, magazine layouts ... Watching films like "The Island," I wonder why the people behind them bother generating any new footage at all. Why don't they instead splice together scenes from ads, videos, and previous adventure spectacles, and then use their computers to insert a new cast into the recycled footage? The final effect would be the same.

But in "The Island," these ripoffs and bits-and-pieces do semi-cohere into something that may not be a new movie language, but is certainly a kind of movie pidgin -- a system of recycled grunts and whistles. Bay's moviemaking is all about impact and nothing but impact. He does ejaculatory filmmaking, not reflective filmmaking, and that's putting it mildly.

If "Cellular," which I enjoyed and blogged about here, represents a bunch of pros working within genre boundaries and having a good time with a nifty premise, "The Island" represents a videogame-era barbarian puffing himself up and reaching for the heavens. Which is another part of what made me find the movie irresistable. The director of this movie about clones who are fighting to attain their humanity is the one filmmaker who has done perhaps more than any other to kill off the lifeforce of movies as an artform. I don't mean to be playing "gotcha" by making such a statement, by the way. I only mean to say that, watching "The Island," my jaw kept hitting the floor, over and over again. It's one of those films that never stops giving.

I should also say that I didn't merely find "The Island" a hoot-and-a-half, I also genuinely enjoyed it. Cool premise, nicely spun out. And a very studly and rockin' execution.

Michael Bay confesses to John Horn that he's ready to start making smaller pictures.



posted by Michael at August 1, 2005


Well, I didn't see the movie, but I do agree with Bay's statement. I'm technically deficient, and maybe that's part of it, but the world does seem to be becoming a colder, more inhuman place.

Maybe most of the world never did need the consolation of High Art (and I won't apologize for that term) but what about those who do need it, now that it seems to be increasingly a thing of the past?

Posted by: ricpic on August 1, 2005 10:42 AM

"High art" -- what's that? This is the new leveled-out, all-access 24/7 world. Get with it, man.

It's a very funny experience to watch the movie. It has the kind of thesis you might expect of a hoity-toity Euro film, but presented in a blow-shit-up, blockbustery way that's usually used to celebrate "American" values. What to make of this? But to me that was part of the fun of watching the film, sitting there thinking "Huh? Wha'? Gadzooks!"

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 1, 2005 12:21 PM

It's kind of, well, amusing or something that the teenage boy market can telepathically detect personal statement movies and avoid them so thoroughly. It must involve some form of precognition. Apparently (according to the L.A. Times which functions pretty much as trade press on the movie biz)the movie is turning out to be a painful dud, at least in commercial terms. Despite a monstrous ad budget, the pre-release surveys of how much the key teen audience was looking forward to seeing "The Island" kept predicting a bomb. Bay was quoted in the press several times that the marketing department wasn't doing its job, and this was before the movie came out.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 1, 2005 12:23 PM

The plot of "The Island" is exactly the same as the plot of an older movie called "Clonus" (or "Parts: The Clonus Horror"). It's an unacknowledged remake. The various Big Statements aren't Bay's ideas.

Here's a review from a site that you may be interested in anyway:

Posted by: Cryptic Ned on August 1, 2005 12:55 PM

The plot of "The Island" is exactly the same as the plot of an older movie called "The Matrix" (or "Matrix Trilogy: The Wachowski Brothers Horror"). It's an unacknowledged remake, without the niftiness of revolutionary special effects and somewhat original stylistic design.

Posted by: . on August 1, 2005 2:24 PM

It's an interesting art-history question. Does anyone know what the ur-example of the basic "Matrix"-style plot is? The one where the hero's in a pretend reality and then slowly wakes up out of it and then the chase is on? There must have been a first (or at least an early-on and influential) version of this, no? I kept thinking of that old TV series "The Prisoner" as I watched "The Island" ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 1, 2005 5:08 PM

yeah, i was watching thinking how skillfully he merged/ripped-off equally from more arthouse SF like the girl from monday/code 46/gattaca/until the end of the world and big budget action epics like the matrix and the truman show, while also throwing in nods to THX-1138 and logan's run, not to mention liberal use of kazuo ishiguro's new book never let me go :D

if you're looking for an ur-example you could probably go back to the gnostics, or even just the buddha-story or like even adam and eve, and there's also antecedents in zoroastrianism and mithraism and, if you want to stretch it a bit, stuff like plato's cave, too. for the dystopic SF treatment tho, i'd look up yevgeny zamyatin's we or fritz lang's metropolis.


