Saturday, July 16, 2005

Review: The Island (2005)

The Island
130 minutes
Rated PG-13

By Scott Mendelson

In this summer of remakes and sequels (to be fair, most of them thus far, like Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Batman Begins, and the upcoming The Bad News Bears, are quite good), Michael Bay's The Island attempts to stand out as an original. It sells itself as an original and mysterious sci-fi fable about beautiful people in a strange place, with mysterious happenings, and the mysterious connection to 'the island'.

Of course, as fetching as the ad campaign has been, there's just one problem. The film is a blatant rip-off or un-credited remake of 1979's The Clonus Horror. I won't go into the details, as it would spoil most of the surprises of this rip-off/remake/unintentional homage. To be fair, I have not seen The Clonus Horror, and apparently it's good enough to have been featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. So, thus, let us judge this version on its own merits. And on its own merits, it can be judged very simply. The Island has a terrific first 70 minutes, followed by a monotonous, plodding final 60 minutes.

The plot, as much as I'm willing to reveal (less than the later trailers)... Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor, going through the motions save for one bit I won't reveal) lives in what is apparently one of the last two safe places on earth. According to those that run this safety zone, the rest of the earth has been poisoned by an unknown catastrophe. These survivors are educated, fed, clothed, and kept in absolutely perfect shape, under the idea that they will eventually be selected via lottery to be sent to... (Drum roll...) the island, the world's last outdoor safe zone, where they will slowly repopulate the species. Lincoln, however, wants more out of his sterile, preschool like existence (male/female touching is prohibited, much like the social lives for many in the target demographic for this film), and he starts to question the basic foundations of his life. After his best buddy, Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson, not since Eight Legged Freaks has she been so regulated to pure eye candy) gets selected to go to The Island, Lincoln gets suspicious and discovers something... something so shocking that it will scrape your nerves screamingly raw! (That's my 1950s type bid for quote whoredom).

As stated above, the first 70 minutes of The Island are terrific. The setting is fascinating, the minute details of the enclave are rich and interesting, and the eventual revelations are completely logical and utterly plausible. While McGregor and Johansson are basically action figure stand-ins (not unintentionally, it should be stated), Sean Bean, as a scientist and the big boss of the containment unit, walks away with the picture simply by being Sean Bean and adding instant credibility (he is on the level of Gene Hackman or Morgan Freeman; he is incapable of giving a bad performance, no matter how good or bad the movie). Steve Buscemi, as an employee at the containment center and an alley of our heroes, chews scenery in his first major role in a few years (remember, back in the late 90s, when he was in every independent movie released?). Djimon Hounsou, as a private mercenary/bounty hunter, gets a big paycheck, though he is underused, and in context, his final meaningful staring glance seems to suggest less 'gee I guess this is how it ends' and more 'gee, I'm by far the sexiest man in this picture, so how come I don't end up with Johansson?'

What happens after those initial 70 minutes? Well, most of the plot is explained, and the film pretty much becomes non-stop action, with several major chase set pieces taking up the majority of the next 60 minutes. These action scenes are exquisitely constructed, fast paced and creative, and quite simply as boring as unbuttered toast. Since we don't really care about the fate of our two leads, and they really aren't real three-dimensional characters (again, can't be too specific here), it basically becomes 'chase of the stick figures'.

Still, even after the film tragically remembers that it's supposed to be a brainless Michael Bay action picture, there are several minutes sprinkled afterward that do remember that Michael Bay was trying to stretch. The film deals head on with the murky moral issues that it dabbles in, without offering any real answers. That the film's politics eventually lean a bit to the right doesn't win it any points, but previous Michael Bay films show him to be more Red State than Blue State (particularly Bad Boys 2, which flaunted the use of the Patriot Act and climaxed with the massacre of innocent Cuban civilians to facilitate an illegal police action in a sovereign nation by our alleged heroes). Again, I don't agree with some of the film's symbolic imagery, but that's not a deal breaker (I loathe the anti due-process and anti fair trial message behind The Devil's Advocate, but I find the film quite entertaining regardless). And the film does leave much to discuss for coffee or ice cream afterward.

In the end, The Island is another sci-fi parable that wrestles with the eternal question of what science can do versus what science should do. That the film doesn't come up with iron clad answers is commendable, that the film eventually dissolves into a brainless chase picture with boring leads is less commendable. So, see The Island. See Ewan and Scarlett run for their lives. See Sean Bean and know that he is one of the very best character actors around. See Steve Buscemi do the shtick you used to take for granted back in the 1990s. See Djimon Hounsou and feel inadequate. See a movie that is quite literally halfway decent.

