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'The Island': Surrounded by Banality on All Sides

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 22, 2005

Presumably, "The Island," directed by Michael Bay -- Hollywood's go-to guy for dumbed-down summer popcorn pictures -- is a chilling contemporary cautionary tale in which the obsessive pursuit of genetic perfection and immortality is shown to have heretofore unimagined dystopian ramifications. But in all the rain, random events and running around, through the blurry chase scenes, endless vehicular pileups and big, TV-friendly close-ups of Scarlett Johansson's lips and Ewan McGregor's mole, I could discern only the dimmest plot. And it has something to do with a guy escaping what is either a Washington Metro station or an Ian Schrager hotel and trying to get to the set of "Survivor."

That's as far as I can make out. Of course it's early yet, and somewhere "The Island" is still running, all 274 hours of it; I had to duck out to make deadline. What am I missing? Another car chase, surely, or another grisly scene of medical malfeasance, whether in the form of implanting tiny crawling robotic critters under someone's eyelid or some unsavory business involving a bone saw, or yet one more reference to (or rip-off from) "Blade Runner" or "Logan's Run" or "Gattaca" or "Minority Report" or "The Island of Dr. Moreau" or "Austin Powers" (unintentional, but there are scenes featuring McGregor's character and his nemesis, played by Sean Bean, that can't help but conjure Dr. Evil).

"The Island," unsurprisingly, is a clone of other movies about clones and other things. But it derives most of its overproduced aesthetics and flimsy narrative from the beer commercials Bay used to direct; indeed it could still be argued that he's never stopped taking his cues from Madison Avenue -- you know a movie has taken product placement too far when it unironically includes its own lead actress's real-life perfume advertisement.

This comes late in the movie, when Johansson's character, a gorgeous futuristic babe named Jordan Two Delta, discovers her identity, the reason she was put on the Earth, her true purpose in life. The news is not good -- think less Deepak Chopra, more Charlton Heston in "Soylent Green." When Jordan spies the perfume ad, she and her space-age friend Lincoln Six Echo (McGregor) are on the run from said nemesis and his mercenary minions through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, which, this being science fiction, has a fully functional public transportation system.

They're running from the baddies, but, midway through, they also start running from one movie -- a sleek speculative fantasy in which everyone dresses like an Olympic fencing champion -- into another, more conventional, action thriller in which the cars may look different but still speed, screech, smash and blow up in satisfying testosterone-fueled blasts. This is the territory Bay, best known for effects-driven no-brainers like "The Rock" and "Armageddon," clearly feels most comfortable in, as he returns to it again and again; McGregor and Johansson -- neither of whom is the first actor you'd think of for this kind of trashy summer fare -- are instantly forgettable in roles that essentially amount to not getting in the way of logos for MSN, Cadillac, Xbox and Nokia.

Next to that stuff, special effects run a close second in Bay's affection, and here they're lavished with all the care and attention to quality that just couldn't be spared for such extras as the script. They're admittedly well executed, even in those scenes in which McGregor appears with himself; reportedly, the ending had to be re-shot with McGregor and Bean not only in separate rooms, but in separate countries. You'd never know it, but you don't much care, either. If you find yourself at "The Island" I have only three words of advice: Vote yourself off.

The Island (127 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some sexuality and profanity.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company