[Screen It]

(2005) (Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson) (PG-13)

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Sci-fi: Hoping to win a lottery that will send them off to a tropical paradise, tightly monitored survivors of a supposed environmental disaster discover that things aren't what they seem or have been told by those in charge and then race to uncover the truth.
It's the year 2019 and survivors of some sort of ecological disaster live in a tightly controlled and regimented environment where everyone dresses the same and hopes of winning the daily lottery that promises to have them relocated to a tropical paradise, such as recently occurred for one man (MICHAEL CLARKE DUNCAN). For Lincoln Six-Echo (EWAN McGREGOR), that doesn't seem to be enough and he begins to question his existence and that of everyone there, including his friend Jordan Two-Delta (SCARLETT JOHANSSON).

Of course, he has reason to be inquisitive and suspicious as he's befriended James McCord (STEVE BUSCEMI), a systems maintenance worker in the bowels of the complex who occasionally smuggles contraband to Lincoln. When the three-year survivor encounters an insect from the supposedly contaminated outside world, he wants to know what's really going on. Psychiatrist Dr. Merrick (SEAN BEAN) tries to reassure him that all is well and orders some tests on him, but that doesn't stop Lincoln from questioning what he eats, how he dresses and everything else about himself, the others, and this odd world in which they live, especially as more survivors are constantly being brought in to their complex.

When Lincoln goes on an unauthorized recon trip, he quickly realizes part of what's going on. Racing back to Jordan, the two manage to escape from the complex and head off into the real world that's as foreign as the moon to them. As Merrick hires a security team headed by Albert Laurent (DJIMON HOUNSOU) to find the two renegades, Lincoln and Jordan find McCord who fills in the rest of the blanks about what's really going on. From that point, and as they set out to find Tom Lincoln (EWAN McGREGOR) and Sarah Jordan (SCARLETT JOHANSSON) who are the last pieces of their mystery puzzle, they do what they must to survive.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Throughout life, one learns the ways of the world and that includes both the regular truth about how things work as well as what's known as the awful truth. The former includes things like death and taxes being the only guarantees, while the latter involves unsavory discoveries such as that your mother is really your sister.

Since they have more of a shock value than their thematic cousin, awful truths appear far more often in the movies. Think of "Logan's Run" where Michael York's character discovered that carousel was a sham and that everyone didn't have to be "renewed" at the age of 30. Think of "The Matrix" where Keanu Reeves discovers that his entire life has been a prefabricated lie and that he's just a battery fueling the machine. And if you're an aspiring director, think of Michael Bay and shudder at the awful truth that he's making a handsome living making movies.

All of those thoughts and more will likely cross the minds of those viewing his latest offering, "The Island." A cautionary sci-fi tale dummied-down by big budget action, the film is a mixture of the above films and most any Bay flick, with the likes of "Coma" and a slew of other older movies and even a scene ripped out of the original "Star Trek" TV show all thrown in for "good" measure.

Like his cinematic predecessors, the character played by Ewan McGregor senses there's something more to his life than hoping he'll win a lottery drawing to the paradisiacal titular locale. When he starts snooping around he stumbles across, yes, you guessed it, the awful truth. After that, he goes on the run with another formerly naive sucker and tries to avoid those sent after him all while filling in the blanks and then trying to put an end to the ruse.

One of the film's biggest problems is its lack of originality. While today's kids probably won't recognize any of the above beyond "The Matrix," much of the film's plot will reek far too much of a rip-off for everyone old enough to remember those other works. All of which is too bad since the story obviously touches on the current hot button issues of cloning and what constitutes life.

While it's hard to guess if the "original" script by Caspian Tredwell-Owen ("Beyond Borders") and Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci (making their feature debut) stayed more with that thematic material that might have occasionally been peppered with some action, there's no denying that Bay ("Pearl Harbor," "Armageddon") treats it like filler around which he can deploy his usual array of filmmaking tricks and styles. They include stark looking footage, low angle spin around camera shots of various characters, slow motion chopper footage and big action set pieces.

The choice du jour, as was the case in "Bad Boys II," is a big freeway chase with enough close calls and plenty of spinning, flipping, crashing and smashing of vehicles to give auto insurance adjustors and drivers ed instructors' nightmares for months. Like the more heady material, it all feels like recycled bits from other films, although it's obviously all done with technical prowess.

Other problems include the fact that the audience is always several steps ahead of the characters in figuring out that awful truth (a point that's only exacerbated by the trailers and TV commercials completely giving away the "secret"). There are also various illogical bits (including the overall concept of memories -- specifically that of how to operate various mechanical means of transportation -- being in one's DNA), and other moments that, even for a sci-fi film, are too hard to believe and/or accept.

As the people on the run (and later as one's doppelganger), Ewan McGregor ("Big Fish," the "Star Wars" films) and Scarlett Johansson ("In Good Company," "The Perfect Score") are fine and certainly look great in their parts, but one can sense that they seem to realize the derivative silliness in which they're participating. Sean Bean ("National Treasure," "Troy") and Djimon Hounsou ("Beauty Shop," "Constantine") play the requisite villains, but aside from the latter also fulfilling the beautiful people quota, they can't do much with their otherwise flatly written characters. Steve Buscemi ("Big Fish," "Ghost World") briefly livens things up in a bit part, but his character isn't around long enough to make enough of a difference.

Had the film simply been yet another testosterone filled, empty-headed piece of summer entertainment, it might have been more acceptable (in the sense of simply being what it is and nothing more). Yet, the fact that there's actually some thought cowering in the recesses from all of the explosions and other action makes the offering a bit more disappointing, even if so much of the heady material is culled from other sources.

While the picture is diverting enough in a sit back and turn off your brain fashion that it's not awful, the horrific veracity is that it may just make a lot of money and thus assure that Bay and the rest of Hollywood will keep manufacturing films just like this. "The Island" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed July 9, 2005 / Posted July 22, 2005

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