Friday, February 1, 2013

Film Friday: The Island (2005)

The Island is an odd film. It’s shiny and pretty with a story that moves along nicely and which raises some interesting philosophical questions. Yet, it’s also strangely lifeless. . . welcome to the world of Michael Bay. . . look, shiny! I say strangely because a film about the harvesting of human being for their organs should have a much stronger emotional impact than this film does. Ultimately, I think this is the result of several bad decisions.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
The Island is the story of a group of people who think they’ve survived a contamination holocaust. They live in a sealed community and are taken care of by an all-powerful government which controls what they wear, what they eat, and what they do - the government seems obsessed with their health and diet. Every so often, the government runs a lottery. The winner of the lottery is allowed to leave the compound to live on “the island,” the last uncontaminated paradise on Earth. That sounds great, only the truth is somewhat less pleasant.
One of the survivors is Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor). He’s sort of restless. Indeed, he raises complaints about the food and the lack of color in his clothing (everyone wears white), and he goes to places he shouldn’t. Because of this, he one day ends up outside the compound. What he finds is a medical center and the latest winner of the lottery is there being cut open so they can remove his organs. Lincoln Six and his quasi-girlfriend Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) then escape the compound. Naturally, they are pursued. As they flee, they discover that the world is fine and they are not survivors of anything, they are clones who have been grown so their organs can be harvested.
Why The Film Feels Hollow
If you’re looking for a mindless way to blow a couple hours, you’ll probably like The Island. After a bit of a science-fictiony start, the film quickly devolves into one long chase scene. It’s not bad in that regard. But if you’re hoping for more, you will likely be disappointed. What makes this strange is that the film is set up to deliver so much more, but it just never does. Indeed, it’s very hard to care about the characters or to feel their plight. And for a film about humans being raised on an organ farm just to be parted out when they are needed, there’s remarkably little outrage or revulsion to be had from the film because the film never hits you in the gut or makes you uncomfortable. Here’s why:
Mistake No. One: The film is too clean. Indeed, there isn’t really a moment that shocks us. The compound is nice. The people are friendly. The bad guys seem apologetic, and the one scene that should be grotesque, when Michael Clarke Duncan accidentally wakes up as they are removing his organs, is more comedic than ugly. Indeed, there’s no blood and there’s nothing to make you sick. It would have been much more powerful if you had been slapped in the face with something graphic to give you a sense of the immorality of what was going on. For example, a pile of corpses would have been good (e.g. The Running Man) or a scene where you watched helplessly as Duncan awaited his death. As it is, the viewer is never really confronted with the true nature of what is happening.

Mistake No. Two: The characters are less than human. It’s very hard to care about the characters in this film. Part of that is that they aren’t really presented as complete human beings. They have no hopes and no dreams and no family. They don’t even have boyfriends/girlfriends because they have no sex drive – it’s been removed from their programming. This makes it difficult to “feel” how their deaths are all that sad because there is no loss for you to consider.

Mistake No. Three: The film itself shuts down most of the debate. For example, the film points out that clones don’t know what God is. This essentially stops any discussion of the human soul. The film points out that only rich people can afford this, but then it doesn’t show any poor people suffering because of it, so that issue is for naught. The film says that the reason these clones are conscious (the corporation lies to the world and says they aren’t) is because they found the body dies without consciousness. What does that say about the meaning of life? The film doesn’t address it. Instead, it buries the point in talk about losing military contracts. All the interesting issues are one-liners which get left undeveloped on the table.
Mistake No. Four: Finally, we come to the big mistake: the film lets the audience off the hook. The film does this in several ways. First, it makes the people who guard the clones jackasses. It’s therefore easy for the audience to disassociate themselves from these people. Disassociation allows the audience to ignore the moral question by thinking that it doesn’t apply to them because they don’t see themselves as being like the jackasses.

Then we learn that what they are doing is either illegal or quasi-illegal. Indeed, we are shown how the company lies to regulators and investors alike by telling them that the clones are never allowed to become conscious. This makes it even easier for the audience to disassociate themselves from this. Instead of needing to face the ugly reality that society accepts harvesting human organs and wondering how we would feel in that world, this decision to make this a rogue corporation tells the audience this is not something society accepts - it’s just another villain. This means our morality is never questioned. Even the hired killer assures us that this is wrong, and if the most immoral parts of society agree that this is wrong, then it becomes impossible for the audience to feel threatened that this might one day become reality.
The final error in this regard was the happy ending. The heroes escape from the clutches of the farm and then return to free their fellow livestock. Presumably, this will end the practice. Everyone lives happily ever after and the audience never needs to worry about finding themselves in a world where humans are grown so we can harvest their organs because this was just an aberration. Whew!

