Michael Bay is a name synonymous with flashy, big budget spectacle. Whether you know him best from the likes of The Rock or the Transformers franchise, it’s likely Bay’s work has left some sort of impression upon you. In fact, it has long seemed fashionable for some to flex their cinephile card by deriding Bay’s entire body of work and writing off a career that, in this writer’s opinion, isn’t wholly terrible. When it comes to spectacle filmmaking, I don’t mind what others may deem mindless. And I don’t begrudge anyone their adoration for stylistic trademarks that run the gamut from overexposed shots to rapid-fire editing that threatens to render setpieces totally incoherent. Like all of life’s pleasures, I enjoy indulging in these spectacles from time to time.
However, when watching Bay’s 2005 science-fiction box office failure, The Island, I couldn’t help but wonder what could have been had certain pieces fallen into place or been handled differently. As a lover of science-fiction, I won’t go so far as to say The Island is a misunderstood masterpiece. In fact, it’s far from that and, in some respects, deserves the moderate obscurity in which it exists today. But I believe The Island stands as a fixed point in Bay’s career. What could have been a turning point toward more thought-provoking (relatively speaking) action filmmaking became a flop that acts as a precursor to the franchise that has defined Bay’s career for the last 15 years and has helped cement that “mindless action” stereotype that is so tied to his specific brand.
The Island carries an intriguing premise steeped in a sterile dystopian future where all health and emotion is monitored and adjusted in real time by some unseen overseers. Despite being derivative of plenty of dystopian science-fiction that came before it, The Island‘s first act is intriguing and paints a mysterious picture of the world in which its characters reside. The film introduces us to Ewan McGregor’s Lincoln Six Echo and Scarlett Johansson’s Jordan Two Delta by ringing a “proximity alarm” when the pair gets too close and too comfortable in a tame social interaction. We are given scant details as to where they are and why this heavily controlled environment is so closed-off and isolated, but it’s clear fraternization and noncompliance are highly dangerous extracurricular activities.
The film quickly introduces the concept of “the island,” the last bastion of uncontaminated land on the planet. A lottery is frequently drawn wherein select people from the community are granted access to the island and quickly whisked away, never to be seen again. Influenced somewhat lazily by works such as Logan’s Run and The Prisoner, The Island‘s most intriguing quality is that sense of control and undefined danger that exists outside the dystopian walls. Things are clearly not as they seem, but the film doesn’t milk the mystery too long. Around The Island‘s midpoint, the film divulges the true nature of what’s happening and transitions into a Michael Bay chase movie.
It’s in this switch to a conventional Bay action film where The Island lost me and made me ponder what could have been. As derivative as the concept is, there’s no denying that seeing Bay tackle a dystopian sci-fi story whose premise is a breeding ground for thoughtful characterization and themes that flirt with the profound is highly intriguing. What if The Island were a full-on Philip K. Dick dystopian story with elements of Ray Bradbury and George Orwell? What if Bay used this dystopian setting to explore the themes of government control, humanity’s attraction toward prolonged life or our relationship with death? There’s a wealth of material to mine from this dystopian setting that could have explored our collective sense of identity and even cultural issues such as wealth disparity.
Of course, there are numerous titles that explore these concepts and more through a genre framework. It may even seem silly to expect such nuance from someone whose reputation is built on spectacle filmmaking. But there’s simply something captivating to the idea of Bay’s sensory-assault style being paired with the sterile dystopian world-building present here. His follow-up to The Island was the first Transformers movie, and that shift from an attempt at a (reasonably) more nuanced sci-fi story to a Hasbro-licensed sci-fi action blockbuster feels like an overcorrection on Bay’s part. At the least, Transformers feels like an artist falling back to his old tricks following a failed attempt at something slightly out of his comfort zone.
Though he failed to make something thought-provoking with The Island, I’m curious what trajectory Bay’s career would have followed if this movie had the appeal and subtext of similarly themed works that came after it. And while we do have the nuance of films and shows like Duncan Jones’s Moon or the Black Mirror episode 15 Million Merits to explore the themes The Island ultimately jettisoned, those titles simply don’t have the spectacle of a Bay film. That’s not to say Bay’s general aesthetic could have improved Moon or 15 Million Merits. Of course not. But what if we could have had our cake and eaten it too in 2005 with The Island?
The Island is forgettable and riddled with clichés and some peculiar acting choices by an assemblage of actors who have all proved time and again they are capable of poignant and captivating performances. But the film’s legacy stands as an intriguing anomaly in Bay’s oeuvre. It’s a film that will make you ponder what a more thought-provoking science-fiction story would look like under the dutiful hand of the man who would go on to direct five Transformers movies. And it may also make you wistful for a big-budget science-fiction spectacle that can also scratch the itch for a nuanced story. With that in mind, you may be able to look past The Island‘s shortcomings and see something I couldn’t. If so, more power to you and no judgment from me. Neither will I play my cinephile card and thumb my nose at Bay’s work. He tried something with The Island and, though it failed, I like to think he came out of it with a clearer vision for his career.