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Photograph by Merrick Morton

Scarlett Fever: The future holds perils galore for gun-toting Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson) in 'The Island.'

Clone Bores

Director Michael Bay sucks the soul right out of 'The Island,' a sci-fi clone tale

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

IMAGINE THAT you've spent years writing a screenplay, crammed with all sorts of thought-provoking ideas and genuine surprises. Imagine that it has traveled all the way through Hollywood's labyrinth, making it past all manner of agents and producers. Then imagine getting the phone call: We have good news and bad news. The good news is that your script has been greenlighted. The bad news is that Michael Bay is directing.

Yes, it's possible that The Island might once have been something; the smoking ruins of a few real ideas can be glimpsed among the carnage. But Mr. Bay (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor), currently on the fast track toward the title of "worst director alive," has turned it into what film historian David Thomson termed "noisy garbage."

The screenplay, by the writing team of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci and based on a story by Caspian Tredwell-Owen, starts off like The Matrix by keeping us in the dark. In the not-too-distant future, Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor) and his devastatingly beautiful colleague, Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson), live and work in a sleek, sanitized building where everyone wears white. The only promise that life in this whitewashed world seems to hold is a random lottery that grants the winner a trip to "the island," supposedly the last uncontaminated spot on earth. Of course, the overly curious Lincoln realizes that something is wrong with this setup. He rescues Jordan and escapes.

For Bay, though, the word "escape" translates into about 40 or 50 minutes of chases and explosions, which would be fine if he had any idea of how to execute or control them. He literally puts the camera inside a car as it flips upside down and explodes. Any other filmmaker would tell you that this shaky, blurry mess is unusable footage; for Bay, it's the final cut.

Bay's misguided attempt at making The Island bigger and faster effectively destroys its intelligent premise and its questions about human life. The film starts with what should have been a teasing, illuminating dream sequence, but instead it practically blows you backward. What might have planted a paranoid seed of Orwellian doom instead comes across as a choppy, pounding, screaming jumble; it's film in a blender.

This visceral filmmaking is not in itself a bad thing, but Bay doesn't orchestrate it with carefully controlled ups and downs. At 180 mph, he catapults steel dumbbells at us, clearly uninterested in his characters' feelings on the subject. His actors are lost in the void. The scrappy McGregor has been reduced to running and jumping, while Johansson, who was so good in Lost in Translation and Girl With a Pearl Earring, has never looked better, but never once does her character register any kind of passion or pulse. Steve Buscemi, as a blue-collar worker with a knowledge of real-world mechanics, helps, but he's gone too soon. Ultimately, Bay never seems to ask certain questions, like "What constitutes a soul?"—not surprising from someone whose films aren't equipped with such an item.

The Island (PG-13, 127 min.), directed by Michael Bay, written by Caspian Tredwell-Owen, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, photographed by Mauro Fiore and starring Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson and Steve Buscemi, opens Friday.

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From the July 20-26, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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