This is why this film looks pretty, but feels hollow. A film like this should be a deeply uncomfortable experience that leaves people questioning their own morality and wondering if their own world could following the same path. This film never achieves that. In fact, it never tries. To the contrary, all of the philosophical/moral points the film sets up get neutered before they can be developed, and the film keeps assuring the audience that what they are seeing could never really happen. Essentially, the film keeps telling the audience, “Don’t worry, this doesn’t concern you,” when it should be telling the audience, “This could be you already!” Even on a character level, the film takes away our ability to care by stripping out any real sense of loss if these clones die. In the end, what should have been a gripping, horrifying philosophical-thriller turned out to be just an action film involving clones.

42 comments:

Anonymous said...

Long-time lurker, First-time poster.

All very good points about this movie, Andrew. The better movie to explore those issues (though I use "better" somewhat ironically) is Parts: The Clonus Horror. It does show the impact of one of the clones learning what their existence really means, that there are people who are repelled at the thought of a breathing, sentient human killed for the express purpose of spare parts, and one character in particular when told that he has his own clone waiting for him when he needs something new, being tempted at the thought.

I said I used better ironically because the only place I've ever seen this particular movie was on Mystery Science Theater 3000. . . . where they did a *GREAT* send up of it :)

As an interesting side note, the director of Parts gives a mini-interview at the beginning of the MST3K version of his movie and said that thanks to the Misties, he was able to file a lawsuit against Dreamworks and Bay over The Island because of 200 points of similarity. The judge agreed, declaring that The Island was a remake of Parts and that he had to be paid royalties.
Ty

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ty, and welcome! :)

I loved Mystery Science Theater 3000! I've seen almost all of them, but I don't recall if I saw that one or not? It doesn't ring any bells.

I've read about the lawsuit and I think that's interesting that MST helped! I hadn't heard that point. One thing I found interesting was that Phillip Dick's wife also claims The Island infringed on one of his stories, but she apparently stopped making the claim for some reason.

In terms of the story, I think there's a heck of a story to be told here if someone really worked through the philosophical/moral points and then centered the film around those. And it would be very topical as we keep getting closer to the point where we can clone humans.

Ty said...

See if this rings any bells for you:

The clone: "I'm just like you! I'm just like ANY OF YOU!!"

Mike Nelson: Isn't that horrible?!

AndrewPrice said...

Sadly, it doesn't. I just looked it up and it was one of the Sci-Fi Channel ones. Unfortunately, that's when my viewing became spotty. I even had all of the Comedy Central ones on tape, but when they switched to the Sci-Fi Channel, I was doing a lot of traveling for work and I missed a few of them.

shawn said...

I've seen The Island once, and like you thought it was pretty, but otherwise, it didn't really leave much of an impression on me. So I guess you could call it pretty forgettable. (thank you, don't forget to tip your waitress.)

Movies that weren't as pretty, but left a more memorable imprint on me concerning the human spirit: Rollerball, the original with James Cann, and Gattaca. And if you want more of a shock factor: Solylent Green.

I say this for Micheal Bay- he'll give you a glitzy, fast paced film, so in that regard, he's a good director, but he isn't much of a story teller.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, I agree completely. Bay has great visual style and an excellent feel for pacing a movie... but man does he stink when it comes to story telling. It would be interesting to see what he could do if he was paired with someone who actually could tell stories.

Rollerball is actually one of my favorite films. It was my first review at the site even! I think it's an amazingly complex and fascinating story that really grabs you. More people should give it a chance if they haven't. Here's my review: LINK

Anthony said...

Andrew said:

A film like this should be a deeply uncomfortable experience that leaves people questioning their own morality
------
All Michael Bay movies released after The Rock have been deeply uncomfortable movies that have left me questioning my own morality.

All of his post-Rock movies have bland, bloodless (often incoherent) action, boring characters and nonsensical plots. Why watch? Gorgeous female leads (though I must say the girl in the last Transformers movie was an inadequate replacement for Fox).

ScottDS said...

