The Island (2005) (part 1 of 3)
This will be a little bit more than my usual movie review. Due to the controversy that erupted over the similarities between The Island and the film Parts: The Clonus Horror, and the special place that Clonus occupies here at the Agony Booth, I’ve got a whole lot of ground to cover this time around. Feel free to jump to the section of the review that interests you most:
About a year ago, I got an email from Robert S. Fiveson, director of Parts: The Clonus Horror. It was his response (a positive one, thankfully) to my lengthy recap of his film, a low budget 1979 horror flick about a colony of people unaware that they’re clones, created solely to provide spare organs to the rich and powerful.
At the time, there were rumblings about a 2005 DreamWorks release called The Island, being filmed by Armageddon director and famed Hollywood antichrist Michael Bay, that some believed to be an official remake of Clonus. The IMDb plot synopsis of The Island, at least, seemed stunningly familiar. So I wrote back to Mr. Fiveson, inviting him to answer a few questions about Clonus, and along the way, I asked if The Island was an official adaptation of Clonus.
He wrote back to vehemently deny that The Island was in any way authorized by him or his Clonus co-producer Myrl A. Schreibman. (You can read the full interview with Robert Fiveson here.) In addition, he forwarded me an angry letter of defiance about the situation, and asked me to pass it along. I decided to do him one better—I posted the letter on this site.
The Agony Booth wasn’t the first website to post the letter, but I’d like to think this site in particular helped attract mainstream attention to the situation. What followed shortly after were a number of write-ups on websites and in local newspapers, culminating with an Entertainment Weekly article comparing the two films. The EW article was tongue in cheek, to be sure, but the fact that a major publication would even mention an obscure B-movie like Clonus was pretty amazing. (Especially considering this came just a month after their article about “Manos” The Hands of Fate.) But most amazing of all, EW was openly acknowledging what everyone was saying: These films were too much alike for it to be coincidence.
I was always a little apprehensive about championing the cause of Clonus as being ripped off by The Island, because basically, I hadn’t seen The Island. Anyone could look at the plot outlines and see the obvious resemblance, of course, but I could never really be sure. At least, not until now.
The Island is finally out on DVD, complete with a commentary track from Michael Bay. After watching the movie twice and listening to Bay’s commentary, I’m more convinced than ever that The Island is directly based on Parts: The Clonus Horror. In fact, there are several details and plot points in The Island that make absolutely no sense except as an homage to Clonus.
The closest analogy I can draw is with the movie Airplane! Most people think of it as a generic spoof of airport disaster movies, without knowing that it carefully follows the story of the 1952 film Zero Hour!, right down to the exclamation point in the title, a hero named Stryker, the captain getting sick from eating the fish, and lines like “I picked the wrong day to quit smoking!” That’s pretty much what we have here with Clonus and The Island. The big difference, from a creative as well as a legal standpoint, is that The Island is clearly not meant to be parody. (Regardless, it should be noted that the producers of Airplane! did make sure to secure the rights to Zero Hour! before making their film.)
Late last summer, Fiveson and Schreibman took the debate one step further, bringing DreamWorks and Warner Brothers to court. Their production company, Clonus Associates, filed a copyright infringement suit outlining ninety similarities between the two films, and seeking unspecified damages. (As part of the filing, Fiveson’s attorneys included several articles pointing out similarities between the two films. One of those articles was the angry letter posted here at the Agony Booth. Yes, the Agony Booth is mentioned in a court document, and thus is now part of the public record. Clonus Associates v. DreamWorks LLC, et al. Look it up.)
The Clonus producers also moved for a preliminary injunction against The Island to block any further release. In a mild blow to Fiveson’s case, the judge refused the motion, pointing out that the existence of The Island hadn’t harmed the Clonus copyright at all; In fact, sales of the Clonus DVD were brisk in the wake of the controversy. But it’s important to note that the actual infringement case has yet to go to trial.
My own personal theory is that writer Caspian Tredwell-Owen, who wrote the first draft of the Island screenplay (and was paid one million dollars for it!), probably saw Parts: The Clonus Horror during one of its many Mystery Science Theater 3000 showings. It’s one of the few movies that the Sci Fi Channel held the rights to air until MST3k’s bitter end, so it’s safe to say the movie aired a fair amount of times over the years. I can easily imagine Tredwell-Owen seeing this obscure sci-fi film from the ’70s one early Saturday morning on basic cable, and simply assuming that no one would know or care that he copied most of its ideas into his script.
