The Island was Michael Bay’s last film before he disappeared into the creative black hole of the Transformers films. It had a difficult shoot, an advertising campaign from which Bay disassociated himself, and a public response that varied between lukewarm and actively hostile. He rushed it out in less than a year to get the jump on a mooted remake of Logan’s Run, and the experience and reaction to it nearly broke him. He retreated to a sweet franchise deal with a baked-in non-judgemental audience, where it didn’t matter what the critics said.
That’s a pity, because The Island has a lot to recommend it. The basic pitch is clear – Logan’s Run meets the Clonus Horror. A post-apocalyptic colony, isolated after an ecological disaster are gradually revealed to be clones, grown as organ donors for rich clients. The island of the title, allegedly the one uncontaminated place on the planet, is a mirage. It allows the evil scientists running the place to whisk away their bags of meat with no questions asked. Everyone in the colony wants to go to The Island, but being picked for the privilege means death. When two clones discover the truth about the world and their place in it and escape, the running, chasing and shooting at which Bay excels can begin.
However, up until that point it barely feels like a Michael Bay film at all, and you can see why he and the studios were so concerned about the Logan’s Run reboot. The opening section of The Island is a solid rip-off of the early parts of the kitsch 70s classic, with a Nike-futurist twist. The surfaces are all glass, polished concrete and ribbed fabrics. The clones waft about serenely in form-fitting tracksuits, and the dome comes across less like a living space and more like a mall. The similarities between the lottery for The Island and the black crystal marking you for Sanctuary are clear. The idea of a friend moving on to a better place and leaving everyone behind, never to be seen again, and for that sudden loss to be an expected and normal event is the dark place at the heart of both films, and they both reap benefits from it.
In fact, there are quite literally dark places in both films. Evil scientist Merrick’s offices are clad in dark stone and underlit through patterned glass. The computer that controls life in Logan’s dome sits in a vast, dim, cathedral-like space, the status panels glowing like stained glass. Bay and his design team seem to be drawn back to the design cues and plot beats of Logan’s Run – Merrick’s private army are dressed like Sandmen, and are relentless in their pursuit of the two runners, Lincoln and Jordan.
Famously, Bay was drawn to The Island because of the script and its exploration of how much value we put on life. He’s never subtle, but the way in which the clones are treated more like prized and pampered cattle than people still packs a punch. The moment that drew him to the project has a shocking power that’s not matched by anything else in his back catalogue. A pregnant clone is “taken to The Island,” giving birth only to see her baby taken away before she is put to sleep. The newborn is given to her client duplicate, who shows no concern for the surrogate. This is the point of the movie. The clones have been sold to the public that use them as unthinking, unfeeling creatures. Jordan and Lincoln’s escape puts that fiction under threat.
The world outside the dome is a hard, cruel place with some harsh lessons for the childlike clones. Jordan and Lincoln are both confronted by their doubles, who are shown as vain and duplicitous – quite literally two-faced. Ultimately, it’s the clones, sheltered from the world, that come across as the characters with the most humanity. There’s nothing particularly original about the story or it’s themes, but compared to Bay’s other films The Island is Shakespearean in depth and scope.
It’s a real shame that Bay, one of Hollywood’s purest visual stylists, has retreated from scripts with a bit of resonance and interest to spend the last five years directing Shia LaBeouf shouting “Optimus!” into a bleached-teal sky. The Island is no masterpiece, but it’s interesting enough to be worth your time.