I remember this movie. It was Michael Bay's first film without Jerry Bruckheimer there to supervise. I barely remember the film itself - only that, in retrospect, it seems to mark the transition between Bay's chaotic years and his really chaotic years! Contrast the action in The Rock or Armageddon with the Transformers movies and I think you'll see what I mean. :-)

Isn't there an action sequence in this film that he later re-used almost shot for shot in Bad Boys II?

The only other think I kinda remember is that pro-lifers took to this movie but it was too little too late to save it from low box-office (low for Bay, anyway). The movie does raise some moral and ethical issues but Bay just wasn't the director to explore them.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, LOL! Well said. Yeah, Michael Bay films kind of leave you asking the ultimate question... "WHY?!! Why did I see this?!"

I agree about Fox and whatever her name is. Fox is barely adequate as it is, but the replacement chick was horrible on every level.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think Bay discovered CGI after this film, and that's where he went wrong(er).

I haven't seen Bad Boys II, but it wouldn't surprise me.

I'm not sure it's fair to say this film "raises" moral or ethical issues. I think it perhaps stumbles across them and then keeps right on chugging. Actually, what's interesting is how many ethical/moral/philosophical issues the film does stumble upon. At almost every turn they mentioned something that would be worthy of a lot of discus... look, helicopters!!!!

BIG MO said...

Shorter Andrew: Boring, forgettable, waste of time, talent and money. :) :) :) :) :)

Good assessment. I truly was bored with this flick. It's a film that could have been good, but needed much more: namely, good plot, good writing, suspense, anticipation, etc.

A much better film that explores what it means to still be human in an age of super science is Ghost in the Shell.

T-Rav said...

Well, it's a Michael Bay movie. What do you expect?

I remember seeing a trailer for this in a theater once and then....nothing.

AndrewPrice said...

Big Mo, LOL! Yep, that sums it up pretty well. But you know us lawyers... we get paid by the word! :P

This is definitely a film that should have been much better than it is. It's a wasted opportunity.

I haven't seen Ghost in the Shell. I'll have to look for that.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, It's worth checking out. It's not horrible, it's just nowhere near what it could have been. But in the end, it is a Michael Bay film, which probably says it all.

Tennessee Jed said...

like McGregor and Bean, but there are too many films to see to spend time with one where it's best endorsement is "it's not horrible." Michael Bay seems to be a triumph of style over substance?

Anonymous said...

I first heard about this movie when someone at work told me how bad it was and to never watch it. I didn't know anything about it, who was in it, what it was about or who made.

I ended up seeing it a year or so later at a friends house and I didn't mind it, I liked it as a rather shallow SF/Action movie. Part of the reason why I liked it was the very low expectations I had coming into it, if I was told that it was great then I would not have enjoyed it as much as I did (not that I love it).

My mindset and expectations of a movie can be quite important in how I see a movie. Some of the movies I really hate the most are the ones I expected to like the most (Star Wars prequels). And some of my favourite movies are ones I either knew nothing about or movies that I was told were crap.

So the movie, while far from a classic is not bad, but like stated it could have been a lot better.

Scott.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Missing this one won't leave a hole in your life. It's pretty, but nothing special. Yep, Michael Bay is all about style and seems averse to substance.

Anonymous said...

Continuing the MST3K connection...

I found a link to a Youtube montage for 'MST3K: Parts: the Clonus Horror.'

Let me know if it works.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R3wgLvC9qIk

And don't worry. There aren't any senseless deaths of characters the audience actually likes...like poor Megaweapon.

It is, however, a nice reminder of Peter Graves' illustrious career as host of 'Biography' on A&E in the 90's, and that Dick Sergeant gave a great performance as Dick York on 'Bewitched' (according to Crow).

Also, what does it say about 'The Island' when a movie with a similar plot spoofed by MST3K is ultimately more interesting?

-Rustbelt

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think expectations are very important. The more you expect to like a film, the easier it is to be disappointed and the more you expect it to be garbage, the more you will like it. That's just human nature.

I went into this one with no expectations either way. It sounded like a good idea and a good cast and it had good imagery, but I also realize that this was a big Hollywood film and thus would probably be shallow and stupid.

In the end, I enjoyed it enough, but felt there was nothing to it. What's sad is that I think it could have been so much more.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, Thanks for the link! It does work: LINK

Yeah, it says a lot when a film that got spoofed on MST3k is the better version! LOL!

