I Feel Really Sorry for Michael Bay...
Michael Bay’s The Island is a smart and logistically sound film that ponders some serious concerns about the philosophy and process of a controversial social subject. This film is the complete antithesis of Bay’s in previous five films, all under super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer. (Without coincide, The Island is his first directing effort sans Jerry.) I applaud him for making a film so sharp and consistent that remains as exciting as the isolated moments in his earlier films. I don’t take back anything I’ve said about Bay but it’s great to see him doing different and provocative things with the sci-fi genre and achieving artistic success.
And yes, I know I’m talking about Michael Bay.
Unfortunately, these are the reasons why The Island bombed at the box office its opening weekend. I mean, its budget/gross ratio is worse that Cinderella Man or Kingdom of Heaven. The most tragic thing about this failure is not that audiences will reject smart blockbusters or those critics who chose to stick with the “Michael Bay-is-the-Devil” talking points instead of judging the film on its merits. No, the tragedy is Bay will slink back to Jerry and make Bad Boys III: Will and Martin go to Afghanistan with the hurtful, sad lesson that the mass market prefers that to his commercial failure. He stuck his neck out and it got chopped right off. I mean, just listen to this poor bastard in the 7-26-05’s Los Angeles Times on the film’s opening weekend. “It’s always the director’s fault.” (?) I don’t know if Bay should start comparing himself to Spielberg or Kubrick just yet. This is a broken man who had ambition and the commercial success to take a chance that didn’t work out the way it should have.
To understand the complexity and bafflement of this situation, a little history on Bay is required. Before 1995, Bay was just another I-wear-my-baseball cap-backwards video director known for his elaborate work with Aerosmith and Madonna. Then, super-producers Jerry and then-alive Don Simpson picked Bay to direct Bad Boys. This was a pretty typical buddy-cop action film whose visual style was a bit rushed and jarring. That film worked because Will Smith and Martin Lawrence were desperate to break out of television. Those guys were hungry back then and seemed to enjoy playing against their established types; Smith as the rowdy party guy and Lawrence as the squeaky-clean family man. They were the main event.
With this success, Jerry then gave Bay The Rock. The Rockstill makes my blood boil. Seemingly an innocent jaunt about terrorists taking hostages on Alcatraz, the film had subconscious undertones of fascism. There was military leader Ed Harris using African-American mercenaries to shed blood and make him money. In addition to being the nastiest characters in the film, they also suffered the nastiest fates. This, in addition to a “liberal” peppering of gay stereotypes and justification for illegal government activity in the name of patriotism, made The Rock one of the most offensive blockbusters of the past ten years. Bay’s next film, 1998’s Armageddon, simply remains offensive for taking a preposterous national tragedy and turning it into a schmaltzy exercise and plot generalizations excessive swooning that seemed more in touch with its awful theme song (penned by Aerosmith) than an actual cinematic experience.
But his worst offenses were yet to come. In 2001, Bay took a REAL national tragedy – the attack on Pearl Harbor – and boiled its relevance down to a distraction in the love triangle between Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, and Ben Affleck. And how about the moment when FDR (played by Jon Voight) actually stands out of his wheelchair to make an assertive point? This isn’t as bad as 2003’s Bad Boys II. Here’s what Bad Boys II thinks is funny and entertaining: (1) Digging through corpses and tossing out organs. (2) Pointing a gun to the head of a boy who shows up for a date with a main character’s daughter and quizzing him on if he’d like to be “fucked by an older man.” (3) Invading Cuba and destroying a slum in its “spectacular” conclusion. Above all else, Bay had the audacity to make Bad Boys II two and a half hours long.
