DreamWorks // 2005 // 136 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson (Retired) // June 20th, 2011
"Remember, be polite, pleasant, and peaceful. A healthy person is a happy person." -- Intercom admonition to facility residents.
The Island starts off as a thoughtful dystopian science fiction story and ends as a thrills-and-spills actioner. Director Michael Bay pulls off the opposing admixture of story elements with brio and panache to spare.
Almost every review or discussion of this movie I've run across gives away the reveal, a story twist that does not occur until close to mid-film. Even the three-sentence description on the back of The Island (Blu-ray) is a spoiler. Sure, most viewers will figure out a goodly portion of the hidden details well before the reveal, but that's part of the fun of watching. Therefore, for the dozen or so viewers who have not seen the movie and have managed to avoid the myriad of online spoilers, my summary is purposefully vague and abbreviated.
In the year 2019, Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor, The Ghost Writer) is one of thousands of residents housed in a huge structure that was ostensibly built to protect rescued individuals from an unnamed disease that has wiped out most of the human race. Their daily routines are highly structured and constantly monitored: When Lincoln wakes from a bad dream, he is told to report to a doctor for evaluation; when he relieves himself, a readout monitor above the urinal informs him that his sodium levels are too high; his big event of the day is discovering that one of his several sets of sneakers is missing a left shoe. However, there is one truly important, central part of the residents' lives, and that is the daily lottery. One winner is selected at random from the population, and the cherished prize is permanent relocation to an unnamed island paradise far removed from the ravages of the deadly contagion.
Lincoln has a close friend in Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson, Match Point), though not too close, since they are vigilantly watched over at all times by eagle-eyed security guards who do not allow over-extended fraternization -- especially between the sexes. Lincoln becomes irritated by the spying and heavy handed interference in his life. He seems, in fact, to be less pliable and subservient, more inquiring, than his oddly childlike brethren. When Jordan suddenly wins the lottery, Lincoln is fearful for his friend. His recent discovery of a moth that seems to have come from the supposedly deadly outside world has made him uneasy. He begins to feel there may be more to their hermetically sealed existence than they are being told. Lincoln manages to acquire a key from a friend, James McCord (Steve Buscemi, Saint John of Las Vegas), who works in maintenance. When he sneaks into a restricted area, he sees something more terrible than he could ever have imagined. Lincoln must warn Jordan that her reward is not likely the trip to paradise they were promised; their survival may depend on an escape from what now appears to be a prison rather than a safe haven.
Thanks to the film's leisurely beginning, there is plenty of time for character introductions and a view of their workday routines and entertainments. There is also time to enjoy numerous tracking and sweeping pan shots of the vast, brightly lit interior set -- at least five football fields in length, according to Michael Bay -- constructed in an abandoned Boeing factory. A possibly record-setting amount of cabling for the lights was required to properly illuminate the huge set. Mauro Fiore's cinematography captures a high-tech world that is safe, antiseptic, and run with clockwork precision. The big money shots pay off in the beautiful depiction of an architectural environment that seems oddly stark and sumptuous at the same time.
The eye candy is a wonder to behold, but it's Caspian Tredwell-Owen's script that makes the movie a riveting thrill machine as well as a thoughtful take on the unethical uses of technology. In spite of the film's initially somber theme, there is ample light humor in the dialogue. All of the clothing is white with black accents, but when Lincoln reports his missing shoe, he also wistfully requests a colored replacement. Later, Lincoln asks James McCord, "What's God?" James says, "Well, you know, when you want something really bad and you close your eyes and you wish for it? God's the guy that ignores you." The jokes are not there just for cheap laughs. The humor helps to round out the protagonists and make them sympathetic. Most of the serious moments are handled quite well, too. The villain of the piece, Dr. Bernard Merrick (Sean Bean, Silent Hill), a suave megalomaniac with a god complex, is given a few dramatic lines that quickly reveal his leanings toward the dark side. Altogether, it's a clever, well-written script.
The story also manages a fairly smooth transition from its Brave New World beginning to the supercharged, explosive chase sequences that take over in the film's second half. One of the action highlights is a frenetic highway chase that includes muscle cars, black-ops helicopters, hovering jet cycles, and a flatbed truck loaded down with freight train wheels; it rivals The Matrix Reloaded highway chase for over-the-top, physics-defying spectacle. The real onscreen mayhem is smoothly integrated with CGI for a near-seamless, realistic appearing set of action sequences.
Video for this new dual layer Paramount/DreamWorks release is superior to the earlier single layer, Japanese Blu-ray from Warner. The better picture produced by the higher bit rate will probably be most noticeable to viewers with diagonal screen measurements of about sixty inches and up. Skin tones are natural or bluish in some scenes, and more orange at other times when the colors are especially saturated (which I think is how it was intentionally filmed). The colors are solid and vibrant throughout, and the picture detail is razor-sharp, only a notch or two below the clarity of a very recent, reference-level BD such as Inception. Film grain is noticeable but not at all distracting. The new DTS-HD Master Audio in 5.1 is a tremendous upgrade over the Dolby Digital surround of the earlier release. Michael Bay says in the commentary (I'm slightly paraphrasing), "If you have a good sound system at home, I want you to listen to the mix (by Kevin O'Connell and Greg Russell)...It's stunning...sound is about forty per cent of a movie." I agree with him completely. Even during scenes filled with roaring motors and explosions, you can clearly hear quietly articulated sounds under the roar. It is a beautifully balanced audio mix that makes full and imminently listenable use of the front and rear speakers.
Extras include an audio commentary from Michael Bay, and three short featurettes in standard definition with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound: The Future in Action, The Making of The Island, and Pre-visualization: Forward Thinking. The short features are lacking in depth, but do contain some pertinent info about the making of the picture. The director's commentary is frank and wide-ranging, covering topics that include budgetary fights with the studio, filming in bad weather, and his dissatisfaction with the final showdown fight (due to budget cuts, the set that was originally to be used was not constructed when shooting started), and his near-death experience while filming one of the chase sequences. Aside from several dead-air minutes here and there, it's an entertaining discussion.
My enjoyment of this movie does not stem from a fannish delight in all things Michael Bay. My estimation of Bay's other films prior to and after The Island ranges from indifference to dislike, but this film demonstrates that with the right script (as opposed to a script tailored for a toy franchise, or the benefits of nuclear bombs for blowing up asteroids), he can direct an intelligent, riveting action picture as well as anyone in Hollywood. No doubt, truckloads of money help greatly, but with this script and the excellent cast, Michael Bay proves he has the talent to deliver a high octane, seat-of-the-pants picture, one dark enough to generate some real drama, but not so heavy as to get in the way of the frothy humor and thrillingly choreographed action scenes. The new, souped-up Blu-ray transfer from DreamWorks is an easy recommendation. It does full justice to the movie, with sound and picture beating out any previous release.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 136 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13