Dwizzum said...

Andrew, based on your review of this movie you might want to check out the movie "Never Let Me Go". That movie touches on some of the points you make.

This movie completely hollow film. I liked the lead actors and the action was pretty, but the core was empty and vapid. It was like candy, tasted good, but it had no nutritional value and does not fill you up.

It was also not very smart. At one point, the EVIL corporation running the cloning facility discovers that the clones can regain some if not all of the original's memories. So, what do they do? They decide to kill off the clones and start over. I thought to myself, why would they do that? Instead of replacing the heart or liver of some old rich dude with a clone part, you could grow they an entirely new young body and then tease out the original memories. Immortality! How much money could they charge for that?

AndrewPrice said...

Dwizzum, Thanks for the recommendation! I'll check that out.

You're right, this one was hollow. It left you feeling you there should have been so much more than there was.

Good point about the company. There's a lot that hasn't been thought through in this one. For example, why not lobotomize the clones if free will and memories are a problem? Instead, as you note, they decide to through out hundreds of millions of dollars of "profit." Or why not wait to grow the clones until they need them rather than keeping them all alive and taking care of them. There's a lot of think about in this film, but I don't anyone does think about it.

djskit said...

This film started with so much promise and the set up was fantastic - it really could have been a great movie if it had the right director and better script.
Pros:
Scarlett Johansen in a white jumpsuit
THX 1138 refrences
Seelix from Voyager
Cons:
Michael Bay

Individualist said...

I vaguely remember seeing a film with a similar plot. Maybe it was the Island but I am not sure.

I remember some scene at the end where the corporate big wig gets it.

Not Sure.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, Agreed, the film starts well and those are some good elements. But it very quickly starts to lose its potential.

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, There are apparently a couple other films with similar themes, so you might have seen one of those? This one was crawling with product placements, if that rings a bell?

Gideon7 said...

A recent film with a similar theme (treating a class of people as subhuman parts) was dealt with in Cloud Atlas. Unlike The Island the film addressed the morality issue head-on.

Unfortuntely with only 30 minutes for the SF segment it never really developed properly.

AndrewPrice said...

Gideon, I know almost nothing about Cloud Atlas except that it looked pretty and it looked doomed from the advertising campaign. I am looking forward to seeing it though.

John Jameson said...

The Island is an unusual movie indeed. In contrast to almost every review I have read, including this one, the film had a strong emotional impact on me, making it, from my perspective, one of the most misunderstood movies of all time!

Unlike No Way Out (another widely misunderstood movie), The Island comes together not as a result of great scriptwriting and direction, but almost by accident, as a consequence of its messy production history.

The Island began as a screenplay by Tredwell-Owen based closely on Parts: The Clonus Horror (perhaps subconsiously or in homage). It was bought for $1 million by Dreamworks, with Spielberg in mind as director, but he suggested Michael Bay instead. Bay liked the idea, and at least one scene, but found Tredwell-Owen's script too dark, so Kurtzman and Orci were coopted to rewrite the script. Then Bay just did his usual thing, spending lots of money blowing things up, so that he needed to find sponsors (i.e., product placements) to get the movie finished within budget.

Given the above, it is surprising that the movie was not a disaster, but it covered its budget and achieved luke warm reviews of the form "not bad, considering it was Michael Bay".

In this respect, The Island is a bit like Mulholland Drive, which was originally shot as a TV series pilot, but was then remolded into a feature film. However, whereas Mulholland Drive transcends its origins thanks to the genius of David Lynch, The Island does so, despite being a Michael Bay film.

So if The Island is widely misunderstood, that probably includes the director! I'd like to think Kurtzman and Orci knew what they were doing in their rewrite of the script, but I haven't read their version of the script. However, the changes from Tredwell-Owen's script shift the emphasis of the final movie a great deal.

In short, The Island (cf. "Sex, Lies and Videotapes" and "The Source Code") is not about what it superficially seems to be about. Whether by design or serendipity, there is strong theme underpinning the action, and it is not the morality of cloning, as I shall explain...

John Jameson said...

Much of criticism of The Island revolves around the fact that it touches upon philosophical and moral themes but does not develop them. Instead of shocking us with the horror of cloning, it sanitizes it, making the clones into agnates with no experience of life, educated to the level of a 15 year old, with their sex drive repressed. They are controlled by fear of contamination and the hope of salvation. We feel little empathy for them because they are so different from us.

