The Island

Scarlett: YOU!  Ewan: Who, me?


WHAT DOES BIG BROTHER WANT?  Big Brother wants to provide wealthy people with the means to live longer.
WHAT DOES THE REBEL WANT?  The rebel, as it happens, also wants to live longer.  This is contrary to Big Brother’s plans.
WHAT DOES THE REBEL GET?  This is a very expensive movie.  The rebel must not merely succeed in achieving longer life; he must also free all the other oppressed people.
IS THERE AN UPPER CLASS IN THIS DYSTOPIA, AND DO THEY HAVE ANY FUN?  There is and they do, which is kind of why the story exists in the first place.
DOES SOCIETY CHANGE AS A RESULT OF THE REBEL’S ACTIONS?  Totally and unequivocably.  Like I say, this is a very expensive movie; failure is not an option.

NOTES: There is much to recommend this movie, which in many regards is a hugely sophisticated piece of filmmaking.  The production design is complex, sleek and elegant, the direction is fluid, unfussy and direct and the big action setpieces are flabbergasting.  There’s an extended sequence in Act 2 that encompasses a footrace, a series of car crashes, a highway chase, flying motorcycles, an airborne helicopter pursuit through futuristic city streets, a dive through a skyscraper and a delirious plunge down the other side.  The vision of the near-future is credible, unique and detailed.  Loads of atmosphere.  In Act 3 there’s some wonderful acting when Ewan McGregor meets himself.  It’s short on character but stops short of becoming shallow.

It was also a notorious bomb last year (reported production budget: $126 million, domestic gross $36 million) and while there is a lot to like about it I can kind of see why it failed.

First there’s the title, which does not inspire excitement and which is says nothing about the movie.  It would have been better to call it Clones on the Run, because it works pretty well on that level.  Second, there’s something a little fuzzy about the concept, which I can’t discuss without spoiling the narrative, so read no further if you dislike having your movies spoiled.

Ewanand Scarlett are clones, raised in an underground clone city amid a whole big society of clones.  None of the clones know they’re clones; they all think they’re survivors of a ruined planet and are lucky to have any life at all.  This underground society of clones exists because they’re part of a business run by evil Dr. Merrick, who clones rich people for a lot of money so that they can have organs to replace theirs as they get older.  When a rich person in the outer world becomes ill, their clone must be sacrificed.  Dr. Merrick deals with this inevitability by inventing the contrivance of The Lottery, wherin, from time to time, a lucky clone will be selected to go to live on “The Island,” which is supposedly the last uncontaminated spot on the face of the Earth.  Hence the title.

Ewan discovers one day that the world is, in fact, not ruined, and that the clones selected to go to “The Island” are, in fact, carved up like meat for their organs and tossed away.  His gf Scarlett is scheduled to be sent to The Island that very afternoon, so he grabs her and the two of them escape out into the world, in order to seek their “sponsors” (ie the people they are clones of) and get some answers for why things are the way they are.  This is all very upsetting to evil Dr. Merrick, because, see, in spite of all his money, it’s apparently illegal to create living, breathing, feeling, thinking human beings and then slaughter them. 

Eventually Ewan and Scarlett get what they’re looking for, but that’s not good enough for Ewan, who decides in a rushed fourth act that it’s not good enough to merely get out of the underground clone city with his life and a sexy babe, he must also return to the underground clone city and free everyone who’s imprisoned there.

Here’s the problem as I see it:

Our society has no underground cities full of unjustly imprisoned clones yearning to breathe free.  It’s not really a problem that needs to be addressed at the moment.  There are no corporate giants creating clone societies and bending the rules about how those clones are raised.  I can see that such a world might exist in the time frame that the movie is talking about, but it doesn’t exist now.  And for some reason it’s hard to work up much feeling for the innocent clones because they actually have very pleasant lives where they live and eat and drink and dream and have jobs and clean clothes and good health.  Yes, they’re raised for slaughter but they seem to be taken pretty good care of up to that point.

For a narrative like this to function, it seems to me, there must be a strong, easily identified metaphor at work.  Clones as living, breathing spare-parts lockers doesn’t seem to be a metaphor for anything.  You could make the argument that they represent the way the rich consider it the poor’s duty to cook their food, take care of their children, fight their wars and die so that they might get on with their fabulous lives, and that’s a very good point to make, but the movie doesn’t present the issue as one of a class war.  It moves along at its swift, entertaining clip, showing us all the cool design, stunts and action it has in its bag, but doesn’t seem to stop to consider what it might actually be about.

There’s also the question of Dr. Merrick’s plan.  According to the narrative, he tells people that the clones are merely organs and stuff in a vegetative state somewhere.  But he has found that the organs fail if they’re not attached to an active brain.  So instead of apologising to his clients and giving them their money back, he builds a gigantic underground clone society, complete with skyscraper-sized buildings, sophisticated holograph projections to convince the clones they’re in a magical paradise, a complicated backstory that has to be taught and reinforced at every turn, and a massive staff to take care of all this.  Yet with this enormous construction project and the tens of thousands of workers it would take to build and maintain it, word has never gotten out that Dr. Merrick has perhaps bent the rules on the “vegetative clones” thing.  That calls for extremely tight security, yet Ewan manages to climb up a ladder and into a forbidden level with no trouble at all.

Maybe the problem lies in the bifurcated nature of the movie.  The first half is a sci-fi epic and the second half is an action epic, but once the Big Reveal has been revealed, the movie’s store of Big Ideas has been depleted and it must rely on adrenaline and heroics (both of which the director excels at) to get to the finish line.  It seems that if you want to make a movie where It Turns Out They’re All Clones, that has to be the end of Act II (of three), not the end of the Act I (of four).  (Another problem is that The Island has four distinct acts — the second two feel more like a sequel to the first two, not a continuation of it.)


