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Between the Lines: The Island

June 15, 2010

The Island

Taken at face value, The Island is a complete mess of a movie. This 2005 sci-fi flick directed by Michael Bay failed to convince the viewing public, performed poorly at the domestic U.S. box office and generated mixed reviews. It plays as a derivative hodgepodge of sci-fi clichés thrown together to be viewed through the delirious, idiosyncratic lens of Hollywood’s chief ad man/madman and intended for an audience composed of baboons wired on Benzedrine. Key plot details make no sense, action set-pieces are hyper-edited into abject incoherence, and the overall film is pretentious in the very proper sense of the word. That said, The Island is not entirely without merit. It’s beautifully photographed, boasts a decent cast and, most importantly, becomes rather enjoyable when viewed as an allegory for humanity emancipating itself from organised religion.

The opening of the film is set in a sterile, high-tech environment, ostensibly an underground compound in the middle of the 21st century. The majority of the populace there are curiously naive and child-like adults who lead highly regulated lives overseen by stern, militaristic guards and a medical staff of sorts, chief amongst whom is the sinister patriarch, Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean). The occupants of the compound are forbidden from engaging in sexual relationships, forbidden from wandering around too much and strongly discouraged from asking questions about their curious circumstances. So far, so Huxley/Orwell (and Logan’s Run), but The Island was billed as a deliberate pastiche of well-worn science fiction films from yesteryear, allowing it to sell the over-familiarity of the proceedings without too much complaint. Of course, it turns out the main protagonists are clones of rich and powerful people, held in the compound until such time as the clone-insurance corporation, Merrick Biotech, is required to harvest their organs for the wellbeing of their clients.

"Wait, so how many people tried to sue us for plagiarism?"

The clones represent the human species suffering under the tyrannical yoke of religion. They are maintained in a state of deliberately imposed ignorance regarding their own nature and the state of the world around them. Told that the world they inhabit is imperfect, and frightened into obedience with false claims of dangers that surround them (a toxic, contaminated planet out with the compound), the society of the clones is controlled and placated by means of the false promise of a paradise beyond the world they know, the heavenly place called “the island”. The plot of the film pays particularly close attention to the prohibition on sexual intimacy imposed on the clones, echoing the broad antagonism toward sexuality exhibited by the world’s major religions. The reason given in The Island is that sex is far too liberating an act and that the clones are much easier to control if they lead sexless lives unencumbered by desire for each other. This is quite explicitly presented as an unjust and overly authoritarian ruling in the film and it is a joyous and triumphant scene when the main protagonists finally rebel against it. We are shown two people discovering an innocent intimacy that is entirely free of such nonsensical notions that it is somehow sinful or wicked.

The arch-villain of the piece, Dr. Merrick, is the stern and tyrannical ruler of the oppressed clone population who revels in the power and control he exerts over them. When boasting of his achievements in exploiting this populace another character, Laurent (Djimon Hounsou), remarks that Merrick believes himself to be “God”. Merrick is shown being extremely troubled and angered when his clones display too much curiosity about the world they inhabit and when they question the narrative they have been fed regarding their reality. Later, things take a turn for the decidedly Old Testament when Merrick eventually orders the mass extermination of the clones because they have the flaw of being susceptible to the terrible crime of seeking knowledge. The themes here echo the Fall of Man as the clones are punished for moving from a state of obedience to their god into a state of empowered disobedience through knowledge. The punishment itself is akin to The Great Flood with God deciding to simply wipe the slate clean and start afresh. Of course, in the end Merrick is not God but, rather, just another manipulative huckster no different from any number of clerical fascists and zealous control freaks who sell their totalitarianism through myths and fairy stories.

God is a total fucking bastard.

When the truth is first revealed to clones Lincoln (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan (Scarlett Johansson) and they are shown that there is no heaven/Island, they make the choice to liberate themselves from the confines of the entire facade and run. “I just want to live”, says Lincoln, a defiant and humanistic statement given the context. Denied paradise, and confronted by the horrifying fact that they are mere cattle being fattened for the kill, the clones choose not only to live free of the control of their tyrant-god but also to liberate their brethren also. The anti-Adam and anti-Eve eventually return to the compound in order to literally smash the illusion of the fallen, ruined world and the fantasy of the heavenly island by destroying the giant holographic projectors that Merrick Biotech deploys to dupe the clones. The closing moments of the film show the newly liberated clones emerging from the darkness of their compound and from the dark age of their false beliefs to greet the brave new world that awaits them. A soaring score and some slick ad man slow-mo frames the triumph of the events in which the false god Merrick is slain by the humanist messiah Lincoln and the people enslaved and controlled through lies finally throw off their chains of oppression. The image is one of mankind freeing itself from the ignorant, anti-human confines of religious thought and taking its first steps toward enlightenment.

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