In Parts; The Clonus Horror, the clones are much more human. The cloning complex there is also technically illegal, but we learn that it is condoned by the rich and powerful, the political elite, and that the main reason it is clandestine is because it is expensive: given the chance, everyone would want a clone. In other words, what the society finds unacceptable about cloning is that it is socially divisive, allowing the elite to live much longer than the masses.

The Island is set in a similar society, but it goes a bit further. Cloning is legal, and regulated. Merrick's operation is only illegal because the agnates achieve consciousness, which he regards as a technicality. Furthermore, when confronted by the truth, Tom Lincoln responds not with horror at the immorality, but with anger at the inconvenience. He wants to live.

Mccord summarizes the blindness of society concisely when he remarks: "Just 'cos people wanna eat the burger doesn't mean they wanna meet the cow." This is how the Merrick Institute operates: people like Tom want to live, and they would rather not know the details about how their organ replacements are supplied.

So, to the extent that the film is about cloning, it is about complacency, and a willingness to accept something that brings benefits without questioning it. The clones become much like the replicants in Bladerunner, less than human, because they are manufactured, because they do not have a long enough life to develop their emotions, because they are owned.

I think it is a strength of the film that the clones are less than human in some ways, because it makes us complicit. We see a pregnant clone murdered after delivery, and another being harvested, but because it is all done so cleanly and "humanely", we are not shocked at a visceral level.

Ordinary human beings led Jews into gas chambers in Nazi Germany because they were perceived to be less that human. The "product recall", involving mass executions by gas chamber, are not in the original screenplay.

Other references to Judaism have been added to the original screenplay. In particular, the clones are told "You're special. You have a very special purpose in life. You've been chosen. The Island awaits you."

Since Merrick is playing God, and this is his message, this makes the clones into God's chosen people, and The Island into the promised land.

This leads us, however, to one more theme that is much more developed in the film, than cloning, animal rights, complacency, or the Holocaust...

John Jameson said...

In the future dystopia of The Island, harvesting organ's from clones is deemed legal and acceptable as long as the clones do no achieve consciousness. Merrick develops the agnate as a clone of an adult, but discovers that without consciousness, the organs fail, This leads him to set up a clandestine operation to hide the nature of the clones from his market. So how does he sleep at night?

We find out through his interactions with Albert Laurent. Merrick believes he has been given a divine opportunity to cure childhood leukemia, and many other illnesses. His God-complex involves the belief that he is doing God's will. The consciousness of the agnates is a technicality for him, because he believes they have no souls. And he believes they have no souls because he believes in God, and believes that these are not God's creation.

The movie however, never suggests that the clones have no souls. In contrast, we find as the film progresses that they have as much of a soul as the humans, that the repression of their desire to procreate is only superficial (they are instinctively drawn to children and babies, and then to each other). They are as human as the replicants in Bladerunner, if not more so. So what makes them different?

The answer can be found in two chilling scenes: the opening dream sequence, and the discovery of "foundation". These reveal that the ghostly voice in the dream saying "You've been chosen. The Island awaits you." is part of a conditioning program, instructing the agnates: "You want to go to the Island. Your purpose in life is to populate the Island."

The Island is described as the last remaining uncontaminated place, and, even more tellingly (this is not in the original screenplay) as a paradise. Images of paradise surround the clones as they go about their daily lives, which, along with the daily lottery, reinforce their programming. They are treated as children, given games to play, books to recite, sports activities, routine jobs. The Island represents paradise, i.e., the afterlife, and the clones are taught to yearn for it, even though it actually represents their destruction and death.

The shock for the escaping clones is not that they are clones (they don't know what that means), but that "there is no Island", that everything they have been told was "a lie". They have been indoctrinated from birth to believe in The Island, but it doesn't exist.

The theme of indoctrination and manipulation pervades the movie. The "foundation" scene is juxtaposed beautifully with the "marketing" sequence, in which Merrick and Whitman tell their rich potential clients everything they want to hear.

This continues when the clones escape and they have to learn how to behave like humans. They are bombarded by advertisements and taught prejudiced views ("never give a woman your credit card"). When Lincoln has to pretend to be human, he says, "The only thing you can count on is that people will do anything to survive. I just want to live."

