The Island: Chinese bootleg edition

(Originally posted on Always Dignity, October 14, 2005)

Like the Hollywood version of a large centrally-planned economy, director Michael Bay has over the years consumed enormous financial and material resources producing a series of widely available, highly similar, and very crappy action movies. Bay’s big budgets buy A-list stars and lots of digitized destruction. But all this money is thrown away on characters as thin as onion paper; dialogue assembled from a hack writer’s discarded Leggo box of expletives, clich├ęs and dreadful one-liners; and plots so contrived and full of holes that they are just like something very contrived and full of holes, only more so. The final impression from one of these steaming piles of cinematic malfeasance is something like my impression of China–a strange mix of cheapness and obscene profligacy, immense technical effort and cultural callowness.

Imagine my surprise, then, at discovering the daring and inventive film The Island in its Chinese bootleg edition. Released with little fanfare, half the world away and in a different universe from the committee management and financial pressures of the Hollywood studios, Mr. Bay shows in this unique film that his years of cookie-cutter blockbusters have not quite extinguished his imagination, and that he still cares about the craft of filmmaking. The premise seems like another from the Bay production line. It is set in a near-future distopia, where wealthy residents of LA pay for simple-minded spare-parts clones to be raised in a facility completely isolated from the real world, until one clone (Ewan McGregor, with Scarlett Johanssen as his clone love-interest) starts asking too many questions.

But like it’s protagonist, The Island–Chinese Bootleg Edition is a clone that refuses to obey the rules. It turns the techniques and technology of Hollywood factory cinema against itself, cleverly undermining its own simple-minded blockbuster foundations. Mimicking the appearance of other Bay products, The Island’s dialogue is terrible and the plot is bafflingly clunky and sloppy. But these elements here are set in a bizarrely different visual context that entirely transforms their connotation. Rather than signifying the usual lazy hack-work, they become subtle satire–a rebellion against the genre they superficially duplicate.

Eschewing his usual standardized glossy-slick style, for this edition Bay has down-processed the film into a grainy low-resolution, making it look more like a cheap digital video or home movie than a high-budget Hollywood blockbuster, bringing a greater warmth and intimacy toward the clone characters. But as Bay brings us closer with one hand, he pushes us away with the other, using shaking frames to disorient the viewer, and reinforcing the pure spare-parts functionality of the clones by unpredictable pans and zooms that often cut off important action and actors’ heads, arms or legs. We are left in limbo, not knowing whether to identify with the clones yearning to breath free, or treat them just as collections of pretty body parts there purely for our entertainment.

The alienation of viewers from the internal world of the The Island–Chinese Bootleg Edition and from our own expectations of obedience to genre convention is heightened by patches of inaudible dialogue, and the appearance at unpredictable intervals of large Spanish titles across the middle of the screen. Even the usually compliant technology of the DVD rebels by retaining Chinese captions regardless of whether the option is selected or not. As the actors on screen mouth familiar sounding lines in familiar looking situations, disobedient visual and linguistic elements remind us of the artificiality of the genre’s conventions and the simple-minded expectations of the audience. It is at once a revealing of the condescension of the industry toward its viewers, and a dig at the audiences of the global market who have lapped up such drivel by the millions.

As the movie reaches its wildly implausible (and blithely under-explained) climax, we are left to identify most with the clones who stayed behind, not the heroic couple who destroy the clones’ empty but seemingly care-free alternate reality. Freed from their once idyllic prison, the clones stream out through broken walls and shattered illusions into a harsh desert, with helicopters circling overhead like large black vultures. Are they saved or doomed? Bay leaves us wondering, not himself lingering in the desert, but cutting quickly to the luxurious life of loft apartments and high-speed power boats now enjoyed by rebellious couple. A member of the audience, blinking as the lights go up, might wonder what, exactly, he has just witnessed. Was it an unusually poor action movie, or an imaginative satire of the action movie genre? Was it making fun of action movies or of me? The suspicion creeps up that Mr. Bay, perhaps now speeding along one of the world’s quiet and romantically lit waterways in a high-powered yacht bought with the proceeds of his pandering production line, does not care. He’s got his, so what’s the problem?