“The Island” is no paradise. In his latest exercise in sensory overkill, producer-helmer Michael Bay takes on the weighty moral conundrums of human cloning, resolving them in a storm of bullets, car chases and more explosions than you can shake a syringe at. Frenetic actioner about refugees from a genetic cloning plant starts off intriguingly, burns up its ideas in the first hour and pads out the rest with joltingly repetitive action sequences. Given Bay’s built-in, mostly male audience, DreamWorks and Warner Bros. look to harvest decent if not spectacular opening returns, though specimen’s long-term viability is far less assured.
It’s the year 2019, and Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) is one of several hundred survivors of a cataclysm that left the whole world contaminated, save one place — the eponymous Island. This lush retreat, Lincoln and the other refugees are promised, will one day be their home. For now, they’re kept in a lavish but sterile research facility, where authorities force them to wear identifying wrist bracelets; their moods, diet and metabolism are carefully monitored; and male-female “proximity” is strictly forbidden.
Suspicious by nature and prone to prophetic nightmares, Lincoln finds his worst fears confirmed after Starkweather (Michael Clarke Duncan), selected by random lottery to go to the Island, instead winds up on a slab. When his friend and burgeoning love interest, Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson), is the next one to win the lottery, Lincoln grabs her and together they stage a jailbreak. Alarmed by the breach, sinister mastermind Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean, adding another to his gallery of villains) hires a mercenary (Djimon Hounsou) to hunt them down.
One of the small charms of “The Island” is that its test-tube protags, far from being hardened heroes, are a pair of brainwashed innocents, sealed off from the outside world and generally lacking in social smarts. McGregor exploits this most winningly, affecting an earnest gee-whiz streak and speaking his lines in a boyish, slightly higher register.
Faring not so well is Johansson, usually the subtlest of actresses, who in her first major action role has been encouraged to make a shrill, bombastic spectacle of her character’s cluelessness.
Another downside of Lincoln and Jordan’s ignorance is that by the time they realize what’s up — that they’re walking “insurance policies,” raised only to supply organs for their genetically identical owners — auds will have long since figured everything out.
While the essentially surprise-free narrative plays catch-up, there’s little to do but sit back and admire Nigel Phelps’ gleaming production design; the biotech facility, in particular, suggests a cross between a day spa, a spaceship and a maximum-security prison. Yet even here, Bay’s direction zips along at such an unmodulated rush, so eager to get on with the next set-piece or expository line of dialogue, that auds will have precious little time to soak up the images, much less allow their potentially troubling implications to deepen and resonate.
Setting and premise conjure countless visual and thematic echoes from other films, including “The Matrix,” with its paranoid dystopian vision and roomful of sticky birth-pods, and even “The Truman Show,” with its 24-hour surveillance cameras and megalomaniacal controller. One scene, featuring an army of mechanized, eye-scanning spiders, is lifted straight out of the more convincingly futuristic “Minority Report.”
The references feel thoroughly secondhand; Bay ultimately is interested in the science and ethics of cloning only insofar as they provide a backdrop for all the vehicular chaos he’s set to unleash. (Ancillary moral: Clones are human, too.)
In terms of spectacle, pic is a pileup of kinetic mayhem, as Lincoln and Jordan’s first actions in the real world include dodging bullets, destroying several police cars and crashing a hovercraft into a skyscraper.
Yet for all the vertiginous camera movements and ace visual effects, the action remains tension-free and largely incoherent, thanks to attention-deficit editing by Paul Rubell and Christian Wagner.
Scribes Caspian Tredwell-Owen, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci save their best lines for the superbly snarky Steve Buscemi, as a facility staffer who comes to the clones’ aid (and has a priceless exchange with “Ghost World” co-star Johansson in the process). And pic has sly fun with Lincoln’s and Jordan’s “owners”; former is played by McGregor in an effective second role, while latter is glimpsed in Johansson’s real-life Calvin Klein ad. Other product placements, particularly by Aquafina, are too numerous to mention.