Send in the Clones

Michael Bay's up to his old tricks -- now older than ever

It should come as no surprise that the hero and heroine of the new Michael Bay action extravaganza are clones. Exact copies of other people. You don't get to be a Hollywood hitmeister like Bay -- 200 Zillion Tickets Sold! -- without indulging in formulas, and the characters Star Warshero Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation) play in The Island bear a striking resemblance to the hyperactive narcs of Bad Boys, the tireless Earth-savers of Armageddon and the dashing flyboys and selfless nurse of Pearl Harbor. Bay-watchers know the king of the big-budget directors has been in the cloning game for a decade now, and that he knows a good thing when he repeats it.

What we have in The Island is a bit of reheated science fiction -- a mad scientist, a brave new world and a pair of rebels on the run -- shoehorned into the usual summer-movie orgy of expensive bang, flash and crash. It's the year 2019. In a vast, soulless underground bunker called The Institute, the evil Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean) turns out made-to-order reproductions of the rich and famous for $5 million a copy. He lulls the lot of them into submission with lust-free, dissent-restricted happy-memory implants and the promise of a post-apocalyptic paradise on a tropical island, then summarily slaughters his unsuspecting "products" whenever their original purchasers need spare parts like kidneys or livers. We're not officially let in on this pivotal abuse of medical science until 30 minutes or so into the proceedings, but it's not hard to figure out. Once you get a glimpse of hundreds of blank-faced extras wearing identical white warm-up suits wandering around the place like a busload of hicks in Vegas, you know something is up. Something. Sinister.

Lucky for the movie, the clone categorized as Lincoln Six-Echo (McGregor) has a dim clue that he's being misled about his entire existence. Almost before you can say "there are no weapons of mass destruction," he figures out (with a little help from good-guy human Steve Buscemi) that the outside world has not been destroyed, and that he and all the other clones are doomed. He decides to do something about it. Our hero is programmed with the mind of a fifteen-year-old (not a bad thing when you're watching a Michael Bay movie), and that may be why he decides to make his escape with the best-looking Xerox in the joint, Jordan Two-Delta (Johansson). Innocents abroad, they are hotly pursued as they make their way to -- where else? -- Los Angeles. There, emboldened by the latest digital technology, Bay and Company enact enough skyscraper demolitions, land, sea and sky vehicle smash-ups, and other assorted mayhem that most of the people who bought tickets for Batman Begins and War of the Worlds may want to stick around the multiplex and take in this blockbuster too.

Bay knows nothing if not how to sell tickets to everybody; he's always careful to be multi-ethnic and inclusive. So in The Islandhe gives us a black hero too. Djimon Hounsou, the magnetic slave in Amistad and a star of Gladiator, here portrays a ruthless security cop who sets out to capture the runaways but is converted to their cause when he sees the madness of the godlike Dr. Merrick.

The underlying concepts of The Island-- the morality of science, the false myths of civilization, rebellion against power -- have some classic weight. But neither Bay nor his three screenwriters (Caspian Tredwell-Owen, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci) seem especially interested in exploring them. It's more fun (and more profitable) to blow stuff up. I loved the moment when a surly cowboy in a remote desert bar asks for the gorgeous test-tube heroine's number and she blithely answers, "Two-Delta." But such comedy is rare, and the movie consistently fails to grapple with the most interesting questions it raises. For instance, when Lincoln Six-Echo's model, a wealthy Scottish designer named Tom Lincoln, turns out to be a ruthless, self-centered bastard, what does that say about his genetic double? That he's a jerk too? Or a carbon copy who knows more than the original?

In any event, Lincoln and Jordan find the time to discover physical attraction, return to the Institute for the climactic Revenge of the Clones sequence and live happily ever after -- whoever and whatever they are now. This has taken more than two hours of the audience's time -- about twenty minutes too long -- but that's no surprise either, given director Bay's predispositions. Not only does he repeat himself; he seems to do it at greater length every time out. Get the big bucket of popcorn. And bring earplugs.

 
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