13 AUGUST 2005, Page 33

Timely theme

Mark Steyn

The Island 12A, selected cinemas No man is an island, at least according to John Donne. But I wonder if we’ll be able to make the same confident assumption the day after tomorrow when it seems entirely possible that there will be forms of men kept apart as islands, definitely not ‘part of the main’, clods to be washed away with impunity because their death, far from diminishing us, is of huge benefit to us.

That’s what The Island is about. Having moaned all summer about Hollywood’s preference in interesting times for movies about nothing, I can hardly complain about The Island, which has at its heart one of the great questions of the age. Granted, it’s not a question for which one would in ideal circumstances seek answers from Michael Bay. Bay has been a reliably underperforming director of all the dampest squibs of the summer months — Pearl Harbor, Armageddon — for a decade or so. He’s a man so partial to product placement that he has a scene in The Island where Scarlett Johansson’s character comes face to face with the real Scarlett Johansson’s current perfume advertisement — even though The Island is a dystopian thriller set in the year 2050.

Still, why be churlish? No film is an island and much of this one seems like well-tilled soil from earlier dystopian thrillers such as Logan’s Run — though, alas, Miss Johansson doesn’t do nude scenes with the gay abandon of Jenny Agutter. But the difference is the moment, the context: the theme of The Island is very timely, and even with the usual overlong Michael Bay car-chase stuff — including a scene where the cars are chased by giant dumb-bells, which in its way sums up the entire Bay oeuvre even with all that, an over-inflated picture is better off with something worth inflating in the first place.

The Island begins in one of those clinical environments with plenty of glass but no windows and everyone wandering around in anodyne unisex jump suits: nothing says futuristic nightmare like the dress-code of a 1970s variety-show dance troupe. Among the semi-sedated types cruising the cafeteria the eye picks out the pouty lips of Miss Johansson and the almost equally fabulous bee-stung mole of Ewan MacGregor. They are, respectively, Jordan Two-Delta and Lincoln Six-Echo. Hmm. Everyone here has a double-barrelled name, including the screenwriter, one Caspian Tredwell-Owen. At first one doubts Caspian can tread well a path that’s been so well trod in the past, but he does. Outside the ‘facility’, the world has apparently been ‘contaminated’ so that it will no longer support life, except for one lone bucolic island, entrée to which is determined by a nightly televised lottery.

I ought to issue a warning here that I’m about to give away a key aspect of the plot, so skip a paragraph if you feel you must. But, come on, it’s pretty obvious from the trailer, and, even if you missed that, the minute the film gets going it seems vaguely like a high-tech version of last year’s The Village, and, even if you missed that, the presence of Sean Bean as the urbanely reassuring English doctor clinically presiding over the clinic should tip you off that the whole thing’s a crock. As it happens, it’s Steve Buscemi who sets Ewan MacGregor on the path to the truth. Buscemi plays a grungy guy in maintenance with soft-porn pin-ups on the wall. Good to know that even in 2050 some traditional ways of life will survive. Anyway, next thing you know it emerges that the world’s not post-apocalyptic at all and that Bean’s running a facility developing accelerated forms of clones to serve as spare parts and breeders for wealthy clients. MacGregor finds out just as Miss Johansson’s about to be harvested, and the pair of them fly the coop, which turns out to be an abandoned military base on a hill in the middle of the Arizona desert.

But what then? It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of two little cloned people don’t amount to a hill of Bean’s in this crazy world, and pretty soon he’s got rogue special-forces guys chasing Lincoln Six-Echo and Jordan Two-Delta all over Los Angeles and handling the case with impeccable discretion (shooting up freeways, skyscrapers, half the city’s cop cars, etc.). That’s pretty much the entire second half of this two-and-a-quarter-hour movie, though Bay eventually returns his principals to Arizona for a Bond-esque finale in which Ewan and Scarlett run around the underground lair as stuff explodes all around them and Bean essentially reprises his turn from Goldeneye.

Nonetheless, Michael Bay has made a movie that’s just thoughtful enough. ‘Everyone wants to live for ever. It’s the new American Dream,’ explains Steve Buscemi to a couple of clones. When he inaugurated his programme, Dr Merrick told his clients — the clones’ ‘sponsors’ that the replacement human material was maintained in a ‘persistent vegetative state’. ‘But why doesn’t Merrick want our sponsors to know we’re alive?’ asks one bewildered clone. Buscemi puts it this way: ‘Just because you want to eat the burger doesn’t mean you want to meet the cow.’ So right. The Island contains a very big truth underneath its caper plot: it’s never the sudden catastrophe you have to worry about (hence, the reduction of the global nuclear apocalypse to a conman’s device) but the gradual transformational justbelow-the-surface changes. The slippery ethical slope is greased with polite evasions, but the notion that one day we might be raising a separate subgroup of humanity in order to farm them for our medical needs doesn’t seem so far-fetched — as long as we’re told, at least initially, until we get used to the idea, that they began life as ‘surplus’ fetuses or some such.

There are several very fine moments in The Island, but, gorgeous as Scarlett and Ewan are, I would have to say the most memorable image is the kindly face of a female stroking the feet of a proud, drained mother moments after childbirth. She’s sympathetic and caressing and loving, and yet she’s doing something terribly wicked. And the unsettling thing is, if you’ve ever been in any hospital in the developed world, you’ll know that look.