Monday, July 25, 2005

The Island is everything the New Yorker feared it would be...

I have a confession to make.

I saw Armageddon twice in the theatre.

I was one hundred percent completely sucked into that movie when I saw it, and I was totally crying at the end when Bruce Willis says goodbye to Liv Tyler.

I know you’re waiting for the punch line here, where I write in all caps,


But actually it’s all true, and for all my bagging on Michael Bay I can’t deny it.

Armageddon of course is a ridiculous, cheesy, foolish movie, obnoxious and unctuous in its style, questionable in its acting and nonsensical in its plotting. Still, of the two “asteroid” movies that came out that summer, I thought Armageddon was far better than Deep Impact, because at the very least, Armageddon doesn’t take itself too seriously. You know that you’re watching an emotionally manipulative, action-packed, popcorn fest, and even though it may leave a lot to be desired in the artistic area, it is what it is. It is a movie about a bunch of colorful characters going up into space to blow up an asteroid and save the earth from being incinerated. It’s straightforward, and lacks any real subtext or depth. It’s not a drama about the end of the world; it’s an action film about blowing stuff up and preventing the earth itself from being blown up.

I haven’t sat through Armageddon since it was released in theatres, and I feel embarrassed by how entertaining I found it. I realize it is poor in many ways, HOWEVER, if there is a movie that Michael Bay should direct,…a movie that includes crazy heroes and explosions is right up his alley. Armageddon and Michael Bay were a good match.

The Island was not. The reason The Island was not, is because, as I’ve mentioned many times before in previous blog posts, the original script and conceit for this story was very clever, and explored a series of issues about the morale implications of cloning. Cloning has in fact become a very real part of our scientific reality in the past few years, and I think there are any number of directions this film and story could have been taken in, that could have explored the reality that may not be that far off where cloning humans is commonplace.

Of course, with Michael Bay at the helm, I should have immediately erased any hopes I had had to see the insight and subtlety that a director like Kubrick (may he rest in peace) or Spielberg could have brought to the film. I will say this for Michael Bay. He does have a style. The one thing you can’t say about Bay is that he brings nothing to the table. Oh he brings plenty to the table, I don’t like any of it, but the characteristics of his films are as obvious in The Island, as they are in all of his other movies. The lighting is very bright and blown out, the tones of certain sequences are hyper-colorized, with a lot of very fast edits so that you can’t really see what the hell is going on. Many of his exteriors are shot like a travel commercial for exotic locales, with swooping camera motions that will make your head spin more than a monkey cage at an amusement park.

Every choice that Bay made as a director for this film drove me insane. For a movie that cost as much as it did, everything felt incredibly cheap and fake looking. The compound where the clones lived looked like a set. I understand that Bay was probably going for a claustrophobic, prison like feel for the clone colony, but it didn’t work for me. It felt like it was an unfinished piece of set, due to the laziness of the production designer. There were some neat technological gadgets here and there, but overall a lot of the props and set decorating, felt either too much like they were taken out of the present day, or were trying too hard to look retro. The sporty white track suits and white pumas that the clones wore, looked like gifts the production scored from over eager advertisers as opposed to carefully designed costumes. Bay might have been trying to tip his hat to a Logan’s Run kind of look, but the overall effect was to make the movie feel like a commercial more than a film. Call me stupidly biased, but somehow the product placement in Minority Report felt a lot classier than the slew that was included in this movie. To me, all the inclusions of modern day brands added to the sense of cheapness I though the film had.

What was once a much more complex and artfully developed story had been turned into a slapdash premise. I understand that screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci were trying to adjust the script to Bay’s action film sensibilities, but the initial concept of the film did not lend itself well to that.

Again I will make a comparison to Armageddon here. On the surface, the concept of Armageddon seems dark and depressing; an asteroid barreling through space to blow up earth and end all life. However, when you look at the take that Michael Bay had on the whole concept that

a) The Apocalypse was never going to happen, because there was never even a minute in the movie where we actually thought that the earth was going to explode.

b) The end of the world gave license for people (the U.S. government – gotta love Billy Bob as the president) to be really reckless and stupid and blow a lot of things up.

The topic of The Island, on first glance may not seem nearly as serious as the end of the world. But when you dig deeper in the idea of cloning in society, and how clones can also stand as a metaphor for ourselves within a world of commercialization and modernization, there are a lot of dark and resonant themes there.

