Revisiting the Reviled — ‘The Island’ is Michael Bay’s Ambitious, Bombastic Prelude to ‘Transformers’

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Sometimes long-standing working relationships end. One exceptionally fruitful partnership between director Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer came to an end following the action sequel Bad Boys II. There seems to be no ill-will between the two, but Bay spread his own wings as a producer while Bruckheimer would make splashes into the world of television. If there was a divorce, nobody went broke when dividing the possessions. Bay’s first film away from Bruckheimer was a guide into where the bombastic director would take his next films. The Island carries the distinct political edge of a Michael Bay film with so much chaotic action that exists to render the plot secondary. Looking back at the film over a decade later, it becomes apparent that The Island was a testing ground for the film franchise that would define Michael Bay for over a decade – Transformers.

But breaking away from Bruckheimer wasn’t a guarantee for Bay. The Island would be his first true flop. For the first time as a feature film director, Bay was vulnerable. Complicating matter, the original story by Caspar Tredwell-Owen wasn’t as original as initially billed. A lawsuit from the makers of the ‘70s b-movie Parts: The Clonus Horror claimed that the story of The Island was lifted from a movie that had peaked when it appeared on an episode Mystery Science Theater 3000. The finished script by Tredwell-Owen along with work by Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci takes an interesting concept and renders it into an extended chase scene, a story where the larger moral questions are drowned out by bombastic action and conspiratorial overtones that have come to define the work of Bay and his screenwriting collaborators.

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From a thematic standpoint, The Island is the movie version of the kind of person who would employ the phrase “Wake up, sheeple!” in casual conversation. It takes place in a futuristic underground society where people work menial jobs while hoping they’ll win the lottery and be transported to the Island, the last area of the Earth that isn’t contaminated. Dissatisfied with the uniform nature of his world, Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor) asks questions of his superiors, his temper flares when he can’t get bacon with his breakfast. In this sexless society, Lincoln Six-Echo is still able to strike up a platonic friendship with Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson). With his inquisitive nature, Lincoln Six-Echo strikes up a friendship with James McCord (Steve Buscemi), a worker within a restricted sector of this new society. Before long, though, Lincoln Six-Echo discovers the horrific truth – the people that populate this renewed society are merely clones and a trip to the Island means that they’re killed and their organs harvested. Lincoln and Jordan escape the underground society and are hounded by Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou), a mercenary tracker hired by Dr. Bernard Merrick (Sean Bean), who wants both killed to preserve his billion dollar industry of harvesting organs to help the rich stave off death.

The inherent political aspects of The Island are undermined by Bay’s compulsion for more and more action, not to mention the half-baked conspiracy elements. Once Lincoln and Jordan have fled the underground and entered the real world, The Island is just an exaggerated car chase, spectacle that is hollow and seemingly never-ending. The reductionist idiocy of Bay’s film never takes its horrific allegory of income inequality and healthcare beyond the chaser and chased. In this world the rich survive from a system of indoctrination and euthanasia, but Bay can’t make it mean anything more than “Crash! Swerve! Boom!” And when looking at the broader filmographies of Bay, Orci, and Kurtzman, The Island is just another conspiratorial entry from these filmmakers who have a paranoid and child-like distrust of power lacking in any political sophistication.

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More to the point with Bay, The Island shows the director’s failings in tackling more ambitious story material. He’s incapable of building tension between his characters and the story because those things just get in the way of the car chases. With The Island, Bay reveals his hand too quickly for no other purpose than to get the action. With its extended car chases, sometimes crashing through glass-covered skyscrapers, The Island plays like a testing ground for all the bombast that would overpopulate the Transformers movies.

For all its similarities with Bay’s subsequent Transformers movies, The Island doesn’t feature Bay’s most regressive trademarks of racial stereotypes and blatant sexism. Though Scarlett Johansson’s Jordan Two-Delta is the clone of a Maxim model, Bay avoids shooting her in the same lecherous manner that he captured Megan Fox. Of course, Jordan Two-Delta is the lone female character of The Island, with only a handful of other women populating this underground dystopia. Michael Bay’s sexism by omission isn’t particularly endearing, but it’s nowhere as frustrating as his typical forays into cinematic misogyny. Whether it’s an enclosed society controlled by mysterious forces or the fictional Los Angeles of 2019, the Bechdel Test doesn’t exist in the world of The Island, though product placement for X-Box does exist in both realms of this futuristic society.

For all its flaws, and there are many, The Island marks the moment when Michael Bay earned complete control over his filmography. No longer in the shadow of a big-time producer, Bay was able to make films that appealed to his sensibilities, though it could be argued that what drives Bay is the very thing that undermines his movies – the unending barrage of action, casual sexism, and really fast cars. The Island remains Michael Bay’s lowest grossing film to date, the one true flop of his career. But it wouldn’t be long before Bay was back with his knack for spinning cameras, low angles, and action that borders on the incomprehensible. He’s not the type of filmmaker that can handle stories that demand complexity, and The Island proves that anything beyond the mayhem is out of reach for the director. With a keen eye, I still believe that Michael Bay is an extremely talented filmmaker that can’t get out of his own way. All of the things that make a Michael Bay film a Michael Bay film are the same things that make them so bad. The Island is no different.

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