Clone War: The Island is A Special Effects Battle Royale That Falls Flat

When does homage become pastiche,and pastiche deteriorate into outright plagiarism?

The idea of a lottery gone horribly wrong, as it does in The Island, certainly isn't an originalone. Author Shirley Jackson first addressed that much covered ground in her appropriately titled 1948short story, "The Lottery."

And the Logan-Lincoln, Jessica-Jordan counterpoint of ourprotagonists, along with the concept of the "false Paradise"notwithstanding, isn't The Islandreally a non-too-subtle send-up of Logan'sRun, but without the '70s hallucinogenic sex orgies? (There is onelovemaking scene in The Island, butit is mercifully brief.)

It is 2019 and Ewan McGregor plays Lincoln Six-Echo, aresident of a fastidiously controlled--and monitored--environment that's somekind of antiseptic, Orwellian dystopia awash in the brightest possiblesaturation of white.

The facility is hermetically sealed from an outside worldthat has been devastated by an un-named ecological catastrophe. Consequently,its residents are Earth's only survivors. They all long to migrate to the Island, the only uncontaminated and habitable piece ofreal estate left in the world, admission to which is determined by a recurring andwidely anticipated lottery.

Meanwhile, Lincoln is spending a lot of time, i.e. enough toset off the facility's proximity alarms, with Jordan Two-Delta (ScarlettJohansson) whose bee-stung lips are beginning to swell to terrifying, MelanieGriffith proportions. She spouts hokey lines with overly rehearsed,not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman innocence, like "I know you're lying because youreyes don't smile."

While the audience may mistake the corn-fed dialogue for badacting, director Michael Bay (Armageddon,Pearl Harbor) tries to assure us that it'sactually narrative shorthand for Something Is Wrong Here.

When Jordanplayfully tells Lincolnto gird himself for another tiring workout that night, she isn't alluding to any steamy boudoir action, but a virtual,full-body, Xbox-powered boxing match that they face off in later. To make surethe audience gets it, the wide-eyed guilelessness of the facility's residents ishammered home when we're shown a classroom full of grown men and women recitinglines from their Dick and Janereaders in unison.

With Lincoln,McGregor reproduces that same adolescent naivete he portrayed in Moulin Rouge! andas the faux astronaut Zip Martin in DownWith Love. It's a little bit forced here but McGregor gets away, justbarely, with his callow youth performance. His character begins to question thenature of the facility. At the same time, Lincolndoesn't know why he's having the same recurring nightmare and he shares hisinsecurities with the facility's resident doc, Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean).

Now if this was an M. Night Shyamalan movie, this is whereI'd be obliged to stop. But since "the twist" has been widely publicized as theactual premise of the movie, I don't think I'd be violating any movie reviewercode of honor when I tell you that Lincoln and Jordan soon discover that--bigsurprise--there is no Island. ("Jessica,the Carousel is a lie! There is noRenewal!")

Lincoln'sworldview explodes when he learns that he and the other "survivors" are really clonesof people in a non-devastated, uncontaminated world, bred for the harvesting oforgans. In one of the picture's more brilliant scenes, Lincoln watches inhorror as the most recent lottery winner, played with nebbish aplomb by MichaelClarke Duncan in an all-too-brief performance, is treated no more kindly than afarm-fresh slab of meat in a slaughterhouse.

Steve Buscemi plays McCord, a facility worker who grudginglyhelps Lincoln and Jordan after they break out from the facility. His characteris the only one who seems even remotely fleshed out beyond a cardboardconstruct. When the protagonists express interest in meeting their sponsors,McCord, with a jaded weariness says, "Just because I'm eating a hamburger,doesn't mean I want to meet the cow." It's one of the few comedic moments inthe picture, and one where we can feel genuine human pathos.

While our inchoate Adam and Eve are trying to parse theirbrave new milieu, they're also being pursued by a rogue security squad led by aformer French special forces soldier (played by Djimon Houson)--a man, as thesaying goes, with a troubled past and nothing to lose.

Dr. Merrick (of Merrick Biotech) did a bad thing, yousee--his so-called "agnates" were never meant to be in anything other than apersistent, vegetative state, and certainly not gadding about downtown LosAngeles having "meta" moments with their Calvin Klein ads. It is at this pointthat the movie suddenly switches gears and devolves into just another shoot-em-upwith a Hollywood blockbuster budget.

The visuals and stunts certainly dazzle, and there areplenty of impressive explosions to keep the boys in the audience happy. I must confess,however, that one of the climatic chase scenes had me fumbling in my purse forthe Dramamine, feeling just a little bit duped. Yet I suspect that was Michael Bay's entire intent.

Scarlett Johansson is like a lost lamb in this movie. Shefails to express the emotional range she executed so effortlessly in Lost in Translation and even thatnarcoleptic clunker Girl with a Pearl Earring. Instead, Jordan vacillates between childlikebemusement and childlike trepidation, merely registering, and not reacting to,the chaos on the screen.

One of the rare times she shows the blush of warmth is whenshe and Lincoln explore each other's bodies like curious 13-year-olds whoseparents are out of town for the weekend. This happens despite the fact that theclones have had their sex drives bred out of them, which only goes to show thatnothing can stand in the way of the noble human pursuit of nookie.

Good science fiction stories are basically cautionary taleswhich plum hidden depths of the human psyche. If all science fiction is basedon the premise of the "what if," then Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" is reallydenouncing that dangers of capitalist hegemony. Logan's Run was really about '60s youthcounterculture and challenging authority. As Michael Bayhimself readily admits, all he wants audiences to do is to walk out of The Island deliberating if they'll everclone themselves. The Island mayrecall Terri Schiavo and the current stem cell debate, but Bay doesn't want youto think beyond the obvious.

Somewhere in the third act, Dr. Merrick, while defending hisactions, protests that the clones "have no soul." Unfortunately, neither doesthe movie he's in.

(The Islandopens July 22. Running time: 127 minutes, PG-13.)

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Jasmin Malik Chua
Contributing Writer

Jasmin Malik Chua is a fashion journalist whose work has been published in the New York Times, Vox, Nylon, The Daily Beast, The Business of Fashion, Vogue Business and Refinary29, among others. She has a bachelor's degree in animal biology from the National University of Singapore and a master of science in biomedical journalism from New York University.