Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Islands in the Stream

In my non-movie life, I just finished reading David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (soon to be a major motion picture). Cloud Atlas is a kind of mosaic novel, consisting of six stories that are nested inside each other like a Russian matryoshka doll. One of those narratives, "The Orison of Sonmi-451," got me to thinking about cinematic dystopias. The forthcoming movie will star the great Korean actress, Doo-na Bae as the title character, which guarantees that I'll see it, but I've already seen a couple of movies that are eerily similar to this story. I was reminded of The Island by my friend, Kevin Matthews, who blogs over at For It Is Man's Number and at Flickfeast. So I thought I'd reprint my review of the film from seven years ago. This has been slightly edited, but I resisted the urge to temper my Bush-era liberal paranoia. It mostly still applies.

The Island, 2005. Directed by Michael Bay. Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Sean Bean, Djimon Honsou, Michael Clarke Duncan.

Synopsis: Lincoln Six Echo is tired of his day to day existence in utopia. He lives in a world after the ravages of a man-made disaster have confined humanity to an existence inside an autoclave, in which the highest aspiration of his fellow survivors is to win the lottery that will send them to "The Island," the last unspoiled spot on the planet... Or so the overlords of utopia would have the people believe. The truth, which Lincoln Six Echo soon discovers, is much much darker than that. So with his friend, Jordan Two Delta in tow (she having just won the lottery herself), Lincoln decides to leave. Unfortunately, the very existence of our young couple outside their gilded cage is a potential disaster for the powers behind the scenes. A crack team of mercenaries is dispatched to fetch the fugitives before they can get to the truth behind their existence.

Some Assembly Required: Although I certainly mean this as faint praise, I would be remiss if I didn't state that The Island is Michael Bay's most accomplished movie to date. Bay has a track record of making empty movies full of sound and fury, films that would be extremely disagreeable if they were not so disposable. So it is with grudging acknowledgement that I note that, by slowing the pace of some of his action sequences so that his shots are more than six frames long, and by developing a consciousness about the spatial relationships in his actions sequences, Bay has made a movie that isn't quite as headache-inducing as, say, Armageddon.

It doesn't hurt that Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson are both accomplished actors AND unusually easy on the eyes. Bay's movies have usually been unable to strike this balance, so he is fortunate in his collaborators for this movie. But while Bay's formal compositional skills have improved, he is still saddled with a script full of illogicalities and narrative dead ends, to say nothing of the second-hand nature of the material itself. This is, of course, another film that takes Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint and re-works it with the found tropes of dystopian cinema. The result is what you might get if you were to sew The Truman Show together with Coma and season just a little with Soylent Green.

The Island, then, is a rehash and not particularly good (or particularly bad, for that matter). But that's all beside the point I want to make here.

Science Fiction Double Feature: The Island is a film that steps on a landmine unique to science fiction. The subject matter that fuels the plot of the film is provocative. There are two elements that compel the audience's interest in the film: first and foremost is the subject of human cloning for medical and therapeutic uses and the ethical dilemmas that arise from that technology. The second is the divide between the haves and the have nots.

The subject of cloning creates an excuse for the filmmakers to put some creepy imagery on the screen, from the two scenes where the clones are "harvested," to the pods where they are grown to maturity. Having raised the issue, and having stacked the deck towards a specific outcome with some scientific double talk, The Island goes no further than suggesting that "human cloning: BAD!" Of course, the issue of cloning is considerably more complex than this, though you wouldn't know it from this movie. Cloning is a Maguffin here. Alas.

The second thread of inquiry is considerably more sub rosa. The film suggests the ghastly lengths to which a plutocracy will go to preserve its hegemony. The film sets up in the audience an expectation that a normal, moral person, horrified by the true nature of their "insurance policy," would take steps to opt out of the practice and put an end to it. It is particularly cynical as it dashes that expectation. Lincoln Six Echo's "sponsor" is as much a party to the horror as the keepers of the clone's gilded cage, and he damned well wants his life to continue. The film posits, then, a class of person who is sub-human and expendable. Then it leads the audience to the ruthless end of this line of philosophy inside gas chambers and ovens.

A momentary digression: if it strikes you that the two lines of inquiry present in this movie are at political odds with one another, don't think I haven't noticed it too. The film's stance on cloning, with its corollaries in the debate over stem-cell research, is manifestly conservative (and just as ill-informed by the actual science involved), while the film's more overt political implications are in the opposite camp. One could suggest that the film is a "moderate" film that occupies the unclaimed landscape of the middle of the political specturm, but my own opinion is that this is the result of a focus group. The troubling example of Djimon Honsou's character is evidence of this. God forbid the movie have a genuinely evil black man in the cast: his change of heart in the film's finale is gross pandering. It's a film conveniently free of actual ideology.

In any event, I describe all of this as a landmine because, having set in motion both of these lines of inquiry, the film proceeds to abandon them in favor of mindless spectacle, thus sabotaging the basic core of the movie. Spectacle, these days, is easy. It's a dime a dozen. A film that rigorously follows up on the implications it makes is much, much rarer. And that's certainly not THIS film, anyway....

The Island, then, is a film that traffics in incendiary imagery and ideas for trivial purposes. But this might also be beside the point I want to make.

The Dystopian Vision: Science fiction films are a kind of bellwether. If you want a snapshot of the political mood of the United States, take a look at the science fiction films it produces. One hardly needs ME to suggest that the science fiction films of, say, the 1950s are loaded with the political zeitgeist of the time. The science fiction films of other eras are somewhat less obvious in their subtexts, but the mood of the country can be read like tea leaves if you look closely enough.

The Island belongs to the sub-genre of science fiction concerning dystopias. This type of film is making a comeback these days. They were very popular during the early seventies, then died out when the sci-fi whizbangs came along after Star Wars. Personally, I think they died out because Nixon left office. The Nixon era was the golden age of cinematic dystopias, just as it was the golden age of the conspiracy thriller. The Nixon presidency was one that induced paranoia and unease. Nixon kept lists of enemies and used the law-enforcement branches of the executive to spy on them. Nixon presided over the first energy crisis. Nixon made an unpopular war worse for political expedience. When Nixon left office, the mood of the country changed. People didn't need to exercise their collective id in paranoid visions of the future as a means of processing the present.

But now the dystopia is back. The Island is an inchoate and inarticulate mess of a movie, true. But we ignore what the re-appearance of films like The Island represents to our peril.


Laura said...

I remember when this came out a very, very small community started a wee little ironic-hipster uproar that this premise was taken from a cheese-tastic '70s movie called Parts: The Clonus Horror. It starred Peter Graves and was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

It's funny, because I remember watching that episode and thinking, "Y'know, this is obviously a lousy and lazily put together film, but the premise itself is promising. Too bad it was executed so poorly." It's comforting to know Michael Bay is there, like a pop-culture Santa, listening to adolescent prayers to create something big-budget out of cheesy sci-fi source material.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I quite like Parts: The Clonus Horror, actually. Not to take home to mom, mind you, but not a bad date at the drive in.

Laura said...

Definitely one of MST3K'S better flicks. They really should have re-cast the two romantic clone leads, though. A little too brain-dead for me, regardless of whether or not that's what the director was going for.