Another theory is that Tredwell-Owen believed his script was a perfectly fair and legal homage to Clonus. Yet another theory I have is that his plagiarism of most of the movie’s elements wasn’t deliberate, and mostly done unconsciously. But as cases like Bright Tunes Music Corp. v. Harrisongs Music, Ltd. et al (the “He’s So Fine/My Sweet Lord” case) established, unconscious plagiarism is still plagiarism.
Whether or not any of these theories are true is for the courts to decide (and it could take a while; The “My Sweet Lord” suit was first filed in 1971, and was still before the courts as late as 1993 [!]). But that doesn’t mean those of us here in Internetland can’t speculate, and to that end I’ve compiled a list of what I believe are the most suspicious similarities between the two films. But first, for context, here’s my (relatively) quick take on The Island.
The year is 2019. Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) is a man living an empty existence in a futuristic, enclosed colony. He has a mundane job that he doesn’t understand, and there’s not much to do outside of work besides exercise. His activities and meals are rigorously monitored (a computer even scans his urine when he goes to the bathroom in the morning, and limits his diet because of a “sodium excess”). We quickly learn he’s but one of many individuals living this same humdrum existence, watched over by “censors” who control everything they do. They all remember a vague environmental catastrophe that contaminated most of the world, and new survivors, slow-witted and childlike, are found all the time and integrated into their society.
The one bright spot in their lives is a regular lottery where winners get to go to “the Island”, supposedly the “last remaining pathogen-free zone” on the planet. As Lincoln takes an elevator to work, a video screen comes to life and a beautiful woman reminds them of the latest lottery winner, Starkweather Two Delta (Armageddon‘s Michael Clarke Duncan), who shows up on the screen, grinning from ear to ear. His glee is so manic that I half-expected Duncan to start dancing the Cabbage Patch here.
At work, Lincoln has a conversation with his co-worker Jones Three Echo (Ethan Phillips, Neelix from Voyager), where he openly questions the way things operate. Regardless, Jones is full of hope that he’ll get to go to the Island soon. Just then, a pregnant co-worker goes into labor, which I think means she and her baby automatically get to go to the Island (the film doesn’t really take great pains to explain this).
But Lincoln knows how to work the system a little bit, and manages to acquire a special key that allows him into the back area of the facility, a damp, dark place that looks like an old power plant, filled with rusty pipes and steam. There he meets up with Steve Buscemi, who plays a techie handyman of sorts who works for the colony. (Other than his job description, he’s the exact same sleazeball that Buscemi played in Armageddon.)
While behind the scenes, Lincoln captures a butterfly, and he tells his best friend Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) all about it. The two secretly wonder how it could survive outside in the contaminated areas. After a lame, frenetically-edited virtual boxing match between the two (with a giant X-BOX logo behind them), the whole colony gathers around to find out who the next lottery winner is. Surprise! It’s Jordan.
Provoked by this development, Lincoln sneaks out of his room that night. He follows the butterfly up a ladder, and eventually comes up through the floor tiles of a hospital with long white corridors. He disguises himself as an orderly and goes poking around, and predictably, he witnesses horrible things. The pregnant woman has given birth, but she’s killed immediately afterwards. Her baby is taken away and handed over to a woman who curiously looks exactly like her.
In another room, Lincoln sees them operate on Michael Clarke Duncan. They’re just about to cut him open and take his liver, but at the last moment he fights through the anesthesia and goes screaming through the corridors. He’s eventually subdued, and Lincoln watches the guy sob and beg for his life as he’s dragged back into the operating room.
Lincoln is confused, but he knows one thing for sure: there is no Island. He goes to Jordan and tells her what he saw, and the two immediately flee the colony. After racing along catwalks, climbing ladders, and running through drainage pipes for what feels like forever, they ultimately find themselves out in the deserts of Nevada. They track down Steve Buscemi at a bar, and he finally tells reveals the truth, which is profoundly shocking to anyone who didn’t see the trailer or any of the TV spots: They’re clones. People out in the real world paid big bucks to have them made for replacement body parts.
Meanwhile, the head of the facility, a man named Merrick (Sean Bean), sends bounty hunters out to retrieve Lincoln and Jordan. In doing so, Merrick has to reveal the true nature of the facility to the main bounty hunter, played by Djimon Hounsou. Merrick says that the people buying the clones believe they’re empty shells who never achieve consciousness, but without consciousness and life, the clones don’t survive. They’re born fully grown (which we actually get to see in an icky birth scene, where a clone is pulled out of a gel-filled plastic bag), and they’ve all been imprinted with memories of fake childhoods and a global catastrophe.
