Michael Bay may be the poster boy for everything that’s horribly, painfully wrong with Hollywood filmmaking, but on a certain level you’ve almost gotta love the silly bastard.
Ever since he made the transition from videos and commercials (the famous “Aaron Burr” Got Milk? ad was his) to features with 1995’s original Bad Boys, Bay has latched onto the idea that the essence of moviemaking is marketing. The modern blockbuster is a place where he can sell things: a kiss, a chase sequence, a fireball, space for product placements. There’s an absolute purity to the vision that turns the end of the world (Armageddon) and a real-life tragedy (Pearl Harbor) into background noise for generic romance and kewl explosions.
In The Island, Bay is playing with hot-button issues of science meddling in the very stuff of life itself, so you can count on one thing: He’s going to use it as background noise for generic romance and kewl explosions. The film opens on a mysterious, hermetically sealed facility in the near future, where life'diet, exercise, interaction with the opposite sex'is strictly regulated. The white-clad inhabitants have been told that an environmental catastrophe has left the outside world uninhabitable, with a lottery allowing a select few to leave and repopulate an island that is the sole remaining uncontaminated place.
But Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) has begun to question life in the Institute. And before long he has discovered the dark secret of the Institute'that people like him and his friend Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) are products, clones bred to serve as organ donors no matter what they indicate on their driver licenses.
Soon, and because it must be so, Lincoln and Jordan are dashing for their lives into the outside world, desperately trying to escape a plot that should have the creators of Logan’s Run calling their attorneys. It’s also more than faintly similar to the premise of Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent novel Never Let Me Go, so it’s clear that there’s some kind of anxiety in the air over the direction of biotechnology and the ethics of creating life. This is edgy, potentially fascinating subject matter.
The extent to which Bay and his screenwriting team are concerned with all of this could be best summarized as “ethics, schmethics.” There are isolated moments when it appears that the film is going to explore those ideas, such as when Jordan realizes that her critically injured “sponsor” has a young child. Might she willingly sacrifice herself for the mother? Or is it more likely that she will hang around to eventually have slow-motion sex with Lincoln, and cling to him while they dash from the hit team assigned to recover them?
It’s also delightfully entertaining watching Bay tactfully and unobtrusively work-in the dozens of brand-name products used by his characters. They engage in virtual kickboxing (sponsored by Xbox), refresh themselves (with Aquafina water), drive (custom-designed Cadillacs) and use directory assistance (using MSN Search kiosks). The omnipresence of familiar logos serves two purposes'an infusion of cash into the production budget, and allowing the amused smirks of audience members to distract them from utterly idiotic plot devices, like suggesting that individual memories are transferred through DNA so that Lincoln can possess the magical ability to emerge from seclusion and pilot a speeder bike through downtown Los Angeles.
None of this should come as a heartbreaking shock to anyone who has ever seen a previous Michael Bay film. His films all look and sound exactly the same, from the fast-paced action and occasional clever quips to that trademark shot where he begins behind a character at belt level and whips around and upward until he’s staring said character in the face. Bay is relentlessly who he is as a filmmaker'a brand as recognizable as anything he dumps into the margins of his movies'and there are plenty of moviegoers who take a perverse comfort in knowing that, like a Big Mac, every Michael Bay film will taste exactly the same. He knows his milieu is the dumb, loud event movie, and he’s not kidding himself or us that any kind of story is going to change that. In today’s Hollywood, that’s something almost like integrity.
Scott Renshaw reviews new movies on Fox 13’s Good Day Utah, Thursdays in the 7 a.m. hour.