"Michael Bay" and "thoughtful" are not words you'd ever expect to hear in the same sentence, let alone occupying the same movie, but that's just what happens, for a while at least, in Bay's new sci-fi thriller, The Island. Famously branded as the devil early in his career by Entertainment Weekly, Bay is often held up by critics as the perfect example of what's wrong with Hollywood, churning out empty spectacles with hugely inflated budgets and mind-numbingly inane storylines. With The Island, Bay delivers plenty of empty spectacle on a budget that's no doubt hugely inflated, but at least he moves the storyline a little beyond mind-numbing inanity.
For its first 45 minutes or so, The Island is actually an intelligent and thought-provoking sci-fi film, presenting a dystopian future in which most of humanity has been wiped out by a plague of some sort, and the survivors all live in a sterilized compound, with rigidly compartmentalized lives overseen by the Big Brother-esque Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean). It's like 1984, but with product placement.
It's all fake, though, which you know if you've seen any of the movie's trailers. The big hope of any resident is to win a trip to the titular island, allegedly the only non-contaminated place left on Earth. But curious Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) gets the feeling something isn't right, and when he discovers that the compound's residents are in fact clones used as a source of organs for rich people out in the completely plague-free real world, he grabs Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson), herself scheduled for an island trip, and escapes their brutal oppressors.
And then it turns into a Michael Bay movie. Set in 2019, the film allows Bay to create a world that is very similar to the present, only with cooler cars. Stuff that Bay loves (sleazy bars, hot women married to characters played by Steve Buscemi, smoke rising from everything for no apparent reason) remains unchanged, while he's free to add things like flying motorcycles and super-streamlined semi-trucks to the mix. Lincoln and Jordan become fugitives from their corporate overlords, running from a ruthless goon squad led by mercenary Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou). Thus, Bay stages many, many car chases that go on forever; shoots from every angle possible except straight on; and never settles for one shot when 10 or 12 will do.
The intelligent plot of the movie's beginning comes and goes in spurts, getting out of the way whenever Bay decides it's time to blow something up. His car chases are perfectly staged but completely pointless: In a movie with such theoretically high stakes, the chases mean absolutely nothing. A few sleek lines aside, we could be watching a scene from any other Bay movie; it makes no difference who is chasing whom as long as a bunch of cars get totaled in spectacular fashion.
Around the middle of the movie, though, there is a graceful and incredibly layered moment that shows the potential of the story to say so much more than it does. Jordan, loose in the real world, sees a commercial made by the actress from whose DNA she's been cloned. The commercial we see is an actual Calvin Klein ad that Johansson recently starred in. Thus Bay becomes perhaps the first director to ever use product placement to comment on the commodification of celebrities and the very use of product placement, all in the service of his story and in one seamless, wordless moment. Then he blows some more shit up.
Thus is encapsulated the dilemma of The Island, a smart movie directed in a stupid fashion. Bay can't escape his own limitations, at least not for an entire film, and he ends up as his own worst enemy. It's hard to take The Island seriously as a critique of modern consumerist culture when the film itself is full of blatant advertising. And even when it strikes an unexpected grace note, like with the Calvin Klein commercial or a scene in which a group of clones are slated for death in a futuristic version of a Nazi gas chamber, the poignancy is undermined only minutes later by Bay's insistence on wide-scale violence that decimates innocent bystanders. For a film supposedly about the sanctity of human life, The Island causes a lot of collateral damage.