From there, it’s non-stop chases and explosions and chaos as Djimon’s men tail the two clones all the way back to Los Angeles. There’s an extended freeway chase involving men on futuristic jet bikes and a driverless semi carrying train wheels, which you’ll know because it was replayed endlessly in the TV spots. After Lincoln commandeers one of the jet bikes, the clones end up crashing through a skyscraper, literally destroying an entire floor. And after hanging on a giant “R” corporate logo twenty stories up, they tumble to ground, miraculously unharmed [!].
Having eluded the bounty hunters, the two clones decide to seek help from Lincoln’s sponsor, Tom Lincoln, the guy who paid to have himself cloned. (In case you really wanted to know, the clones’ names are a combination of the last name of their sponsor, a number indicating the sponsor’s geographical area, and a code to indicate the clone’s generation.)
Ewan McGregor plays against himself relatively well in these scenes, as both the naïve Lincoln Six Echo and the jerky, lecherous Tom Lincoln. Tom turns out to be from Scotland, meaning McGregor uses both a fake accent and his real accent in the same scene, which admittedly was a clever touch.
Tom reveals he needs a new liver because of his hepatitis, which he got from sleeping around. Despite this, Lincoln and Jordan are all too willing to believe Tom will help them. They want to go to the media and expose Merrick’s facility, but naturally, Tom tips off the bounty hunters instead. This leads to more mayhem and explosions, and ultimately a de rigueur scene where both Lincoln and Tom are held at gunpoint, both shouting, “No, I’m Tom Lincoln!” Predictably, Tom is killed, and Lincoln is free to assume Tom’s identity.
It should have ended there, but unfortunately, it doesn’t. Lincoln gets a call from Merrick’s associate, and learns the defiance that caused Tom Lincoln’s clone to break out of the facility was a genetic defect. Several generations will have to be “recalled”, meaning a massive amount of Lincoln’s friends are about to be slaughtered. So Lincoln and Jordan race back to the facility to free the rest of the clones. Can you take a wild guess as to whether they succeed or not?
Despite some fun moments and witty lines, The Island just didn’t work for me. I was never invested much on any level, emotional or otherwise, in the plight of these clones. Lincoln and Jordan are bred to be total blank slates, and that’s what they remain for most of the movie. Both leads are widely respected as talented actors, but here McGregor is reduced to yelling “Let’s go!” nine million times, while Johansson does virtually nothing besides looking like her manager forced her to take this part. Girls with pearl earrings may be fine and dandy, but people need to pay the rent.
The movie never truly delves into how it would feel to know your entire life, everything you know and everything you’ve been taught, is one big lie. A couple of lines are thrown in to that effect, but then it’s right back to explosions, explosions, and more explosions. What could have been thought-provoking sci-fi instead turns into an excuse for Michael Bay to ramp up overly loud, non-stop action set pieces, each one bigger and more ludicrous than the last.
It’s the height of silliness that two simple clones, with no special powers or unique abilities, could somehow bring about the destruction of several city blocks. And it’s even more ridiculous that Merrick’s idea of keeping the clone operation hush-hush is to blow up everything in sight. I know that Michael Bay movies are nothing if not over the top, but at least in the context of Japanese sneak attacks, or a planet-killing asteroid, the huge scale of destruction made some sense. Here it’s completely out of scale with the small human drama we were watching in the film’s first half.
Some have said it’s Bay’s most thoughtful work yet, but when the competition includes Bad Boys II, is that really saying much? But yet, I have to agree. It is his best film, in that I’m actually able to sit through more than twenty minutes of it at a time. Nevertheless, it’s still the same old crappy Michael Bay film we’ve seen half a dozen times, with all the dumb plot holes, the cars that flip over at the slightest breeze, the same damn orange/yellow filter on every other shot, and comical levels of directorial excess. I think there are a number of scenes included just to show off what Michael Bay must think is a kickass speedboat.
This is a movie where guards get clones to blindly walk into a big room with INCINERATOR on the door. Maybe they thought they were going to an awesome transgender nightclub. And lame lines abound. When the clones see a motorcycle for the first time, Jordan asks what it is. “I don’t know,” Lincoln replies. “But I want one!” Oh, brother. “Chicks dig the car,” anyone?
But for all the dopey dialogue, there’s occasionally a gem of a line buried in all the crap. Like this one, when Lincoln asks Steve Buscemi to explain God:
A better explanation for the career of Michael Bay, you will not find.