Ultimately one of my biggest problems with the film is that the re-writers and director were unable to mold this subject matter to fit the genre they were going for. The first act of the film felt too jam packed with information. It tried to establish how the clones were created, what they were created for, and their living conditions. It also tried to set up the two main characters Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson) as well as their relationship with one another. That is a lot of information to squeeze into roughly thirty minutes and it showed. Normally things like character development and plot reveals are woven into the rest of the story, but this movie felt really top heavy. Once Lincoln and Jordan escape the clone facility much of the movie becomes chase scene after chase scene, and there is not a great deal of new information on either the story or the characters.

Also I found myself annoyed, not only by Scarlett Johansson’s performance, but also by the path her character Jordan Two-Delta took. Johansson is the kind of young beautiful actress that I would like to disregard as just another pretty face. Still, I must confess to the fact that she has demonstrated a great deal of talent in her performances in movies like The Girl with the Pearl Earring, and In Good Company. (I actually thought she was mediocre in Lost in Translation) However her performance as Jordan Two-Delta was perhaps the weakest performance I’ve seen from her. I blame a lot of this on the way her character had been minimized in the film version of the script and also Bay’s direction. He’s never exactly been known for eliciting strong or meaningful performances from the female characters in his film. As his quote in the E-Weekly article suggested, Bay was clearly more concerned with her looks for the role than anything else. Johansson did indeed look quite striking in the film, but that’s about it. She came fairly flat, and blank faced for most of the movie. Also whereas the original script really followed the journey of Jordan’s story as much as Lincoln’s in regards to coming to terms with the fact that they were clones, the film really primarily focused on Lincoln, with Jordan as an attractive sidekick. In the original script Jordan was pregnant, and meets her sponsor in the outside world. In the film she is not, and it is Lincoln who meets his sponsor and experiences the oddity of encountering a “copy” of himself. I am so over the Hollywood minimized female roles, where these characters serve as little more than eye candy and the romantic interest. OVER IT.

I’ve always like Ewan McGregor, and think he is a versatile actor who really throws himself into every role he plays. However, for what the film was going for, I did think he was a bit miscast. For all the moaning and groaning the studio will be doing today about how little money The Island made, I don’t know what they were expecting. Broad demographics don’t want to see a wry, sensitive, smart, sort of slight guy from the UK, they want an un-intellectual, aloof, tough guy hero, like Bruce Willis, or Ben Affleck. I thought Ewan did a fine job in this film, I just also felt like he looked a tad bit out of place with explosions going off around him every two seconds.

Not only did the production design of the clone colony feel cheap and derivative to me, but the production design of the outside felt tremendously inconsistent. Once Lincoln and Jordan escape to the outside world, they find themselves in the middle of the desert. Lincoln decides they should track down Steve Buscemi’s character, McCord, a man that he has secretly befriended, who works on the outskirts of the colony. For about the first ten to fifteen minutes that they are in the “outside world” there is absolutely no indication that this future is any different than our present day. Clothing looks the same, dive bars looked the same, McCord’s house lack any sort of modern technology. Then all of a sudden we cut to a train station where Lincoln and Jordan are waiting for a train that will take them to Los Angeles, and the Amtraks are mag-lev trains. Huh? The train station didn’t look any different, in fact Bay seemed to be going for a very sepia toned “western look” to all the scenes of the “outside world” up until this point, and then suddenly – he throws in a technological advance. My friend and I argued about this after the film, because he felt that it was the production design was genius, in that a lot of the things were still the same, but here and there were these futuristic elements. While I could see his point, and find this concept interesting, I still think there could have been more cohesiveness to the design, and thrown in a thing or two into sets that showed absolutely no change what so ever. I will confess that I thought downtown LA in the movie looked pretty great. Bay shot scenes and footage in the existing Downtown, and then did an overlay in post-production adding some CG elements to the sky scrapers and putting in levitating trolleys and trains and the like. The cars that the cops drove around in those scenes were these neat Chrysler concept cars, that looked very similar to the Chrysler 300’s that are out on the street now.

Oh, and on a brief little aside rant, when Jordan and Lincoln are walking around LA, she catches a glimpse of her sponsor who is apparently a successful model and actress. She is walking by a department store, and on a TV monitor that is on display, sees the Calvin Klein Eternity commercial, that she herself, Scarlett Johansson was in last year. I wanted to throw my popcorn bucket at the screen when I saw this. Either the film makers decided last minute, that they wanted to insert some sort of moment with Jordan where she sees her sponsor, but didn’t have time to shoot anything and so they used that spot for the perfume. Or they thought they were being cute and tongue and cheeky when they did it. Either way I hated it, it took me out of the story of the film and I thought it came across smug and cheap.

