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Living for the chase

Promising in the early going, 'The Island' descends into pointless, ceaseless action.

July 22, 2005|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Be careful what you wish for, it might ruin the movie you're in. Lincoln Six-Echo and Jordan Two-Delta are cloistered clones desperate to breathe the sweet air of freedom. But once they make good on their escape, "The Island" collapses like a punctured balloon.

Of course, given that "The Island" is directed by world-class noisemaker Michael Bay, make that a very loud punctured balloon. Chases, crashes and explosions are thick on the land in the second half of this movie, but though they are expertly done, their size, frequency and increasing disconnection from what was once a coherent story leave you feeling pummeled rather than exhilarated.

While the premise of "The Island" (as conceived by original screenwriter Caspian Tredwell-Owen) is not exactly revolutionary, it is a sturdy one, strengthened through multiple usage. And as it plays out, in the first half at least, it is surprisingly suited to Bay's talents.

The time is the year 2019, safely in the future. Lincoln (Ewan McGregor), Jordan (Scarlett Johansson) and their fellow residents of a massive underground facility run by Merrick (the impeccably evil Sean Bean) think they are the only survivors of a devastating planet-wide catastrophe. They live only to win the lottery, a periodic drawing whose winner gets to leave the facility and go to the Island, "the world's last paradise." They believe all this, but they are wrong.

Because Bay is by nature a heartless director, he turns out to be well suited to presenting this controlled, antiseptic future world -- heavily influenced by "THX 1138," "The Matrix" and other films -- in a believable way. With the help of production designer Nigel Phelps and cinematographer Mauro Fiore, "The Island" creates a fascinating futuristic cityscape and gives time and thought to making the regimented way its residents live science-fiction convincing.

If you're a cold filmmaker, it helps to have warm actors, and McGregor and Johansson do nicely as innocents in a world where the mantra is "be polite, pleasant and peaceful" and residents get "proximity warnings" if they spend too much time with members of the opposite sex. Also amusing is Bay veteran Steve Buscemi, a behind-the-scenes guy who knows more than he lets on.

Naturally, Lincoln and Jordan soon enough discover the truth about their facility and have to deal with the fact that, to paraphrase George Orwell, some humans are more human than others. They naturally want to escape, but though we wish them the best, once they get out of town the movie leaves with them.

Merrick, mirthless evildoer that he is, doesn't take their departure lying down. He hires the equally unsmiling former mercenary Laurent (Djimon Hounsou) to track Lincoln and Jordan down, no questions asked, no expense spared, no regard for human life necessary ... you get the idea.

Though there are some nice futuristic touches in the cityscape of the Los Angeles that Lincoln and Jordan flee to, at this point "The Island" effectively jettisons everything that made it at least marginally interesting and degenerates into a fearsome chase movie where Bay and company get to play with all the toys, including expensive automobile prototypes and flying motorcycles called Wasps, a $120-million budget could tolerate.

With a budget like that, it goes without saying that the stunts are superbly executed, but they are so ceaseless, finally so about themselves rather than furthering the story in any meaningful way, they become exhausting more than anything else.

It doesn't help that Bay has a weakness for torturing his characters as well as the audience and that co-screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who news reports say were brought in to work on the film's final sections, are not strong on dramatic plausibility. "The Island" was never going to be great, but it deserved to be better than it ended up.


'The Island'

MPAA rating: PG-13, for intense sequences of violence and action, some sexuality and language.

Times guidelines: Second half is a nonstop action barrage.

Released by DreamWorks Pictures. Director Michael Bay. Producers Walter F. Parkes, Michael Bay, Ian Bryce. Executive producer Laurie MacDonald. Screenplay Caspian TredwellOwen and Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci. Story Caspian Tredwell-Owen. Cinematographer Mauro Fiore. Editors Paul Rubell, Christian Wagner. Costumes Deborah L. Scott. Music Steve Jablonsky. Production design Nigel Phelps. Supervising art director David Sandefur. Set decorator Rosemary Brandenburg. Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes.

In general release.

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