Tuesday 7 August 2012

From the archive: "The Island"

The Island was one of the biggest money losers of the summer season in the U.S., a situation that may have something to do with its stars, who don't quite yet belong to the solid-gold A-list. (The last time Ewan McGregor went on the run with the hot blonde du jour, it was with Cameron Diaz in the equally floppy A Life Less Ordinary.) But it's also not entirely fair: many less enjoyable films have made far more money this year. You can, however, see why certain quarters of the American cinemagoing public turned their noses up at it. From first frame to last, The Island is the type of film that can only be described using terms specific to 19th century British army officers. It is hogwash, hokum and bunkum. It is balderdash and poppycock. And it is no less fun for that.

The film proposes that in the year 2019 - precisely 14 years from now - we will all be wearing skintight lycra jumpsuits. (Doubtless Sienna Miller will have been snapped wearing one the week before while out walking on Primrose Hill with her on-off boyfriend Jude Law, sparking the trend.) Yorkshire's very own Sean Bean will have risen to the point where he can lord it over a top-secret cloning facility located in premises formerly used as the Industrial Zone of TV's The Crystal Maze. One of those clones, Lincoln Six-Echo (McGregor), proves to be the inquisitive sort. We know this, as every other line to come out of McGregor's mouth in the first hour of the film ends with a question mark. Who am I? What am I doing here? What's my accent supposed to be again? Why am I named after a provincial newspaper?

Lincoln's best bud Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson), presumably named for a midwestern college sorority, has been chosen to visit "The Island" as part of a lottery draw that appears to have undergone a greatly more successful rebranding than the one currently fronted by Dale Winton and Fay Ripley; in 2019, the lottery is fronted by a soulless automaton, and still everybody watches it. Anyhow, Lincoln has sensed that something's up, so he grabs Jordan, and they leg it. For thirty minutes, we get the barest hint of a story, after which the film turns into one long, extended chase sequence. "RUN!," shouts expositionary mechanic Steve Buscemi, to get McGregor and Johansson going. "RUN!," shouts Johansson ten minutes later, setting off another burst of activity. "GO!," shouts McGregor ten minutes after that, to show how varied and complex the script is.

It is, it has to be said, a terrific giggle, the Big Themes of Gattaca and The Truman Show replayed as big, splashy, throw-another-stack-of-$100-bills-on-the-fire thrills. Director Michael Bay has shown evidence of a sense of humour before: he made The Rock and Armageddon before subjecting us all to Pearl Harbor. Yet you could argue the reason The Island functions as well as it does is Bay's complete inability to handle his actors. There is, thankfully, none of the monotonous uniformity of the leads in Pearl Harbor; instead, we spot tiny insurrections going on in the middle of Bay's usual multi-million dollar chaos. McGregor and Johansson are too free-spirited and independent not to realise they're up to their necks in trash; Djimon Hounsou plays his cop role straight, and is all the better for it; Bean, who signals intelligence by pushing his glasses up his nose repeatedly, plays it entirely straight, and is never less than entirely, unintentionally hilarious.

Bay gives them all free rein, largely as he's busy ensuring all the usual SF/action cliches are present and correct, in typically Big and Loud states: a sterile future-zone; the slow pan over a balcony to reveal a vast chamber of corpses and bodies being used for nefarious purposes; even a bit where the female lead rescues the male lead from peril by taking a monkey wrench to his attacker's head. The Island is one of those films that works in spite of itself; it should, by its very nature, be appalling, but instead it plows on relentlessly, leaving the viewer unsure as to how or why it flies quite as well as it does. Then again, it's written by one Caspian Treadwell-Owen, against which names like Lincoln Six-Echo and Jordan Two-Delta begin to look positively sensible.

(August 2005)

The Island screens on ITV1 tonight at 10.35pm.

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