One genre that has definitely benefited from the advances in computer generated imagery is science fiction. Previous sci-fi movies had to use the very limited capabilities at their disposal or find some way to create what they needed to shoot. The end result may have been groundbreaking at the time but now ends up looking very dated. Advances in CGI – while expensive – made directors’ jobs that much easier. The first hour of The Island is an example of what good CGI can do before Bay gets his over-the-top hands on that story and goes to town.
In a futuristic society following an Armageddon-like event known only as ‘the contamination,’ humans live in a totalitarian society where their day-to-day decisions are made for them by an unknown and unseen power. The humans are given jobs and live in posh apartments where everything is provided for them. In charge is a Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean) who monitors these surviving humans through their actions and emotions. All the humans have some free will and an ability to question their existence, but it a naïve questioning that is reminiscent of a child’s mind. Everyone lives from day to day with the hopes of winning the Lottery where the winners get to go to the Island, an experience of living even greater than the lives they knew before.
Generally, these humans are content to wait for their chance and hopefully win the Lottery and get their long awaited trip to the Island. But one human keeps bringing up questions as to what is going on. His name is Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor), and he is confused about everything that surrounds him with his existence. He begins to investigate the strange goings-on and when he figures out what’s happening escapes with a fellow human, Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson). Merrick needs these two humans back and brings in an ex-Special Forces soldier, (Djimon Hounsou), to track them down and bring them back.
Stop reading if you don’t want to know what’s actually going on at the Island. SPOILERS from here on in SPOILERS This futuristic world isn’t so futuristic, it’s only a decade or so into the 2020s or so. These humans are clones purchased by rich individuals to help prolong their lives. In case of an organ transplant or horrific accident to their sponsor, these clones are told they’ve been chosen to go to the Island when really they’re just cut up and hacked to pieces for the necessary parts. This isn’t much of a spoiler like I’m ruining the end of the movie. This is all revealed about 60 minutes into the story. It’s a unique twist though and really keeps the first hour moving as Lincoln pieces things together.
I absolutely loved the first hour of the movie because it is a prime example of how good sci-fi can be when things are handled right. It’s a picture of ‘what if?’ that asks what our world could become. Those first 60 minutes are stylish and a sight to behold at this futuristic, gigantic apartment building, a nice, little microcosm of what society can be. It is a different lifestyle entirely where anything and everything is controlled in everyday life. Like many sci-fi/dystopian stories, some troublemaker has to start asking questions.
This first hour is effective thanks to the casting with MacGregor and Johansson as the two humans. Lincoln questions more than Jordan does because he just isn’t satisfied with life as he knows it. Jordan is more content to live each day and have fun, only to change her mind when Lincoln starts bringing up all his questions. In a sci-fi action movie, the casting as a whole is very impressive. Bean’s Dr. Merrick is perfectly creepy who’s doing something morally wrong, but he believes he’s helping the world (and making a pretty penny in the process). Bean is at his best when playing the villainous parts like here. Character actor extraordinaire Steve Buscemi is perfectly cast as McCord, a janitor who may know more than he’s letting on and is a good friend of Lincoln. Michael Clarke Duncan is wasted in a small part that clues Lincoln as to what’s happening. Hounsou is an incredible presence on-screen, but his character is given so little to do and with so little background, he’s hardly more than a cardboard cutout.
All these characters – interesting in their own rights – are introduced through the first hour, but over the next 76 minutes any more development is left by the wayside. Bay’s action tendencies kick in, and we get an extended chase full of action and explosions and CGI. Does it look great? You bet it does, but like any Bay movie, it could have been toned down. It wouldn’t be an issue, but the first hour is so good that it raises expectations for the second half which it just can’t live up to. It’s all great to watch, but it comes at the expense of these cool characters and highly interesting story.
Comparing the two halves of the movie, the first half is clearly better than the second. As a whole though, the movie is still pretty decent and kept me entertained, but I wasn’t blown away in the end. The finale is a bit disappointing. It’s easier though to look at The Island as two halves, a science fiction side and a heavy-duty action side. Know what you’re getting when watching this Michael Bay extravaganza, and you should be safe.
The Island <----trailer (2005): ** ½ /****