July 31, 2015

THE ISLAND (2005): Michael Bay vs. My Cat

Starring Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Sean Bean, Djimon Hounsou, Steve Buscemi, Michael Clarke Duncan. Directed by Michael Bay. (2005, 136 min).

Essay by D.M. ANDERSON
It's common - perhaps fashionable - in certain circles to poke fun at director Michael Bay. He's an obvious target for everything supposedly wrong with Hollywood today, and I’ve done my fair share Bay-bashing as well.

However, we once had the opportunity to steer Bay's career toward something resembling respectability, but chose to ignore it. If we truly want to place blame for Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys or the entire Transformers franchise on someone, perhaps we should try looking in the mirror. Bay will never be worthy of mention in the same breath as Spielberg or Scorsese, but as moviegoers whose voices speak loudest through the almighty dollar, we must accept some of the responsibility for his reputation as a cinematic chest-thumper (Okay...maybe some of it is his fault, since his lone “small” film, Pain and Gain, was still big, loud and loaded with enough steroids to kill the New York Yankees’ entire starting line-up).

Each day, I commute to work on a busy four-lane urban street with lots of intersections and traffic lights. While fairly smooth in the mornings, traffic is pretty stop & go on the way home. There are simply more self-absorbed shitheads behind the wheel when my work day is over, which I've grudgingly learned to accept over the years.

However, what I still can't handle are some of the myriad non-motorists who share the street...like belligerent bicyclists whose pretentious peddle-to-work ethic impresses no one but themselves, yet fills them with a sense of “look-out-for-me” entitlement over those of us who pay a hell of a lot more for the privilege of using these same roads. I don’t know how it is where you live, but bikers have the complete right-of-way at all times in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. But such a law shouldn’t give them carte blanche to be dickheads. What amazes me is the sheer number of them who don’t appear to realize (or care) they’re squaring off against vehicles which could squash their stupid Spandexed asses like a hammer on a grape.

Worse yet are those presumptuous pedestrians who can’t be bothered to use a crosswalk 50 feet away, preferring to traverse the road wherever it suits them due to an asinine assumption that the rest of us are mere guests in their world. Some of them are so self-absorbed that they don’t even pause to make sure we’re even slowing down. It’s suddenly our job to look out for them because God-help-us if they’re forced to embark on that epic journey to the nearest crosswalk.

Technically, we aren’t required to stop for these fuckers, but there’s always that one driver with a misguided sense of courtesy who will come to a complete halt, actually increasing the odds of a multi-car crash, just to let a lone loser be-bop across the road, making the rest of us morally obligated to stop as well. In a sense, that’s understandable, because who the hell wants to be dragged into court after running over someone who incorrectly assumed he was the center of the known universe? In the long run, it’s simply easier to let him have his way and hope karma eventually kicks his ass.

But the problem with that line of thinking is the same as giving-in to spoiled children whenever they scream loud enough. They learn the wrong lesson...

...just like my cat, Josey, who was trying to get my attention one evening, but I was in the middle of something important and couldn’t drop everything to address her kitty concerns (okay, I was playing poker online). Apparently frustrated, she decided on a new tactic...scratching the shit out of the arm of our sofa. In an effort to preserve our furniture, I picked her up and threw her out. So guess who learned what’ll get Dave to drop everything and tend to her needs? The result is we now have a sofa that looks like it was attacked by Freddy Krueger. I’m also now seriously considering changing Josey’s name to Veruca Salt.

Josey...one bad kitty.

What Josey, butthole bikers and pud-knocking pedestrians have in common is we’re ones who encourage them to continue engaging in supremely shitty behavior because, so far, it has worked for them.

Which brings us to Michael Bay, that hyperactive, heavy-handed hero of the most brainless, bloated, big-budget blockbusters of the past two decades. Even if you don’t know him by name, you know him by style...his are the films edited by caffeine junkies with plots that can be summarized on a cocktail napkin. Most are supremely stupid cinema suppositories that bombard you with decibel levels equivalent to a Slipknot concert and so much over-the-top CGI that the action ceases to be logistically convincing.