This leads to The Island. The look and plot of the film owes a lot to George Lucas’ THX-1138. Like that film, The Island focuses on a pair of rebels – here represented Lincoln Echo-Six (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson) – who seek to escape their sanitized, sex-free environment before they fall victim to its inhumane and violent system. In Lucas’ film, the characters were well-aware of their oppressive work atmosphere. Here, they lead a serene life with easy tasks and the hope of winning a lottery that secures them a spot on The Island, billed as Earth’s last paradise after an “epidemic” sent humans underground. What the inhabitants of this cold, futuristic world do not realize is they are “harvested beings” for rich people who use them for spare parts. When someone is “chosen” for The Island, they are off to surgery which leads to their death and subsequent disposal. So why go through all the trouble of creating this fictional reality? “We learned the beings could not develop without stimuli,” intones Merrick (Sean Bean), the man in charge of the project.
But Lincoln Six-Echo has developed a fatal flaw. He is curious and he questions things like his existence or why certain things work. He learns of his real purpose with the help of technician McCord (Steve Buscemi) and proceeds to bust out, but not before grabbing Jordan as she is being “shipped off.” Most of the film, like the third act of THX, is set on the run. French mercenary Laurent (Djimon Hounsou) seems like a traditional bad guy but his back story reveals something more complicated. Indeed, the entire film is much more complicated than it appears. While Lucas focused on class warfare for his futuristic yarn, Bay’s film actually explores some of the ethical and moral complications of cloning and the application of scientific innovations. The film does a great job of explaining the intricacies of cloning: How they learn to talk, what they’re supposed to eat, what kind of environment works best for them. It’s a solid foundation for issues that develop later. One could argue Bay short shifts the important uses of cloning technology but his take seems more appropriate for our society: Clones are developed for athletes who want longer careers and for playboy billionaires who need to replace their livers after STD’s have ravaged them. This materialistic culture is one Bay has happily toiled for the entirety of his career. Now, he uses that same vanity and awareness as a critique. Human beings are being created as merchandise and the development of conscience and curiosity is seen as burdensome and as a license to kill.
Bay has cast some great actors to help him flesh this out. McGregor gets to play boyish and action star, a role that normally ends up in different films. His puzzlement and confusion seems real and his scene where he confronts his duplicate Tom Lincoln, lets McGregor display some neat acting tricks in displaying the subtle nuances between the real person (who refers to the clone as his “insurance policy”) and his less-developed counterpart. (Not to mention displaying a subconscious dig at McGregor’s conflict between Movie Star and Indie Wunderkind.) Johansson also gets to use this as a nice acting exercise: Her realization that an escape will put her “owner” at risk of death is surprisingly troublesome and effective. And Hounsou’s confrontation with Bean in the film’s climax gives the film a chance to compare the classification of clones to ethnic cleansing.
Any other time, I would label such posturing exploitation. But it’s not posturing here. This is a film that has something interesting on its mind, a film that wants to make the audience consider cloning in the same regards as ethnic cleansing and abortion through visual cues. Unwanted clones are marched to an incinerator even as they remain convinced they will be shipped to someplace better. Undeveloped clones, still in their embryonic cocoons, are slashed with knives and left to writhe in a bloody pool. Yeah, would you like some popcorn with that? This certainly leads to an argument that cloning isn’t a part of the “culture of life”, but it’s also obvious that Bay also sympathizes with Merrick’s understanding of demand in the marketplace. There is no doubt an economics play into this debate. Look at the “pro-life” GOP-er’s afraid to unsettle bio-based research and development industries by getting tough on the “Embryo or nothing” debate.
So the inevitable question is: What does this say about Bay’s non-Jerry influenced politics? (We know what Jerry’s politics are about.) There is one scene when Lincoln Six-Echo, outside of the underground society, realizes he knows the clone of the President and exclaims, “I hated that guy”. The response, “Yeah, he’s a real moron.” But the point is not what The Island has to reveal about Bay’s stance on cloning but what cloning reveals about Michael Bay. The film has exciting moments that are just as good as anything in his other work. The problem there was those scenes were surrounded by characters and plots so vapid that it didn’t matter. Here, those action scenes seem to have more purpose because we care more about what’s going on. Now, there are some technical problems with the film. I could never figure out how the escape was so easy when everything the “harvested beings” did was so closely monitored. But they are minor gripes. The Island is exciting and compelling filmmaking. Too bad Bay will never make anything like it ever again.