Mystery Science Theater 3000 was one of my favorite television shows. In it, a man is shot into space by a nefarious evil scientist and his henchman, and forced to watch cheesy movies. So he builds robot friends from spare parts lying around the ship, and tries to have fun with the films. The jokes on MST3K are fast and furious, and you usually need to be very geeky to get most of them. Hence, I consider your enjoyment of that show to be a litmus test for your intelligence. If you love the show, then you're golden. If you find it boring and stupid...well, take a guess.
Crappy movie, but great tagline.
So when I first saw an advertisement for Michael Bay's THE ISLAND back in 2005, I was thunderstruck. It seemed obvious to me that it was a remake of a movie I had seen them lampoon on MST3K, a movie called PARTS: THE CLONUS HORROR. Except when I went to IMDb.com to check on it, no mention was made of it being a remake. A quick look at the message board there showed that many other people felt the same way that I did. However, I only just got around to watching THE ISLAND a few weeks ago, and it compelled me to write this article.
*There will probably be spoilers in here*
The premise of PARTS is that there is a facility housing a plethora of young people in track suits, whiling away their time on exercising and eating properly, as well as engaging in friendly non-competitive sporting events, just waiting for the possibility of being called to "go to America". It is never quite specified what going to America is supposed to mean to these people, but it is plainly quite important and exciting (I think a large part of the joke is missing until you realize this is a Canadian film). One day, Richard meets Lena by chance, and they both have strange metal tags on their ears. They strike up a relationship, and find themselves asking each other difficult to answer questions about their existence, why they are lorded over by "guides" all day, and the meaning of their lives. No one else in their facility seems to care about these questions at all. So Richard takes matters into his own hands, and succeeds in escaping the facility.
Now, it should be no shock that Richard and Lena and all of their friends are clones, and the overriding theme of the film is how are their lives worth less than a "regular" person?
Anyone who has seen THE ISLAND should be nodding their heads at the above description. For it is very similar, some would say too similar.
In THE ISLAND, Lincoln Six Echo awakens one day from a nightmare, and begins asking questions about the facility he lives in, and why they are told what to do, eat, and think night and day by the workers there, and is told it is all for the good of human society, which had broken down years before due to a mysterious disease. Now the people at the facility, the "survivors" that were "found", all hang out in track suits, whiling away their time exercising and eating properly, just waiting for the possibility of winning The Lottery and getting to go to The Island.
Yeah, no similarities there.
I recognize that it is difficult to make a Dystopian future epic without incurring comparisons to other films, but the likeness of these two films goes far beyond mere similarities. They are so alike that PARTS director Robert Fiveson and company brought suit against Dreamworks, who produced THE ISLAND, and had a list of 103 points of similarity. The case was settled out of court when Dreamworks bought the remake rights.
The question of whether or not THE ISLAND was an intentional rip-off or a colossal coincidence is hard to answer. First
off, there were as many as five writers brought in for the script, and Bay says on the commentary that he had a meeting with a Microsoft think-tank where they discussed the movie idea for about ten hours. So it is possible that the writer of PARTS were just ahead of their time. It is equally possible that Dreamworks just figured that no one would ever notice them ripping off a good idea from a crappy film, and didn't count on the power of us MSTies!
They keep running, but they can't seem to get out of the movie!
I think what bothers me most about it, though, is the failure of THE ISLAND to do PARTS justice. PARTS is a movie that fails because of its lack of budget. You really can't pull off a futuristic clone film on spit and shoe polish. So here comes Dreamworks, with more money than Satan, and they hire action film hack Michael Bay. If you need a movie about giant robots fighting, Bay is your man. If you need to tackle issues of human rights, he isn't.
The first third of THE ISLAND (which is absurdly long, clocking in at just over 2 hours) concerns Lincoln waking up to his surroundings and escaping (with would-be girlfriend Jordan Two Echo in tow), and I would rather that have been the first half. Then the second half could have been him finding his counterpart, and returning to the facility to set things right. Instead, we get this completely over the top action sequence that goes on way too long. I mean, it is seriously almost 15 minutes long. There are car chases, flying motorcycle chases, our heroes crashing through plate glass windows at high velocity and somehow managing not to be cut to ribbons, all culminating in them somehow hanging on to a giant R has it plummets 40 stories to the ground. All this, and they walk away with just some scratches and bruises. It is completely out of place in the story, takes so long you forget what movie you're even watching, and includes stuff that even Superman couldn't have walked away from.
