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The Island   B-

DreamWorks Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Michael Bay
Writers: Caspian Tredwell-Owen, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Djimon Hounsou, Sean Bean, Michael Clarke Duncan, Steve Buscemi.

Review by Rob Vaux

Michael Bay has the same effect on critics as Kryptonite on Superman. I'm sure he enjoys watching us howl in agony as another one of his brain-numbing spectacles thunders into theaters, destroying untold numbers of eardrums in the process. This time, however, his sins are much easier to forgive. Despite a plethora of Bay's usual flourishes (casual sexism, ridiculous premises, gratuitous slow-motion shots of guys climbing out of choppers), The Island actually succeeds as a midsummer diversion. It's a throwback to the pre-Star Wars science fiction of the 1970s, the kind with a lot of jump suits and hexagonal furniture lying around. But its story hangs together, it rarely strays into the offensive (despite the aforementioned misogyny), and the real purpose of the exercise -- things that go boom -- is reasonably up to code. Yeah, it's dumber than a box of rocks, but its idiocy doesn't make you hate it -- which for Bay is a tangible victory.

Ewan McGregor plays the resident of a futuristic complex where the survivors of an ecological disaster live out their lives in Orwellian sterility. Their only solace comes in the knowledge that they will someday travel to The Island -- the last piece of pristine land left on Earth. But as the trailer so fetchingly reveals, things are not as they seem in this monochrome utopia. Soon McGregor and Designated Girl Unit™ (Scarlett Johansson) are on the run from Sean Bean and his cadre of SWAT team rejects, prompting the precise sort of effects-laden mayhem that everyone is presumably paying to see.

And it's decent mayhem, if that's your thing. While the set pieces lack the genre-defining spectacle they clearly strive for, they're perky and well-paced, generating enough excitement to justify the exercise. The Island suffers from a certain pretense regarding its subject -- there are efforts to add subtext to the spectacle, which is as heavy-handed as every other element. But on a more direct level, it helps strengthen the storyline, making it both tighter and less prone to leaking. The cast is unusually good for a Bay film, with Bean and Djimon Hounsou making fine foils for a thoroughly engaging McGregor. Johansson seems a little more out of place, but you don't expect much in the way of fleshed-out female characters in this kind of production. The fault lies more with the script than with the actress.

Other flaws are present, of course -- just a little further under the radar than usual. The dialogue is perfunctory, spiked by a few clever lines, but generally eliciting only juvenile snickers. The art direction is tired and uninspiring, just more of the same retro-upgrade-trashiness that grace countless similarly disposable features. And though less common than most Bay pictures, the plot holes still crop up, topped by one scene where the villain inexplicably leaves the safety of his office so he can have a final showdown with the hero. (Don't you have minions to do that? Come on, man, delegate!) But the warning for such balderdash is clearly on the label. Michael Bay makes no apologies for his work, and he's been doing it for too long for anyone to have any misconceptions about what lies in wait. That The Island achieves more than most of his fire-and-forget efforts -- allowing us to be entertained instead of just pummeled into submission -- makes it something of a pleasant surprise. For movies of this type, it rarely gets better than "you could do worse."

Review published 07.21.2005.

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