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July 20, 2005

The Island

Michael Bay - 2005
Dreamworks-Warner Brothers 35mm

"Michael is actually an abstract artist in the way he uses time, space, light and color. He's almost an experimental filmmaker in that regard. He uses the medium in the fastest, sharpest way that it can be used, and if you don't like it, tough luck."
Wesleyan University Professor Janine Basinger discussing former student Michael Bay

I'm one of those people who is not convinced by Professor Basinger's hyperbole. I was more convinced by the arguments of a couple of critics in Art Forum that John Woo's Face/Off was comparable to action painting. While I would like to see Bay make a film with the severe restrictions of Dogme '95, the cinematic vow of chastity created by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, I recognize that Bay is a talented director of action movies with a recognizable style.

As it turned out, Vinterberg has made a film not in the Dogme '95 style, but in subject matter almost a twisted sister to Bay's new film. Vinterberg's It's All about Love (2003) is in part about lovers on the run, with Claire Danes fleeing from her clones and a sheltered environment into a world that is in a new ice age. Bay's film is in part about two clones (Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson) who become lovers, running in the desert, seeking the man who generated one of the clones. Still both films touch on some of the same questions of identity and memory. One should note that McGregor's character is named Lincoln, as the man who freed the slaves, while Johansson's character, Jordan, shares the name of the symbolic river crossed to the land of freedom.

Part of the visuals of The Island seems to have the DNA from Japanese films like The Ring with the kinetic montage of quick images suggesting some unexplained horror. One of the first shots introducing Los Angeles of the future are the wide screen and color version of the almost identical image Fritz Lang used in Metropolis almost eighty years ago, back when Lang was the Steven Spielberg of the silent film era. It takes a while to set up the story, but once it moves you have a couple of high speed chases, bullets, car crashes and explosions, pretty much the Bay template since the first Bad Boys. The Island is a hybrid of plot points and scenes from such films as The Matrix, Terminator 3 and (alas) The Village. The film could even be McGregor's second to be titled Attack of the Clones.

What gripe I have with the film is the dialogue. The original screenplay was written by Caspian Tredwell-Owen who wrote the thoughtful, underappreciated Beyond Borders. The screenplay was redone by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci to Bay's specifications. While Bay has stated that he wants his films to be understood and appreciated by the average person, I got the feeling that the dialogue was dumbed down. The Island is both admittedly entertaining and unoriginal.

It may be a while before we can better evaluate Bay's films, but I suspect that Jerry Bruckheimer, the producer of Bay's films before The Island, will be seen as a more positive influence.
Maybe he has more confidence from having made films for over twenty-five years, but most Bruckheimer films treat the viewer as being kind of smart. Bay is at his best with his smart Rock, rather than his somewhat silly Island.

Posted by peter at July 20, 2005 12:47 AM