I think we’re far enough along in our civilization that the following can be stated with absolute authority: all Michael Bay movies are evil. Watching them is akin to having your synapses raped by a cackling, technocratic Marquis de Sade, content to pass off his own shit and blood as art to an audience he holds forever in contempt. Bay’s aesthetic is so assaultive, so retrograde, so mindless that when the clone protagonist (Ewan McGregor) of his latest film The Island meets his progenitor (also McGregor) in the real world one thanks heaven for the technological limitations that forced the director to abandon his headache-inducing whip pans and hold steady on a two-shot conversation. It’s as if an ADD-afflicted artist who’d been throwing Barbie dolls around the room suddenly discovered the miracle of blocking, and it’s the only time during The Island that I felt the urge to applaud.
For much of its running time, The Island is folderol of a very high order, a mediocre sci-fi chase picture with a better than average cast going through the blockbuster motions. How McGregor keeps acquitting himself in these sub-par fantasy situations is beyond me, but damned if he doesn’t give his sun-burnished all as Lincoln Six Echo, a clone plagued by curiosity and distrustful of his utopian society’s promise of a better life on the titular atoll. There’s an inherent idealism to the actor’s presence that overcomes his cynical cinema surroundings—in the by now Bay-approved sequence of gay panic where a barroom trucker (whose dirtied baseball cap, scruffy beard, and sweaty corpulence none-too-subtly symbolizes a most simplistic vision of Middle America) mistakes Lincoln as the lover of good guy techie McCord (Steve Buscemi), McGregor effectively vanishes behind his character’s naïveté, leaving Buscemi to shoulder most of the scene’s adolescent embarrassment. And when Lincoln witnesses a bloody operation performed on the terrified clone Starkweather (Michael Clarke Duncan, whose extended cameo suggests a paraphrase of a statement by the great Hattie McDaniel: “I’d rather play a monkey-like test subject than be one.”) McGregor is placed at a distinctly removed vantage point so that poor Duncan is forced to bear the scene’s crushing fetish-chic racism.
This last point comes full circle in the sequence that reveals The Island’s ultimately offensive agenda: an increasingly ridiculous conversation between evil scientist Merrick (Sean Bean) and bounty hunter Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou) that plays as a simplistically arrogant plea against stem-cell research and concludes with Hounsou making a straight-faced comparison between the extermination of these newly curious clones and the African genocide! When this is followed up by a tossed-off Holocaust gas chamber scene (suggesting the influence of Dreamworks mogul Steven Spielberg, who is rumored to have turned Bay onto the script) as well as that standard New Hollywood climax where an exoticized black man helps to bring two horny white folks together for a blissful life of sun, surf, and super slow-motion sex, it becomes easy for the right-thinking among us to j’accuse the film’s messenger of a distinct and divisive political bias.
Yet I think that’s playing directly into Bay’s hands; like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds with its gaggle of 9/11 referents, it’s too easy to ascribe political meanings to The Island’s superficial barrage of real-world parallels. Self-proclaimed Christian right-wingers might see it as a validation of their anti-Darwinist views on science, while several hardcore lefties might gawk in horror at what they see as yet another stepping stone in the dumbing down of film culture. Yet the thematic center cannot hold on such a rickety “summer movie” skeleton—ultimately, it’s all a bunch of divisive “mights,” a state of affairs author Thomas Pynchon once richly described as “Right and Left; the hothouse and the street.” Pynchon went on to pose, “What of the real present, the men-of-no-politics, the once-respectable Golden Mean?” It’s a question worth pondering in the wake of this impersonal machine of a movie, an appropriately titled atrocity that effectively strands its viewers on their own isolationist islands, forever doomed to bellow their varied points-of-view at a vast and unresponsive sea called Misanthropy.