Then there are other logic issues, like why the damn clones are fed and exercised and educated. Head bad guy Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean) says it's because without sentience, the organs "failed". This is in keeping with The Matrix point of view, but is totally ridiculous. It makes no sense how you could harvest an organ from a comatose person and have that coma be the sole reason it fails. Another point is that in PARTS, all of the clones were lobotomized, except for a few "controls", such as Richard and Lena (hence the metal ear tags I mentioned). If the clones needed to be awake and alert in order to be harvested, then why not lobotomize them? It's not like they'd be doing any brain transplants. I guess five writers and $100 million can't spackle the world's most glaring plot hole.
What saves THE ISLAND from completely sucking is that for that first third, it actually hits most of the correct notes. The casting is superb, with Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson in the lead roles, and Djimon Hounsou and Steve Buscemi in supporting roles, and even some nice small bits for Shawnee Smith and Ethan Phillips. The exhibitions of possible future technologies are really great as well, especially Merrick's "paperless" desk. The shown "birthing" of a clone is eye-catching and unsettling at first, what with them being grown in what looks like a huge breast implant, then being cut out and basically slapped on the ass and made to cry, all adult, a mirror-image of their donor.
I say at first, because growing an adult human is ludicrous, especially in a film set a mere 14 years into the future. I think the concept also plays into the fears people have of cloning, that the ability to grow fully formed humans
without the benefit of a mother's womb is something that science is striving towards. In PARTS, there are several children in evidence at the facility, implying that the clones are birthed the regular way, and grow as natural humans do.
Or as Mike and the bots call it, Parts: The Dork Horror.
Another thing that bothered me was the product placement. Bay poo-poos complaints like that in his commentary, but the fact that he had his Microsoft pow-wow before the film began production coincides poorly with most of the product placement in the film being for Microsoft (Lincoln and Jordan box using an XBOX and search for names using an MSN directory kiosk). Regardless of what you say, Bay, that makes you a whore.
So, I guess most of my trouble with the movie is that not only does it not meet its potential, but it fails to meet it specifically in place of having huge, chuckleheaded action sequences.
The film has been accused of ripping off LOGAN'S RUN and THE MATIX and THX-1138 as well, but I disagree there. As I said earlier, any film of this type is going to tend to be familiar to fans of sci-fi. There is one scene where Lincoln and Jordan have just escaped, and are standing next to some ruins and lamenting on how they were lied to that does smack of a scene in LOGAN'S RUN, but I am willing to chalk that up to coincidence. The aforementioned sentience argument smacks of THE MATRIX, but I chalk that up to humans needing this concept of the soul. The organs must fail unless the bearer has a soul, or that would mean that the receiver was similarly soulless. The connection to THX-1138 can be discounted, because THX-1138 is already biting on the tail of Brave New World.
(As an aside, Ira Levin's novel This Perfect Day, also biting on the tail of Brave New world, also seems to have contributed to the plot of THE ISLAND, mainly with the idea of having to swipe your bracelet everywhere you go, and of the facility keeping track of your health 24-7, even having the toilet analyze your urine as you are pissing.)
What it all breaks down to is, neither PARTS nor THE ISLAND are terribly good movies. One has a better cast and bigger budget, and one has the credentials of being ahead of its time. Personally, I would suggest you just watch some MST3K.
1. PARTS features Peter Graves (who filmed for only one day) and Dick Sargeant, which is where most of their meager budget went.
2. My friend Dave pointed out in a blog once what he called the "Elephant Batteries" theory. That being that in THE MATRIX, if humans could produce such and such and amount of electricity for the robots, wouldn't it be better for them to breed elephants, instead? They would surely get more juice, and would only have to program simple safari scenarios to keep them happy. Once again, logic flies out the window in place of human self-importance.
3. While filming THE ISLAND, a $600,000 camera was destroyed. It was no big deal, because they recovered the footage and no one got hurt. No big deal? If I had $600,000 right now, I would be so happy I'd shit smiley faces for a year.
4. In his commentary, Bay talks about a scene he included, off the cuff, where some of the clones learn the word "dude". He likes the word because it can be used so many different ways, just by how you say it. Yeah, like the joke in David Zucker's BASEKETBALL (1998). Maybe watch a movie once in a while, dude.
5. For an interesting counterpoint to a big-budget clone movie fiasco, check out Kazuo Ishiguro's wonderful, and decidedly non-action novel, Never Let Me Go.
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