15 Responses to “The Island”
  1. toliverchap says:


    So when I first saw a trailer for this movie I recognized the plot was taken almost completely from a made for TV movie staring Biography’s Peter Graves called The Clonus Horror. I did not see the movie on TV aired as it was intended but rather it was fodder for an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, a pretty good one actually.

  2. You may know this, but this idea was previously seen in the (later hilariously MST3Ked) Parts: The Clonus Horror.

    That film didn’t really stop to consider what it was about either.

  3. deathboy says:

    You could make the argument that they represent the way the rich consider it the poor’s duty to cook their food, take care of their children, fight their wars and die so that they might get on with their fabulous lives, and that’s a very good point to make, but the movie doesn’t present the issue as one of a class war.

    ah. y’see, that was pretty much how I took it 🙂 the island itself being an exaggerated metaphor for the differences between the lives/knowledge/control of the rich and poor (possibly with a message about how identical people – the rich vs their clones – can differ entirely based on their apparent class).

    • Todd says:

      See, with “The Island” concept I was thinking about how religion is used to keep large groups of people in line. Be good and follow the rules, and you get to go to heaven! And then it turns out that you just die and rot. Meanwhile, the church has all your money and you’ve lived your life according to a lie so that those in power could have an easier life.

      That’s a good idea for a movie. But again, it’s not made very clear in The Island.

      • In Clonus the clones are training for some sort of athletic event, and once their “training is complete” they get to “go to America”. Which I suppose suggests a socioeconomic interpretation.

        But you’re saying no implication is made in The Island? (I haven’t seen it.)

        • Todd says:

          “Going to America” is a goal that an audient can relate to; “Going to the last inhabitable island on Earth because the rest of the planet has been destroyed, and funny how no one can remember that happening” is, in my opinion, not.

      • deathboy says:

        hm, that works too, yeah. there are lots of parallels between the two. there’s a sub-story in Cloud Atlas which synthesizes many of the ideas from both of those interpretations (not like the concepts are entirely new)

  4. ghostgecko says:

    They don’t make stormtroopers like they used to

    >>>There’s also the question of Dr. Merrick’s plan.

    That’s a problem I have with a lot of movies involving supervillains. You see enough of them and you start wondering if Dr Evil offers a better dental plan than Safeway. I think the Simpsons episode where Homer ends up working for a Bond-style bad guy who turns out to be a really nice guy and a great boss (when he’s not threatening the UN) summed up the silliness of it perfectly. Or the Venture Bros. – what henchman would be able to resist publishing a tell-all book nowadays?

    And I know it’s stupid to complain about inaccurate science in science fiction movies, but there’s no excsue for it in this movie. By the time it was made, cloning mammals was already an established science, and not really that esoteric. Inventing shit like the needing an active brain stuff for plot purposes is insulting to the audience. If I were running a clone farm, I’d lobotomize the suckers so we wouldn’t have these escape problems.

  5. ndgmtlcd says:

    A secret underground city built by an evil genius? Clones by the thousands? A rotten plot?

    Sounds like a badly made children’s science fiction movie.

    I’ll stick with well made, well plotted children’s science fiction animated movies like “Kim Possible: So the Drama” (2005).

    In addition to exploiting secret underground lairs and syntha-clones for comic effect there is actually some depth to the character of the evil Dr. Drakken (and that of the protagonists) and the whole plot has a weird logic and a fine delivery.

    I’m glad I avoided “The Island” when it came out.

  6. urbaniak says:

    This site contains an amusing and lengthy recap of “Parts: The Clonus Horror” as well as several posts on its parallels to “The Island.”

  7. dougo says:

    I just watched The Island, having avoided reading this post before now. First of all, for some reason I wasn’t that impressed by the production design (superficial and will probably look dated in a few years) and the action sequences (gratuitous and somewhat of a distraction). Second, the idea of instantaneous clones always bugs me; cloning humans is clearly not very far off, but accelerated growth is much farther away at best (certainly not by 2019!) and probably just plain impossible due to the laws of biology, chemistry, and physics. It would have been much more interesting to see the “clients” all be 30-40 years older than their “insurance policies”. The double-Ewan scenes were entertaining, if somewhat predictable, but it made it more apparent just how bad his American accent is.

    As for metaphors, though, did you miss that Ewan’s character was named Lincoln? Or the African guy’s conversion to help the clones after seeing the brand that marked them “less than human”? Maybe that’s why it didn’t resonate, slavery isn’t much of an issue these days, and dehumanizing genocide is still just an abstract concept to Americans, something that happens on other continents far away and doesn’t make the evening news.

    There was also the reference to “persistent vegetative state”, which in 2005 was quite a hot topic from the Terri Schiavo case. It also ties into the whole stem-cell and abortion debate, and the general hysteria about cloning and genetic engineering. The problem is that its most sympathetic audience is in the red states, and they don’t watch this sort of Hollywood picture. I bet it would have done better if it had been marketed as a pro-life statement film, which it pretty much was (but they’d have to remove the sex scene, no matter how tame it was– gotta keep the heroes virginally pure). They even threw in that construction worker saying “Jesus must really love you!”

    • dougo says:

      That “Parts: The Clonus Horror” recap linked in ‘s comment above reminds me that that movie did in fact have the clients be much older. Ha, even a MST3K movie has better science!