And, whatever you do, when you see The Island, do NOT see, hear or be in the presence of the new trailer for the upcoming Red Eye. I've seen Red Eye, it's quite entertaining, but the new trailer literally gives away the entire film. You've been warned.

first 70 minutes: A-
last 60 minutes: C-
average: B-

Tuesday, July 5, 2005

Review: Fantastic Four (2005)

Fantastic Four
98 minutes
Rated PG-13 (for one brief, nasty murder whose sole purpose was to help the film get that PG-13 and not a more suitable PG)

by Scott Mendelson

I went into Fantastic Four expecting the worst, as the buzz and initial clips were not promising. I was wrong. All hype and fan boy complaints about casting (it works well enough, with one exception) and general concerns about similarities to The Incredibles aside (Pixar, glorious streak of quality notwithstanding, has a habit of ripping off old ideas and making them better… Monsters Inc is to Little Monsters as Finding Nemo is to An American Tail), Fantastic Four is just a pretty darn entertaining comic book adventure film for the whole family. There’s very little profanity, and no real sexual content. There is only one major scene of real violence; an encounter in a parking garage that’s briefly shocking and violent, but not bloody or gory. And, content aside, it is about family, friendship, and loyalty (just like the original comic book).

Comparing the previews to the film, it’s obvious that Fox was trying to hide what a character driven and NOT action drenched movie it was. Quibbles of faithfulness to the comics (and there are things to quibble about), it is very faithful to the spirit and tone of the original books. The original book was basically a sci-fi adventure as family melodrama. Can four DNA-altered mutants live together and save the world together without driving each other crazy? And, gosh darn it, that’s what the movie eventually shapes into as well. The film is flawed; the dialogue is often ‘on the nose’, and the film feels chopped in places, leaving plot holes late in the film. But, glaring problems aside (the biggest of which I’ll go into below), the film works. It’s a close call, and I might not have been impressed, but I was entertained and I enjoyed the emphasis on drama rather than action.

The plot, for the eight of you who missed the trailers and have never ever seen a comic book… Five people go into space on an experimental journey involving DNA. Mistakes are made, ship goes boom, and the five are exposed to scary rays that resemble the Nexus from Star Trek: Generations (ya know, the one where they end up in the Nexus and, by the film’s logic, they never ever leave which means every Star Trek adventure from then on it takes place in that non-reality). Rather than being tossed into a time ribbon with Malcolm McDowell, their DNA is altered in differing ways.

Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffard, terrifically low key as the patriarch) becomes able to stretch his limbs any which way but lose. Sue Storm (Jessica Alba, not quite motherly enough, but not as bad as you fear) becomes occasionally invisible. Johnny Storm (Chris Evans, acceptable as a womanizing hotshot) gets the ability to catch aflame. And Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis, full of regret and bitterness, giving easily the best performance in the film with the best material to boot) suffers as his entire body turns to stone.

Oh, and Victor Van Doom discovers that his skin is turning to metal, and he is able to control electricity. Just by those names, take a guess which one turns out to be the bad guy? You guessed the guy with Doom in his name? Can’t fool you! Of course, in the comics, his origin was a bit different. After scarring his face is a poorly thought out scheme to travel to heaven and talk to his dead mother (don’t ask, it was the 60’s dude!), he eventually took the name Dr. Doom because Dr. Doom is a really really cool name for a bad guy, and one of the main reasons for the guy’s 45 years of popularity among the geeks.

Alas, the film’s handling of Doom is easily the chief weakness and biggest disappointment. Sure, Alba isn’t great as Sue, but she is good enough. And yes, the special effects aren’t very realistic, but the cheesy FX actually gave the film a charming, old-fashioned feel. And the action scenes aren’t very riveting, but it’s always refreshing when more emphasis is placed on character than action. But, Julian McMahon is perfectly dreadful as Doom, spending most of the second half isolated and thus forced to poorly talk to himself in evil monologues. The other reasons for the character’s popularity, his rich background and cool caped costume, are sadly lacking in this film. His new quasi Lex Luthor-ish back story is lazy and boring. Truth be told, the film would have been far stronger to remove Doom from the plot, to concentrate even more on the readjustment of the Fantastic Family and to then have Victor Van Doom show himself in the final scene, ready to earn that PG-13 in the inevitable sequel.

In the end, the long awaited Fantastic Four is a solid B-level entry into the comic book genre. It’s fun, it’s well acted by most of the cast, and, in this summer of dark, gloomy spectacles, it’s a light bouncy adventure story that is faithful in tone and spirit to the classic comic book series from which it’s based. It’s surely not ‘Incredible’, nor is it even ‘Fantastic’. But, to use a little known comic book spoof from 2000, it is just barely ‘Special’.

Grade: B-


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