None of the above symbolism is at all subtle, but it adds meaning to the end of the film, which carries a strong message about the human spirit. The clones have had all of their indoctrination stripped away from them, yet they have a clear moral purpose. They are thus shown as being more able to recognize right from wrong than the complacent, manipulated humans, with the exception of the "less than human" figure of Albert Laurent. Like the replicants in Bladerunner, they become "more human than human".

In an act loaded with symbolism, they return to the Merrick Institute to tear down the holographic grid and reveal to the other clones that The Island was a lie, so that they too can discover their humanity.

AndrewPrice said...

John, I'm not disputing your take on the film. I think that is a message you can take from the film. BUT, it's not a message the film is actively sending. The things you point out are things that require some interpretation and some collection of ideas into a narrative which the film just doesn't provide. To the contrary, every time the film gets close to these points, it tries to drown the points you mention in other ideas or action.

For example, notice how the key point is that they admit these clones must reach consciousness or the bodies die. This implies that there is a soul, which sets up the fundamental reason why the cloning is immoral. This should be a big moment in the message of the film. Yet, they immediately bury this point in talk of losing military contracts and they never come back to it again.

As I point out in my review, at every opportunity, they dilute what should be significant points. Over and over the film tells you, "Uh, yeah, don't worry about that." So it ends up undercutting any message in favor of this just being a chase film with an unusual premise. And given Bay's history, that fits the kind of film is makes.

In all honesty, this film needs a remake. They should cut out all the chases and stick to the philosophical/moral questions.

John Jameson said...

Hi Andrew, I agree with you that the film suffers somewhat from being a Michael Bay action picture, but I think you are missing my main point. Let me try to clarify, using the example that you repeat from your review: Merrick confessing to Laurent,

"we discovered that without consciousness, without human experience, emotion, without life, the organs failed."

First, a minor point: this comes after the discussion of military contracts, not before, and is prompted by Laurent's sharp response to "Two of our products have escaped":

"Impressive, considering they are vegetative."

With that out of the way, why is this a key point? The clones are shown to be conscious throughout the movie - indeed in the opening scene, one of them is dreaming, a hallmark of consciousness. We don't need Merrick to tell us that they are conscious, and we've already seen that he knows they are.

So what additional information is here? Merely that when they kept the agnates in a vegetative state, the organs failed. This tells us nothing about humanity, since humans can spend years in a vegetative state or coma without our organs failing. It is also not clear what Merrick means: does he mean the agnates died, or that the transplanted organs failed? He is very slippery with the truth, and we shouldn't believe something just because he says so (after all, he states that the agnates have no souls). A clue may be provided by the obsessive health and exercise regime at the complex: the agnates are conscious, so that they can keep those organs in tip-top health!

In many ways, this is just a MacGuffin: for the plot to work we need a reason for the clones to be kept in a conscious state. However, the whether this is or should be a significant moment is not my main point!

One of the things that stands out about this site is that you strive to provide analysis, more than simply reviews. So, even if we agree that this should have been a big moment, which was drowned out, we should be looking to see which ideas the film does emphasise.

This segment is very illustrative, because it is all about the agnates and their conditioning. After the "impressive for a vegetable" scene, the film cuts to the clones discovering a snake, confirming for them that the contamination was a lie.

We then return to the meeting between Merrick and Laurent, which is dominated by a big piece of exposition about the clones. Merrick explains "We control them with the memory of a shared event...The Island is the one thing that gives them hope, gives them purpose." He talks about how the clones are manipulated, their aggression controlled, and "they aren't imprinted with an awareness of sex. We find it simpler to eliminate the drive altogether... they're like children... educated to the level of a 15-year-old".

Merrick is again being slippery with the truth. For instance, the rules of proximity are needed precisely because the clones have a sex-drive, they just haven't been told what it means.

Finally in this sequence, we cut back to the clones, who discover motorbikes and Route 39. In sharp contrast to Merrick's assertions, they have hopes and a strong purpose, not to mention considerable initiative.

The conditioning and manipulation is emphasised repeatedly. I mentioned the first scene just now. The studio wanted to cut it, but Bay insisted it be kept. Why? Because it is so fundamental to the movie that the clones dream, and that they have been conditioned. The film returns to "foundation" four or five times, with the last take being particularly chilling: the agnates being poisoned while being told "You're special".

John Jameson said...

In summary, the points that you believe should be significant seem diluted in the movie because they are not the points that the movie is trying to make. Just as Bladerunner is not primarily about the morality of making replicants, this film is not primarily about the morality of cloning.