Posted by: georgio on August 1, 2005 5:57 PM

I have no idea how far back these types of stories go, but I certainly would nominate "Time Out of Joint" by Philip K. Dick from 1959 as an ur-example of a story about a man living an unreal life who gradually wakes up to reality. Dick played with larger and smaller versions of this in many of his subsequent books as well. Of course, as the theme developed in his hands it eventually became a mechanism for questioning the whole issue of what the word 'real' actually means, if anything.

Of course, now that I think about it, virtually the same notion was at the basis of Robert Heinlein's novella, "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag," written in 1942.

I have no doubt serious fantasy/sci-fi fans can take this theme much farther back.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 1, 2005 8:38 PM

Um, wait a minute, wasn't there a version of this called "Cave Canem" about a British WWI air pilot who wakes up in what he thinks is an English hospital and who slowly figures out that he's really in Germany? (The Germans have rigged all this up to get him to spill the beans about upcoming war plans.) Of course, there's no chase in this version; I think he just refuses to tell the nice 'English' doctor anything except his name, rank and serial number. Some Internet research suggests this might have been a short story written by Clarence Buddington Kelland in 1923. (Of course, I'd hardly bet the ranch on this.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 1, 2005 8:51 PM

Thanks for the heads up on the Island--a must miss for me.

But the Fountainhead--it truly is the peak. I saw it many years ago on television when I was hugely pregnant and laughed so uproariously I feared it might bring on premature labor.

Now there's a movie!

Posted by: Miriam on August 1, 2005 10:14 PM

Philip K. Dick -- the most influential American fiction writer since ... 1960? Maybe?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 2, 2005 1:26 AM

I guess the idea of parallel life/reality/switch between the two is very common.
There is a series of stories written in the 1910's by little known in the West Russian writer Alexander Grin (Grinevsky). In one, set in the cold and starving Petrograd of the World War I, the narrator by weird chance steps into a painting of a room in exotic warm land.

In another, "Nightmare", a man goes thru a bedtime routine and wakes up in an unknown room, next to a strange woman - he's given new chance in life, but than he bounces back again.(1910). Btw, same trick is in the basis of Time and again by J.Finney, one of my favorites, used as a method of time-travel - but that was written much later, in the 70-'s I think.

I could only find one story translated (not parallel reality' idea) - for sampling of the author, see here.

Posted by: Tatyana on August 2, 2005 10:03 AM


Interesting speculation on Philip K. Dick. I'm not sure how you'd go about proving or disproving such a claim, exactly. He would seem to have a shot at being the most influential writer since 1960 in terms of the cinematic world, for sure. Of course, who would he have replaced? Dashiell Hammett as inventor of the hard-boiled mystery stories (lotsa noir out there)? A. Conan Doyle as popularizer of detective stories more generally? Edgar Rice Burroughs as popularizer of noble savage stories? Edgar Allen Poe as a major figure in the development of both horror and crime stories?

It would be interesting to do a study of which authors' works have been most commonly adapted over the years. (Haven't there been 5 or 6 versions of J. M. Barrie's "The Admirable Crichton" alone?)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 2, 2005 3:12 PM

"Most Filmed Author
"A total of 394 feature films and TV movies based on plays by William Shakespeare have been made to date. The plays are represented in straight or relatively straight film versions, many in modern versions in which the storyline has been loosely based on the originals, e.g. West Side Story (USA 1961) and innumerable parodies. Hamlet has appealed most to film makers with 75 versions, followed by Romeo and Juliet with 51 and Macbeth, filmed 33 times."

Posted by: Dave Lull on August 2, 2005 5:49 PM

Mr. Lull:

Does Guinness indicate which modern authors have been most adapted for movies and T.V.? I'd be fascinated to know.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 2, 2005 7:15 PM

Friedrich: I think I read somewhere that it was Edgar Wallace, if that's modern enough for you.

Well, I just got back from The Island. Style over substance, but a fun ride.

Now normally the phrase "a fun ride" is enough to make me carsick, but this actually was. The famous Michael Bay style was so much in evidence that when I finally saw a shot with the camera not moving, I thought to myself "This must be second unit stuff". The spinning fans, the gleaming consoles, the fast cars, the black helicopters, the truckloads of train axels (?)... A-Plus action movie corn! And the jokes were funny too, especially Steve Buscemi's little digression into theology.

