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Back to THE ISLAND

Island_2 Now that everyone is looking forward to the remake of Logan’s Run, and we all like Michael Bay again after Transformers, isn’t it about time to take another look at the biggest flop of 2005, Bay’s The Island?

Even though it seemed that no one went to see it in theaters when it was released, I can’t be the only one who liked it: the users of imdb.com rate it 6.9 out of 10 stars. (I know you can’t always take imdb rankings too seriously, but this one does represent almost 45,000 votes.)

Here’s what I wrote about it when it first came out:

Smart, sleek and suspenseful, The Island is an audience-friendly sci-fi thriller that balances a provocative premise with plenty of slam-bang action. Within the confines of an entertaining and frighteningly plausible story, it prods you to think about a whole range of issues, from religion as a tool of social control to abortion, cloning, stem cell research, and the morality of the rich being able to buy better health care than the have-nots of the world.

Still not convinced? Read on for the text of an interview I did with Bay in July of 2005, when we all thought the movie was going to be a huge hit.

“I hope you guys don’t give it all away,” director
Michael Bay says to a handful of reporters in
a Manhattan hotel room. He’s doing press for
his new film The Island, a science fiction thriller
that differs from his previous movies in that the story isn’t
merely something to space out the relentless action sequences
he’s become famous for.
Set in the year 2020, The Island opens in a sealed facility
populated by survivors of a contamination that has destroyed
most of the earth’s population and rendered the
land uninhabitable. Recalling the sterile environments of
2001: A Space Odyssey or THX-1138, the facility is staffed
with workers who look after the health of its population
while preparing them for life on “the island,” the last remaining
habitable place on earth. Because space there is
limited, periodic lotteries are held to determine who gets
to go.
At least, this is what the residents are told. It’s apparent
to us early on that things here are not as they seem. And
resident Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor) is also starting
to have doubts. He’s troubled by dreams that contain
things and incidents unknown to his life. He’s puzzled by
his reaction to the friendship of another resident, Jordan
Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson). What really sets him off,
though, is the computer that monitors his urine and forbids
him from having bacon for breakfast.
Curiosity and irritation can be a potent combination, and
Lincoln is able to peel away enough of the fabric covering
his eyes to realize that he has to get away. He and Jordan
make it to the world outside the facility, where they
must depend on the help of a maintenance worker (Steve
Buscemi) to help them get away and discover their true
nature.
Smart, sleek and suspenseful, The Island is an audience-friendly
sci-fi thriller that balances a provocative premise
with plenty of slam-bang action. Within the confines of
an entertaining and frighteningly plausible story, it prods
you to think about a whole range of issues, from religion
as a tool of social control to abortion, cloning, stem cell
research, and the morality of the rich being able to buy
better health care than the have-nots of the world.
“Some sci-fi films are about nothing,” says Bay. “This has a
theme: if we had the chance to live longer, how far would
we go? If there were a facility like this, I’m sure there are
enough selfish people who would want to do it.
“There is an Arab prince, I don’t know his name, but I
know people who have been on his 747, which has a fully
equipped operating room. He travels around with a 23-
year-old boy. The prince has a bad heart, and when the
time comes he’ll get the boy’s heart.”
Co-producer Walter Parkes, who with his partner Laurie
MacDonald developed the script for DreamWorks, concurs
that the idea was to promote discussion. “It never
really struck us until we got a call from [DreamWorks cofounder]
David Geffen, who asked if we were worried that
this might be interpreted to push for legislation against
stem cell research. And it never struck me because we
never thought of this as a message movie. It’s a question
movie. Maybe people will think that they should be questioning
technology, which goes back to War Games [which
Parkes wrote]. It’s not that all computers are bad, but you
want to consider how they’re used.”
Tall, thin and bespectacled, Bay initially looks like he might
teach American literature at a midwestern community college
(an impression that vanishes when he says he’s never
heard of the Shirley Jackson story “The Lottery,” which
writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci named as an in-
fluence on their script). After making a name within the
industry as a top director of commercials, he was recruited
by producer Jerry Bruckheimer, for whom he made such
relentlessly louderfasterharder action films as The Rock, Armageddon
and Bad Boys.