Instead, the themes that the movie draws out are ones of indoctrination, conditioning and manipulation, and their relation with complicity and indifference to evil deeds. Both the script and the directing actively emphasise these themes.

There is much more I could say, for example, about the role of humour in the film to make the audience complicit, and the role of Laurent as the only human figure who calls out the immorality and acts on it. However, I've already contributed walls of text to this page, so I will restrain myself :)

AndrewPrice said...

John, Feel free to contribute whatever you like! I've enjoyed reading your take on each film.

On your point, let me say again that I don't dispute that your interpretation can definitely be seen in the movie. You've put together a solid message from the film about how people are brainwashed into complacency in every facet of their lives. I definitely think the film supports that message.

The problem I have is the lack of guidance by the film to get you there. In other words, while you can find that message in the film, the film doesn't really tell you to look for it, and most films do try to highlight their message so the audience knows what to look for.

Take Blade Runner for example. Blade Runner says a lot of things that could be intended messages, such as the morality of making replicants or an analogy to racism. But the film generally dismisses those messages by mentioning them only once or twice and then moving on. At the same time, the film floods the audience with the main questions such as (1) how do you distinguish a replicant (not real life) from a human (life) and (2) why do the replicants want to live so badly. These things are constantly the focus of the action, the dialog, and even the voice-overs in that version.

By comparison, in The Island you really don't get much telling you that the point of the film is anything other than "these clones really are human and they want to live." If the point was about complacency and turning a blind eye, then I would hope that the characters would keep making that point throughout, but they don't. The only one who really does is Laurent, and even his character suggests that the message is about whether or not it's right to participate in this.

That's what make me feel this was a failure of execution. You can pull the message from the film, and maybe it was intended, but they don't sell it. Even a half dozen dialog lines pointing this out could have added so much to this film.

John Jameson said...

Thanks Andrew - I'm glad you've enjoyed reading my comments. The comparison with Blade Runner is a good one, and I agree almost entirely with your analysis of that movie, in particular the main questions (1) and (2) that you highlight here, and the broader question "what does it mean to be human?". However, the more minor questions are an important part of the philosophical infrastructure of the film. The morality of making replicants and the analogy with racism provide useful windows on the main questions, and I don't think a film dismisses an idea by not dwelling on it.

It is interesting to compare The Island with Blade Runner because of the overlapping themes. Question (1) is less pronounced in The Island, because we can tell the difference between clones and non-clones, but on the other hand, we know they are genetically human. However, the analogy with racism is made much more strongly (and explicitly) in The Island than in Blade Runner. This can be seen in the way the clones are branded and tagged for identification (like Laurent was, and the Jews were respectively). It can also be seen in the holocaust references, and the mocking of Starkweather by the guards.

Religious themes play a role in Blade Runner (with Tyrell as the God of genetic design, and Roy going to "meet his maker"), but they are more pronounced in The Island. Merrick doesn't just have a "god complex": he talks about "the holy grail of science" and seeks god-like power to cure disease. The island paradise is a metaphor for heaven and the rules of the clone complex is a religion. Dialog references include "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", "Jesus must love you!" and "A parting gift from God for my philandering".

I agree with you that the message of complacency and complicity is not hammered home. However, I claim that the film provides a strong guide for its message about indoctrination and manipulation. The indoctrination and manipulation of the clones is raised in the opening scene, and is the climax of the movie. In between, it is referred to in almost every scene. Examples I have already mentioned include: the symbolism of the lottery and the island; the repeated visits to foundation; Merrick's exposition to Laurent. The scene in McCord's home is also a good one. "Why do they lie to us, Mac?" to which McCord replies "Man, why do I have to be the guy that tells the kids there's no Santa Claus?"

As for the complicity/compacency theme, while less explicit, it isn't much of stretch to infer it from all of the above more explicit themes, and once you look for it, it isn't hard to find. This could be an accident, but I like to think the filmmakers (probably Orci and Kurtzman) are attempting to pull a trick on us, by making the audience complicit.

As you point out, the guards are shown to be jackasses, for instance in the scene where they laugh at Starkweather. However, not much later in the movie comes the bar scene, full of humor at the clones expense: "He's taking a dump in a can?", "Straight up?" and so on.