As Lincoln and Jordan make their way in the outside world, we are also introduced to Albert Laurent (Djimon Housou) – a bounty hunter, who works under the radar of law enforcement, and is hired by Merrick (Sean Bean), to track down his “product” (the corporate terminology for clones) and return them safely to the clone enclave.

Poor Hounsou’s character, Albert Laurent, becomes a virtual throwaway,(he did not exist in the original screenplay) with no real time taken to establish what he is about other than a cold hearted mercenary who wrecks havoc on anything that stands in between himself and Jordan and Lincoln. At the end of the film, he is the one who returns Jordan to the clone colony. When he learns that she will be killed even though it is too late for her organs to make a difference in saving the life of her sponsor. In a bizarre scene between Laurent and Merrick (Sean Bean), he reveals a mark that had been branded on his palm, and gives a very brief fairly garbled back-story about how he and his family were part of the such and such rebellion, and they were made to feel “less than human.” Then he offs Merrick, and decides to join the side of the clones. While I appreciated the fact that they were trying to give some sort of explanation as to why Laurent suddenly switches sides, this comment almost made me angrier. It is an example of a story element that could have been a great opportunity to draw parallels between Laurent and the prey he is chasing for most of the film, Lincoln and Jordan. His transition from being a “bad guy” to being a “good guy” feels incredibly abrupt, and could have really used a bit more of a build up to this point.

There is a sort of interesting scene where Laurent and his men ambush Lincoln while he is in the car with his sponsor. Laurent has his gun pointed ready to kill the clone, but there is a moment of confusion, where both Lincoln and his sponsor insist that they are the “real” Tom Lincoln. Laurent is thrown off and ends up shooting the “wrong” one (the real Tom Lincon), leaving Lincon Six-Echo to assume the identity of his sponsor, as a legitimate human. I actually think it would have been interesting for the audience to see Laurent registering that he was going to shoot the “real” Tom Lincoln, and doing it anyway. Perhaps he could have revealed this to Lincoln Six-Echo at the end of the film.

In the end, with the help of Laurent and Jordan, Lincoln saves the day, rescuing hundreds of cloned individuals from suffering an untimely death at the hands of their sponsors and the corporation owners. Cut to swooping camera work and soaring music as the hero and heroine make out in a sepia toned desert landscape.

I knew why I was going to be disappointed with The Island, before I actually saw it and was disappointed. It’s because in my mind this was a movie which could have been so much more than it actually was. One of my friends has a theory, that the worst movies are not those that have the worst actors, or production design or story, but the movies that have the best ideas and best potential, but fail to deliver at many of the levels it could have. I’m not sure if I fully buy into this theory, but I do feel some of that frustration with The Island. I wanted it to be smarter. It was riddled with so many little inconsistencies within the world it created, such as the fact that there were 70 year old clones there, despite the fact that their organs would not be as strong as those belonging to a thirty year old. Or the fact that considering no real contact with the opposite sex was allowed, how was it explained to the women who were pregnant, how and why they came to be this way?

I think The Island is sort of indicative of what would have happened if Michael Bay had directed Minority Report. The sophistication would have been drained out of it, and replaced with cheesy over the top action sequences. (There were actually some undeniable cool action sequences in The Island, one in particular where Lincoln and Jordan are on a tractor trailer and Lincoln unleashes stack after stack of these metal objects that look like giant barbells. The barbells then bounce around the freeway crushing anything in their path.)

But I wanted more than just a couple cool action sequences. I wanted themes, I wanted motifs, and I wanted emotional depth and complex characters. I wanted an exploration of a social dilemma envisioned through the veil of a science fiction story. The Island was a mismatch of director and story.



Anonymous culture victim said...

let it be known that I saw ARMAGEDDON four times in the theatre and can say with authority that billy bob was not the president, but the head of mission control/nasa. take that new yorker!

that being said, i completely agree with your assessment of THE ISLAND and want to offer up my theory on why it didn't live up to both of our expectations. blasphemous as it may sound, perhaps what was lacking from this Bay movie was the magic touch of his frequent producing partner Jerry Bruckheimer and his magical development team.

8:26 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

I stand humbly corrected culture victim, he was not the president, and I apologize for my sloppy fact checking.

I'll plead the fifth on the JB suggestion though...

1:00 AM  
Blogger Elliot said...

I think Armageddon is awful.

3:18 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

I can't really disagree with you, but I find it awful in this hilariously entertaining way...

3:48 PM  

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