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Director: Michael Bay
Writers: Caspian Tredwell-Owen (screenplay), Alex Kurtzman (screenplay)
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Djimon Hounsou. Michael Clarke Duncan
In the near future, a collection of people live in a tightly-controlled and rigorously-governed, isolated community where the rules are strictly followed. Bright and sterile, the inhabitants are told that this compound is the last safe place on the devastated planet Earth, save for one bit of contagian-free space where citizens can live freely, a special island where one person each week is selected by lottery to live among the others.
Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) are close friends, though it is implied there is much more between them, who have lived in the compound for some time. They are attracted to each other but aren’t allowed to physically express it. The rules are clear and aggressively enforced: no regular close contact, especially between opposite sexes. Males and females live in separate quarters and are closely watched. In fact, everything is closely watched. Every aspect of Lincoln Six Echo’s existence is monitored, from his urine, which when analysis detects excess sodium, alters the diet he is provided, to his everyday activities. This is the way of their world.
The problem is, Lincoln Echo Six is having strange dreams about things he’s never experienced, including a vivid one about a boat on the sea where he drowns. This is a concern for Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean), the presiding doctor for the compound, who also knows that Six and Delta are getting too close. He questions Six, who has surprising inquires of his own about who is running the compound, why do things have to be so rigid, and can’t there be more to life than wearing white garments and focusing only on the island. Not long after, Six discovers a flying bug in a ventilation shaft, which defies the logic he has been told about no life beyond the compound. When he follows it, he stumbles upon a terrible secret that shatters everything he’s come to know about his life and the real meaning behind the lottery. (Without saying what it is, the impact of that knowledge and the terror behind it is brutally and powerfully revealed in a brilliant cameo by Michael Clarke Duncan.)
To spoil what happens in the second half would be an injustice on my part, but suffice to say, no one watching will be as unsuspecting of the truth as the people huddled in the compound, all of whom are only educated to a elementary grade level and purposefully manipulated into narrow thinking. That Six goes beyond that and is able to piece together the truth of his ordeal, leads to the second act where he and Delta manage to escape and get chased by just about every vehicle known to man as they track down answers to what is the compound.
Directed by Michael Bay, and this should not dissuade you from reading on, there is a lot here that reminds us of that fact, but Bay also shows remarkable restraint, save for a spectacular highway chase with a flatbed packed with rows of steel train wheels. Sun-drenched and swooping cameras are Bay’s trademarks and he doesn’t disappoint in that area, but he also gives these characters room to breath and develop and by the time the third acts shows up, there are some really clever and effective moments that will surprise. That’s on Bay who does a great job with his leads, carefully packaging them as innocents, like children, emerging into a world that is harsh and dirty, dangerous and deceptive. The metaphor of their transformation is obvious, but it’s handles supremely well.
That stems a lot from the performances of Johansson and McGregor, both of whom perfectly capture the transition. Grown adults throughout, they start the film with simple ideas and simple thoughts, living simple lives who slowly glean the truth about who they are and what is their expected destiny. McGregor, like always, finds ways to say so much with so little and his Lincoln Echo Six is a wonderful character that, like a bright young kid realizing there is a very real and very scary world beyond the comforting (maybe suffocating) arms of his parents, keeps us completely entrenched in his progress. The journey he takes us on is compelling, even if we know the baser facts.
What does it mean to be us? What ‘truths’ do we accept on word alone and what would we do if everything we were told was real, wasn’t? These are the deeper questions that Bay challenges us with, despite the often superficial approach to the visual presentation. That’s the greatness in this movie, one that is often ignored because Bay distracts us with his familiar hyperbolic style, one we recognize as light on deductive necessity. We get tricked into believing we are watching mindless ‘popcorn’ action while in fact we are tasked with considering the morality of our existence. It’s deep. Can’t get around it. Perhaps that is one reason why the film didn’t fare so well at the box office.
The Island is by no means the best film in the genre, but it comes close, and while it tackles some very ponder-worthy topics, spends a bit too long on the action. Nonetheless, this is a great movie and one that should be seen with more discerning eyes. McGregor carries the story and is absolutely magnetic, especially in the second half when things take a clever turn. An unusual choice for McGregor, he handles the action hero/leading man role very well, sizzling with some sexy moments with Johansson (admittedly not a hard thing to do) but also giving Lincoln Echo Six intelligence and curiosity, building a character we can identify with. It’s a great performance.