Has Michael Bay officially supplanted James Cameron as the most loathsome SOB in Hollywood? Hard to tell, given that there seems to be no boundaries to both men's vulgar behavior. Notorious for their bad tempers, abusive acts against cast and crew members, ill treatment of women and other assorted crimes against humanity, both louts seem equally deserving of being force-fed hamburgers sporting the Mad Cow stamp of disapproval.
Still, there's one difference between these two societal misfits, and it can be spotted on the movie screen. Cameron has Aliens, the first two Terminator flicks and huge chunks of Titanic on his side -- the man may be a dickhead, but damn if he doesn't make some fine pictures. That may not excuse his deplorable behavior, but at least he's giving something back -- if not exactly to society, at least to popular culture.
Bay, on the other hand, has never revealed himself to be anything more than a hack, a hired gun, a puppet dancing under the strings of almighty producer Jerry Bruckheimer. I wasn't a fan of Bay's first two films, Bad Boys and The Rock, though I can at least understand their appeal to action-film wonks. But Armageddon and Pearl Harbor were simply stupid and noisy and sloppy, while the offensive-on-every-level Bad Boys II was unwatchable, a movie so base that the viewing experience didn't make me merely want to take a shower afterward -- it also led me to consider spraying every exposed auditorium seat with Lysol.
An overreaction? Perhaps. But Bay's rape of cinema doesn't end with his directorial bowel movements: Lately, he's been pillaging and plundering Hollywood's past as a producer, offering execrable remakes of horror films both classic (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and clunky (The Amityville Horror). At this rate, it won't be long before he starts bankrolling updates of James Stewart classics like It's a Wonderful Life and Vertigo, with Ben Affleck as the new Jimmy.
But hey, why fight the power? Thanks to the fan-boys, Bay's movies make millions, and the words of critics, to paraphrase a character in the Lebanese import West Beirut, amount to nothing more than piss in the sand. Bay makes no bones about his hatred for film reviewers, and the feeling is largely mutual.
Yet a cinematic cease-fire may be on hand -- at least temporarily. The Island, the latest work directed by Bay and the first not shepherded by Bruckheimer (instead, it was no less than Steven Spielberg who passed the script along to Bay with his blessing), has enough going for it to assuage a substantial number of critics who may view the film as the director's first baby steps towards respectability. Because the movie deals with the hot-button issue of cloning, expect to see critical blurbs pushing the film as "Bold!," "Smart Entertainment!" and "Complex And Challenging!" (You'll find these quotes right under ones stating that "This Island Is Worth Visiting!" and "The Film To Beat For This Year's Oscar!") Actually, once you push past the topicality, the film is pretty simplistic -- not to mention derivative -- but at least there are some modest pleasures scattered about to insure a painless viewing experience. And for a Michael Bay production, "a painless viewing experience" is probably as good as it's gonna get.
Set in the not-so-distant future world of 2019, The Island casts Ewan McGregor as Lincoln Six Echo and Scarlett Johansson as Jordan Two Delta, two survivors of a global catastrophe that has decimated most of the world's population. Like everyone else still left alive, they exist in a carefully controlled environment, an enormous facility in which all their activities are carefully monitored by Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean) and his vast army of security guards. Merrick constantly assures the populace that the police state has been established for their own protection; to give the people hope, he periodically holds a lottery in which the lucky winner will be allowed to take up residence on The Island, a shimmering paradise that's reportedly the only place left on Earth that's inhabitable.
For his part, Lincoln senses that something's not quite kosher about the whole set-up. He's plagued by nightmares that are rife with hidden clues, and his queries to Dr. Merrick prove fruitless. Even his savvy friend at the facility, a maintenance man named McCord (Steve Buscemi), won't answer his direct questions. But further sleuthing on his part uncovers a vast network of deceit, and his only option is to escape from this sealed city, with his lady friend Jordan in tow.
The film's trailer reveals more than I'm willing to expose, but suffice it to say that cloning proves to be the film's hard-charging issue. Conservative opponents of stem cell research may view the film as a cautionary tale, while leftists can appease themselves with the appearance of a beady-eyed US President who's dismissed by one citizen with the line, "He's an idiot." Yet a summer film from Michael Bay isn't about to weigh itself down with heady themes -- reportedly, Caspian Tredwell-Owen's first draft was far more philosophical until scripters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci provided the rewrite Bay and DreamWorks Pictures demanded -- so all thought goes out the window whenever Bay deems it time to amp up the volume by staging a massive action scene. Yet these moments of mayhem turn out to be rather desultory, particularly the final skirmish between hero and villain. Action films often pride themselves on coming up with new ways for the characters to fight/flee/drive/die/what-have-you, but there's nothing pioneering on tap here.
Then again, the whole enterprise feels like a clone of a dozen earlier films: When the movie isn't busy emulating Coma or Gattaca or Blade Runner, it's frantically borrowing from Minority Report or Logan's Run or THX-1138. Cutting and splicing is an all-too-common practice in contemporary cinema, yet this film's Frankenstein approach leaves little room for innovation on any level. And as if to further accentuate its status as nothing more than a commercial commodity, The Island features an astounding amount of shameless product placements. Brand names like MSN, Aquafina and Xbox don't just appear hazily in the background: They're each accorded their own close-up, hogging so much screen time that they -- not McGregor and Johansson -- should have received the above-the-title star billing.