But I digress, since I’m starting to sound like I’m jumping back on the Bay Bashing Bandwagon. Sure, most of his filmography is dumb, but Bay himself is not. I know for a fact he’s at least as smart as my cat, and here’s why...

Michael Bay cut his teeth directing music videos featuring the biggest artists of the 80s and 90s. He parlayed that quick-cut MTV style to the big screen with his first film, Bad Boys, which connected with audiences more for its star power and technical audacity than anything resembling story logic or well-developed characters. Similarly-brash epics followed...The Rock, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, the inevitable Bad Boys II. All of them were hyperkinetic eye candy with nary a whiff of substance, but at-least managed to keep legions of stuntmen gainfully employed. We showed up in droves, joyously overwhelmed by the sound and fury, even though none of these movies stood up to any real scrutiny upon second viewings.

Bay was suddenly the hottest director in Hollywood, though some of the credit for his success should go to longtime producer/collaborator Jerry Bruckheimer, whose entire career also consists of movies that can be summarized on a cocktail napkin. But unlike, say Uwe Boll or Brett Ratner, Bay himself actually has a lot of inherent filmmaking talent. He simply has no creative ambition, most likely because of his 2005 film, The Island.

The Island is the lone decent film Michael Bay ever made. It's a dystopian tale of a massive facility which houses thousands of idiots led to believe the outside world is a plague-ridden wasteland, save for a single tropical paradise known simply as The Island. Every aspect of their lives is carefully monitored under the supervision of Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean). It isn't a great existence, but hope is continuously provided in the form of a lottery, in which names are 'randomly' selected to leave the facility and spend the rest of their lives on The Island.

In reality, however, the outside world is doing just fine and these people are all clones of wealthy individuals able to afford the privilege of having healthy organs at-the-ready when their own parts start to peter out. Whenever someone's name is called in the lottery, it's because their real-life counterpart needs something vital from them. Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) discovers this and manages to escape the facility with Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson), whom he‘s smitten by (and who can blame him?). Then the hunt is on, with Merrick hiring a well-equipped batch of mercenaries (led by a totally badass Djimon Hounsou) to find and kill them before word gets out about his illegal cloning activities.

Michael Bay inadvertently provides a metaphor for what we're all forced to endure when watching his films.

The second half of the film descends into the usual sensory overload we normally associate with Michael Bay...hyper-edited action, ear-bleeding volume and massive scenes of disaster porn. But peppered among the mindless mayhem is a genuinely compelling premise which is explored more thoroughly than one might expect, along with characters who are actually interesting.

No one would ever mistake The Island for a great film, but compared to everything else Bay’s directed, it’s a fucking masterpiece. If you had a kid whose entire educational career has been D’s and F’s, but suddenly managed a C+ in History during his senior year, wouldn’t you be just as proud as the parent of an honor student?

Though it raises intriguing questions concerning the moral implications of human cloning, The Island still owes considerable debt to concepts first-presented in 1976’s Logan’s Run and 1979’s Parts: The Clonus Horror (producers of the latter actually filed a copyright infringement lawsuit which was settled out of court). Then again, if I discovered my slacker kid earned that lone C+ by cheating, part of me might still be proud he was ambitious enough to manipulate that grade in the first place.

But despite being the lone film where Michael Bay appears to care as much about the story as he does with pyrotechnics, The Island ironically remains his only box office bomb. As moviegoers, we shot him down by staying away in droves, sending a strong message that, aside from visual fireworks, we don’t care what else he has to offer.

This has effectively encouraged Bay to revert back to dumb, effects-driven epics which play more like video games than actual movies. Like my cat, Bay learned what it takes to get our attention, and it ain’t from thought-provoking epics like The Island. It's from scratching-up the furniture and leaving the thinking to the Spielbergs and Tarantinos of the world. Simply put, we allow Bay to wallow in the same level of stupidity that jaywalkers display when blindly stepping into traffic. With the exception of The Island, it's worked so far.

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