The Island: Hollywood's Recovery of Moral Sanity?

What if Hollywood made a profoundly conservative movie — one that was also a rip-roaring entertainment — and nobody came?

That question isn’t rhetorical, or even hypothetical. It so happens that Hollywood just did make such a film: Dreamworks’ The Island, directed by Michael Bay and starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson. And, from the looks of its opening weekend, nobody did come — at least by the standards of would-be summer blockbusters: The Island grossed a measly $12.1 million, coming in fourth behind Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Wedding Crashers, and Fantastic Four, all of which had already been out for two or more weeks. (Nowadays, big-budget summer movies aim to gross upwards of $50 million in their debut weekend; $25 million is on the low end of hopes and expectations. Variety called The Island’s $12.1 million “very disappointing,” though “disastrous” was no doubt the word in the minds of Dreamworks executives.)

So what makes The Island such a “conservative” film – indeed, one of the most politically incorrect I have ever seen? Let me back up a bit and tell you how I came to see it despite my initial near-total lack of interest.

The film, as I said, is directed by Michael Bay: strike one against it, in my moviegoing decision-making process. Bay’s previous films include Armaggedon and Pearl Harbor. Armaggedon was occasionally enjoyable nonsense — though it may have tipped Bay’s un-PC political leanings in its opening sequence, which showed Bruce Willis hitting golf balls off an oil rig at a Greenpeace ship. Pearl Harbor was simply dreadful. Both were filmed in Bay’s hyperkinetic style, which features constant camera movement and rapid-fire editing – and which gives me headaches.

Seeing an HBO “First Look” mini-doc on the making of The Island only disposed me further against seeing it. It appeared that the film’s interesting (if not terribly original) premise – in the near future, clones are created for the purpose of organ-harvesting – would be left unexplored in favor of relentless, over-the-top action. The reviews on the film’s opening Friday seemed to confirm this, and were on balance overwhelmingly negative: the website, which collates reviews from other sources, assigns them a percentage value, and then averages them out, came up with a a 42 percent (thoroughly “rotten”) average for The Island.

But one particular review caught my eye — The New York Times’, which I read online. It was mostly dismissive, but contained this sentence: “The issues raised by the possibility of human cloning are vexed in themselves, and they are also connected to more immediate debates about abortion, stem cells and euthanasia. These debates are quite pointedly invoked — in ways that cut sharply against the assumption that Hollywood is a liberal propaganda factory — whenever the question of [the clone protagonists] Lincoln and Jordan’s humanity is raised.”

Hm, I thought. Then I read the following in a “reader review” (i.e., by a Times reader) following the review proper: “It is infuriating to run into a superbly well made film with so retrograde and reactionary a message as this one. Alas, that is part of its charm. One is apt to come away thinking that cutting-edge biomedical endeavors like fetal stem cell research cannot coexist with decent regard for human dignity, and that the scientists in such pursuits are all crazed villains. The Island might well become a cause c???? ©lèbre for the radical right-to-life set.”

Well now, I thought, sounds like a movie for me! So I packed up the family – wife, and five kids aged 12 to 18 – and hightailed it to the local multiplex. Still, I wasn’t expecting more than a pretty good action flick that came down on the right side of a moral-political issue for once. The Island turned out to be much better than that: smartly written, compellingly plotted, superbly acted, and visually stunning (believe me, this is one film that demands to be seen on the big screen, unless you have a 50-inch plasma).

The story is a grabber: An evil — well, evil to us radical right-to-lifers, anyway — company makes clones of rich-and-famous “clients” for “insurance” against future illness (or mere aging), in the event of which the clones’ organs (or skin) will be harvested for transplant — killing them, of course. Some female clones are used to conceive and bear children for infertile “clients” and then “disposed of.”

Naturally, the clones can’t know any of this. So they are kept in a high-tech underground complex and misled to believe that they and their keepers are the sole survivors of an environmental catastrophe that has rendered the outside world uninhabitable – all except for a single, paradisal island that can accommodate a select few inhabitants, who are chosen by a randomly occurring lottery. The “winners” of the lottery, it turns out, are actually being called up for harvesting.

All is proceeding smoothly – and profitably – until one of the clones, Lincoln Two Echo (McGregor) uncovers the truth about the “special purpose” for which he and his fellow clones have been bred. I won’t give away any more. Suffice to say that The Island, while a tad overlong at 2¼ hours, is never boring, and it builds to a conclusion that – incredibly for a sci-fi action film – brought me to the verge of tears (which is as close as I get). It also includes scenes and images so shockingly resonant of abortion, euthanasia, the mischaracterization of brain-damaged patients like Terry Schiavo as “vegetables,” and the medical exploitation of the unborn – all of which, in a scene near the end, is unmistakeably linked to the Holocaust — that one can only ask oneself how such a movie ever got made – by the House of Spielberg, no less.

The film isn’t without its flaws, though they are minor ones. A brief scene where the two escaped clones discover sex (they have been conditioned not to breed) is stupid and unnecessary, though very modest by today’s abysmal standards. Also, some of the action sequences go on too long, or are simply too far over the top (my 12-year-old son disagrees on both counts). But they by no means overwhelm the story, as I had feared, and Michael Bay’s penchant for moving cameras and choppy editing is restricted largely to them (where they belong, and are very effective).

So, why is such a terrific film such a colossal flop? Does it prove that American audiences don’t want a film that challenges their “right” to exploit or destroy others’ lives to improve or lengthen their own? It may well. But it may also have something to do with the critical mugging this film received. Perhaps, too, Dreamworks, being inexplicably insensible to the moral-political implications of the film, never thought of marketing it specifically to conservatives and Christians, the way Mel Gibson did The Passion of the Christ. In any event, it’s probably too late to save the film’s theatrical run — but here’s hoping they wake up in time to salvage its potential DVD sales. God willing, The Island will be just the beginning, not the end, of Hollywood’s recovery of moral sanity.