As usual, a story would have been a nice addition (part one he grows suspicious; part two he runs away - uh huh) but really, who needs all that drama when you're dodging train axels?

I'm kinda baffled why it flopped, actually.

"His head appears to be full of nothing that isn't recent-vintage pop culture..."

Well, the LA skyline was a nice nod to Metropolis, I thought - elevated trains and such.

Posted by: Brian on August 2, 2005 7:56 PM

"Does Guinness indicate which modern authors have been most adapted for movies and T.V.?"

Not that I've found. However, the Internet Movie Database provides some indication (though you'll note that it disagrees with the Guinness total for Shakespeare):

IMDb's most prolific,

Rank Name Titles
1. William Shakespeare (I) 609
2. Bud Fisher 314
3. H.M. Walker 301
4. George H. Plympton 269
5. George Herriman 237
6. Gilbert M. 'Broncho Billy' Anderson 237
7. Blent Oran 231
8. D.W. Griffith 228
9. Harvey Gates 215
10. Michael Maltese 214
11. John W. Dunn 210
12. Safa nal 210
13. Charles Dickens 207
14. James Oliver Curwood 196
15. Edgar Wallace 190
16. Bennett Cohen (I) 185
17. Tedd Pierce 182
18. Warren Foster (I) 180
19. Georges Simenon 176
20. Paul Terry (I) 175

Posted by: Dave Lull on August 2, 2005 10:56 PM

Boy, I've got to hang up any lingering notions I ever had of being a film buff. Of those, I recognize only Bill Shakespeare, D.W. Griffith, Michael Maltese, Charles Dickens, Tedd Pierce and George Simenon. (And I only recognize Maltese and Pierce because I just finished re-reading Chuck Jones' autobiography, in which they figure as the writers of most of the Warner Brothers' Golden Age cartoon shorts.)

One question: are these the writers with the most screenplay credits, or are these the writers whose original works were most adapted for the movies? Sorry if I'm being pedantic.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 2, 2005 11:49 PM

"One question: are these the writers with the most screenplay credits, or are these the writers whose original works were most adapted for the movies?"

The writing credits for some of these writers are for both screenplays and stories, and for some are predominantly for screenplays. Some credits include other aspects of writing, such as dialogue or titles: for example, Bud Fisher, number two on the list, is there mostly for his comic strip Mutt and Jeff.

From a quick scan of the credits, it looks to me that the 20th century writers with credits pretty much limited to adaptations of original works (story or novel) are James Oliver Curwood, Edgar Wallace, and Georges Simenon.

Posted by: Dave Lull on August 3, 2005 1:16 AM

For readers who, like myself, were a little uncertain of who James Oliver Curwood and Edgar Wallace are, Curwood was an adventure novelist, wildly popular in the 1920s, who lived and worked in Owosso, Michigan. (Go, Michigan!) You can read about him at Edgar Wallace was a British novelist, playwright, and journalist who produced popular detective and suspense stories and was in his time--again, the 1920s and 1930s--"the king" of the modern thriller. Germans were apparently extremely fond of Wallace's works, and adaptations of his work were among the most popular German movies for many years. You can read about him at Both of these guys were born in the 1870s, and were almost perfect contemporaries of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Apologies to you hipsters who know all about these guys.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 3, 2005 4:37 AM

So it's not a straight-up remake of "The Clonus Horror"?

Posted by: j.c. on August 5, 2005 1:45 AM

I respect "The Island" for dramatizing the implications of human cloning. Maybe at a high school social studies level but we're in a democracy and people should think about these issues. The movie hasn't done well but at least it's out there. More people will see it on DVD and cable. This movie makes me think of "Kingdom of Heaven" which also tried to make interesting commentary on current events within a big-budget action movie format, and bombed. "The Island" reminded me how good science fiction can be when it's well-done and has something to say. I needed that after "Fantastic Four" because when sci-fi movies are bad they're usually real bad! Thanks for the review MvB.

Posted by: Matt on August 7, 2005 6:36 PM

I totally disagree with almost everything you have said.
I found this movie to vapid and deviod of meaning.
Bay is not making a movie, he is making a roller-coaster ride.

When the Bushemi character tells them they are clones they just say "really?". I mean this movie just failed on so many levels.

Truley mindless.

Posted by: jake on August 11, 2005 10:49 AM

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