The Island marks his first film away from Bruckheimer.
“Steven Spielberg called me a year ago to tell me there
was a spec script he got first that he wanted to buy for me
to direct. I met with him, Walter, Laurie, and some other
DreamWorks people, and I realized that this is a studio
where the studio heads actually understand how to make
movies.
“When I agreed to direct the script, word got around. Jerry
called me up, we had small talk for 15 minutes, and finally
he said, ‘So I hear you committed. I just want you to know
we passed on that script.’ And I hear he ripped his office
apart the following Monday. But I’ll be back with Jerry.
We’re very good friends and I miss him.”
The lack of Bruckheimer’s influence is apparent in the
first 45 minutes of The Island, which contain nary an explosion
or gunshot and move at a more human pace than the
usual Bay/Bruckheimer fare (where there is seldom more
than ten seconds between edits).
Bay admits that with the initial scenes “I was trying to challenge
myself by doing a slower development. And it hurt,
I wanted to put some action in there, but I drew it out for
30 minutes. You worry, does the younger generation want
something faster, will they get it? I love that you watch this
and think, there’s something wrong here, I can’t quite put
my finger on it, is that bad acting? And as you go along you
understand why they’re acting that way.”
But Bay hasn’t lost sight of what gets audiences into theaters.
(Referring to the early George Lucas film cited by
many as an influence on the early parts of The Island, he
says “THX1138 is cool, but after seeing it you want to kill
yourself.”) There’s a good amount of humor, from sarcastic
one-liners specially written for Steve Buscemi to some
more subtle moments from MacGregor. (One of these,
involving his introduction to the many uses of the word
“dude,” parodies Bay, who uses it regularly.) And the middle
of the film features an extended action sequence that
is undeniably excessive, arguably gratuitous, but impressive
as hell.
It was to get all the action he wanted that Bay arranged for
a certain amount of product placement, for which some
among the press took him to task. Arguing that there’s not
that much of it, Bay explains that “I had a certain amount
of money, and I needed more. I had relationships from
over the years with certain clients, so I raised a million dollars
that I put directly into the movie. I
couldn’t get the
budget down, and they were going to shut it down.”
Writer Kurtzman and Orci feel that they were able to make
the PPs a valid part of the film. Says Orci, “This is a future
environment, so that’s part of the universe. And a theme
of the film is that people are the ultimate product, so it’s
interesting to see how advertising has evolved by 2020.”
Bay keeps his energy level up by being involved with every
aspect of his shoot. (As star Scarlett Johansson puts it,
“We’re convinced he never goes to the bathroom.”) “I’m
not one of those directors who sits in the set waiting for
things to get set up,” Bay says. “I’ll move equipment, I’ll set
up lighting. I don’t even use my trailer. I arrive on the set 45
minutes after the crew does cause I don’t want to see them
getting their breakfast burritos, I want to get right to work
so there’s time to improv with the actors.”
Says Buscemi, who appeared in Bay’s Armageddon, “I think
he’s getting better at working with actors, articulating what
he’s working for and getting it.”
While stars Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson may be
no one’s idea of action stars, their talents don’t go unwasted
in projecting the innocence of adults who are discovering
the world for the first time. Bay commends Johansson as
“a classy actress, she elevates material. And thank God [she
and McGregor] had chemistry, cause you never know when
you cast them.”
Having just finished the final Star Wars film, McGregor was
initially reluctant to appear in another effects-heavy film.
Says Bay, “When I first met with Ewan, the first question he
asked was, are you going to do a lot of blue screen? I said
no, I like to do a lot live. But Ewan is a very good blue screen
actor. It’s tough because there’s nothing to draw from.”
(Agrees Johansson, “Especially when you’re trying to play
that you’re running for your life and off to the side you can
hear the grip chewing a sandwich.”)
McGregor found ways to develop his characters—both of
them: he also plays a rich scientist in the film. “It was his
idea to have a Scottish accent [for the second role], and I
thought it was a good idea,” says Bay. “We loved shooting
that character, because he’s such an asshole.”
As the youngest director ever to pass the billion dollar mark
in film rentals, Bay seems like a logical person to ask about
the much-ballyhooed business slump facing Hollywood this
year. His advice: “One thing is that theater owners are killing
the movie business. When you go to a movie you don’t
want to see 30 minutes of commercials before it. Someone
better tell them they’re gonna drive the business into the
ground.
“And we gotta make better movies, we gotta stop making TV
shows into movies.”

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