A sci-fi parable whose editing is more lucid than its politics, The Island spends about half of its 133 minutes establishing what’s distinctive about its central characters, only to junk that foundation when it interferes with something more important: the chase scenes. The future is cold and ominous, warns director Michael Bay’s latest action extravaganza, but it’s still a way-cool place to stage a hot pursuit.
Hyped as the first “philosophical” movie from Bay, whose résumé includes such lite fare as Bad Boys and Pearl Harbor, The Island has much the same premise as upscale novelist Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest book, Never Let Me Go. The script, credited to Caspian Tredwell-Owen, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci, plays at keeping the viewer out of the loop, but the basic setup is easily guessed. Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) is a restless, troublesomely curious resident of a high-tech dormitory. He and his fellow white-clad inhabitants—called “product” when they’re not listening—have been told that they’re being protected from the “contamination” that followed the standard sci-fi catastrophe (or, as Peter Greenaway puckishly termed it in The Falls, the “Violent Unknown Event”). Supposedly, the complex’s inmates are being gradually chosen by a lottery to be transferred to the “last remaining pathogen-free zone,” the Island.
While nosing around in a restricted area, Lincoln discerns the place’s secret: He and his sheltered, childlike cohorts are all clones, grown to provide replacement parts for wealthy Americans. Those offered a trip to the Island are actually about to be harvested, which means that Lincoln’s sexually innocent almost-girlfriend, Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson), is doomed. Unless, that is, he can get her out of the place and go on the run. With the help of a hard-boiled but sympathetic human (Steve Buscemi), Lincoln and Jordan escape into the desert and on to a halfheartedly futuristic Los Angeles. They’re tracked by ruthless private security agent Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou) and his large, well-equipped horde of bounty hunters, hired by megalomaniacal clone prince Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean).
Here’s where Bay starts throwing plot points overboard. Sequestered from most aspects of adult life and programmed with fake memories, Lincoln and Jordan don’t know about sex, booze, religion, or other human diversions. They also lack some essential skills of the Americanus suburbanus, notably the ability to operate motor vehicles. Thus, the filmmakers begin something that’s potentially distinctive: a chase flick in which the prey can’t pilot planes or choppers or even drive cars. But after one wildly destructive set piece in which the fugitives hop a ride on a truck hauling massive metal barbells, Lincoln grabs some sort of flying jet ski and takes off. “How do you know what you’re doing?” asks Jordan. “I don’t know,” he replies.
And so ends the vaguely intelligent part of the movie. The rest of The Island proceeds by rote, although at a very high level of craft. Bay and editors Paul Rubell and Christian Wagner are masters of adrenaline manipulation, building head-spinning action sequences and staging a hanging-off-a-skyscraper scene that should have even mild acrophobes covering their eyes. Such thrills aren’t enough, however, to overpower everything that’s routine about the movie, from the brazen product placements to the predictable finale: Having learned human guile with impressive speed, Lincoln and Jordan return to the place where they were fabricated for a final showdown.
Set into motion by DreamWorks honcho Steven Spielberg, The Island rummages Hollywood’s closet for uplifting themes. The sci-fi aspects of the plot include morsels of Logan’s Run, Gattaca, Brave New World, and Spielberg’s own A.I. Artificial Intelligence, but there are also echoes of Exodus and—Spielberg again—Amistad. By portraying the clones as oppressed minorities/slaves, the movie appeals to liberal sentiments. Yet its depiction of arrogant genetic engineers should satisfy opponents of stem-cell research, and one harrowing scene will both chill and bolster anti-abortion crusaders.
Perhaps the oddest thing about the film is the casting of McGregor and Johansson, two actors known for their ironic edge. McGregor has a humorous bit when he meets, and compares accents, with the Scottish-born human who had him cloned. But Johansson, despite her action scenes, is employed mostly as a creamy blond flirt. Instead of cribbing from B-movies and earnest problem dramas, Bay would have been wiser to lift a little attitude from Trainspotting or Lost in Translation. Perhaps the director thought his grab bag of themes could add up to a Big Statement. But that’s the last thing The Island needs. Its fast cuts and big bangs would be enhanced not by additional musings but by more wisecracks.
Imagine a Showgirls in which guns, parking-lot hiphop, and Memphis replace tits, casino floor shows, and Vegas. That’s Hustle & Flow, a crunk update of the venerable backstage-melodrama genre that might as well have been titled A Star Is Pimped. For what it’s worth, Memphis-bred writer-director Craig Brewer’s second feature succeeds in transferring all of the essential ingredients of gangsta rap’s gamy sensibility to celluloid: ambition, brutality, misogyny, and, above all, grotesque sentimentality.
Introduced philosophizing about the meaning of life and death, DJay (Crash victim Terrence Dashon Howard) spends much of his day sitting in a battered Chevy with Nola (Taryn Manning). They’re not friends, exactly. He’s a perm-haired pimp, and she’s the blond-cornrowed workhorse of his stable. They live with Lexus (Paula Jai Parker), a stripper, and Shug (Taraji P. Henson), a hooker sidelined by pregnancy, in a house that looks too shabby even for Mystery Train, Jim Jarmusch’s ode to tumbledown Memphis.
Inspiration strikes when DJay learns from a local bar owner (Isaac Hayes) that rap star Skinny Black (Ludacris), a former Memphis resident, is coming for a visit. DJay buys a cheap Casio keyboard from a drunk, then runs into former classmate Key (Anthony Anderson), who’s now a recording engineer with a speciality in gospel music. They decide to produce a demo in time to slip a copy to Skinny Black, and Key invites skinny white Shelby (DJ Qualls) to play keyboards and program beats. In a cornball songwriting montage that has nothing to do with the actual process of assembling hiphop tracks, DJay and his collaborators spontaneously compose a song, “Whoop That Trick,” a joyful little ditty about the necessity of, well, smacking your bitch up. Inspired by DJay—the Dale Carnegie of low-rent hustlers—Shug discovers her inner belter, wailing the gospel-diva hook that perfects the song. The crew also crafts a more philosophical number, “It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp,” that reveals what passes for DJay’s sensitive side.
The would-be rapper’s meeting with Skinny Black does not go as planned, and DJay ends up in prison. But Hustle & Flow fulfills all of its characters save Lexus, who makes fun of the pimp’s music and is promptly exiled from the house (and the story). Shelby smokes pot and theorizes contentedly that hiphop is “the blues, man.” Key finally breaks into the music biz and makes his bourgeois, churchgoing wife like it. Shug discovers her voice and her true love. Somehow inspired by DJay’s mantra of “We in charge,” the newly pinstriped Nola becomes an ace song-plugger, getting “Whoop That Trick” onto local radio stations. That airplay—combined with his validating jail term—is enough to make DJay a star. Or at least that’s the implication. Brewer doesn’t linger for the usual spinning-platinum-record montage, let alone the lawsuits over how to split the song’s royalties and pay Nola for her contributions, which are hardly limited to promo work.
Brewer’s film was produced by John Singleton, and it recalls that director’s breakthrough, Boyz N the Hood. The movies have kindred virtues and flaws: Hustle & Flow boasts vigor, assurance, and committed performances but lacks believability and perspective. The director seems to think that because DJay is a hotheaded thug whose fate involves blood as well as gold, his story must be for real. But Hustle & Flow is no more convincing—or inspiring—than your average gangsta-rap song’s celebration of hustlin’ and hatin’. Just because DJay’s saga is ugly doesn’t mean it’s not a fantasy.CP