The only character pricking our consciousness is Laurent, but he is an cold-blooded killer. It is an interesting irony that it takes someone in the business of killing humans to notice that there is no difference between killing humans and clones.

In summary, as with any movie, there are a few themes that are obvious in the movie, and some which are less pronounced. The execution is flawed, and some of its subtleties may be more accidental than real. Like you, I''d love to see a remake, but such a remake could easily end up as a bland pro-life and/or anti-science take on the morality of cloning, losing the many more subtle issues that The Island raises. For this reason I think The Island deserves to become a cult classic.

AndrewPrice said...

John, On Blade Runner, I agree, the minor points are important too and they aren't dismissed. That was perhaps an overstatement. A better way to say it is that they aren't the focus.

I think it will be interesting to see if The Island does become a cult classic. It's very hard to predict when that will happen, but if people are finding all this meaning in it, then it has a chance. And again, I certainly don't disagree with you that this is in the film to be found. I just wish they had focused on it a little more strongly.

Agreed on the remake. If this were to be remade, I would hope it would be to make a stronger philosophical story and not just create a bland, simplistic message. In fact, if I was going to write it, I would probably write it as a pro-cloning story using marketing/brainwashing techniques that are so blatant that they trigger people's senses that they are being manipulated and then only give hints of the negative aspects of cloning so that people need to think their own way through arguments. In effect, it would be a strangely un-compelling and disquieting pro-cloning advocacy piece which will force people to react by seeing the problems with cloning and (hopefully) learning to recognize ways they get manipulated.

John Jameson said...

Re Blade Runner and The Island, I completely agree. Alas Michael Bay overwhelmed the Kurtzman-Orci script with his long action sequences, and I don't know of any reviews which discuss the meanings in the way I have done. On IMDB, many viewers have a strong positive emotional response to the movie, but typically articulate this as "a great action movie with a heart and an excellent cast". On the other hand, I found the exploration of ideas in the film (e.g. to respond to your criticisms) very rewarding. For instance, the voice of indoctrination ("You're special" etc.) appears in the credits as "God-like man". Also, I realised that the names "Lincoln" and "Merrick" are not arbitrary.

I like your idea for a remake. You might be interested to know that in the Tredwell-Owen script, cloning laws required that human clones should be conscious, but only to the level of functionality, not self-awareness.This strengthens the analogy between clones (for organs) and cattle (for meat), and makes the legal violation more minor (the clones are just a bit more functional than the law permits).

If I were remaking the movie, I would make Lincoln less likeable (initially) and Merrick less pathological.

Following your suggestion, the movie could be set in a society in which the use of clones was as acceptable as eating meat. There would then be parallel stories in the clone complex and the outside world. The outside world would at first seem like a flashback to the time before the contamination. Then the big revelation would be stronger: the worlds are contemporary, inviting the audience to completely reevaluate what is good and what is bad.

AndrewPrice said...

John, That would be a good way to frame the arguments, as if you're arguing about the acceptability of eating meat, because you get a lot of the same arguments.... "it's life" v. "it's not REAL life."

I agree about not making Lincoln as likable at first. I think the audience would need to grow into liking him so that it takes them a while to feel like this whole thing is wrong. Making the characters too black and white always strikes me as too ham-fisted a way to sway audiences.

I get the name Lincoln, but what is the reference to Merrick?

John Jameson said...

It isn't as strong as the reference to the end of slavery, but "Joseph Merrick" was "The Elephant Man" - treated as less than human because of his deformity.

AndrewPrice said...

Ah, ok. Thanks. I should have realized that. Yeah, those are definitely interesting names to pick.

John Jameson said...

Most of the names are Tredwell-Owen's. Other examples include: Starkweather, presumably referring to the killer Charles Starkweather, who believed "Dead people are all on the same level"; and "Mccord", credited as "James McCord", who was small fry in the Watergate scandal, and among the first convicted.

An exception is Scarlett Johanson's character, who was called "Ester Two Delta" in the original script: she was carrying a baby for a sponsor called "Katherine Ester", who ultimately becomes the saviour of the clones, a matriarchal figure - and possibly a reference to Katherine Esther Jackson. However, Kurtzman and Orci replaced her with Sarah Jordan.

I read that Kurtzman is culturally Jewish by upbringing, suggesting that the many references to Judaism and the Holocaust were intentional. It also makes "Sarah" Jordan an excellent partner for "Abraham" Lincoln!

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