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The Island

September 8, 2015

TIIn a futuristic sealed-off utopia, all is not as it seems … Cloning and authoritarian control feature in an action adventure.

Themes: human cloning and the dilemmas of scientific advances.

The film’s plot revolves around the struggle of Ewan McGregor’s character to fit into the highly structured world he lives in, isolated in a compound governed by a set of strict rules. The residents believe that the outer world has become too contaminated for human life with the exception of one island. Every week a lottery is conducted and the winner gets to leave the compound to live on the island. A series of events unfolds when he questions how truthful that world really is. After he learns that the compound inhabitants are clones who are used for organ harvesting and surrogate motherhood for wealthy people in the outside world, he escapes.

Roger Ebert said, “[the first half] is a spare, creepy science fiction parable, and then it shifts into a high-tech action picture. Both halves work. Whether they work together is a good question.” He says the film “never satisfactorily comes full circle” and missed the opportunity “to do what the best science fiction does, and use the future as a way to critique the present.”

Clones (or twins) do not have the same fingerprints, neither they have the same retina. While twins do not share the same fingerprints or retinas, clones do. Clones by definition are a copy of the original, and therefore would have the same fingerprints and retinas.

MERRICK: What’s troubling you, Lincoln?

LINCOLN: Well, it’s…it’s just…Tuesday night is tofu night. And I’m asking myself, who decided that everyone here likes tofu in the first place? And what is tofu anyway? And why can’t I have bacon? I line up every morning, and I’m not allowed any bacon for my breakfast. And let’s talk about all the white. Why is everyone wearing white all the time? It’s impossible to keep clean. I’m walking around…I just…I always get the gray stripe. I never get any color, and I hand it in to be cleaned, and someone cleans it and folds it neatly in my drawer, but who? Who is that person? I don’t know. I just…I wanna know answers, and I wish that there was more.

MERRICK: More?

LINCOLN: Yeah, more than just waiting to go to the island.

LINCOLN: What’s “God”?

McCord: Well, you know, when you want something really bad and you close your eyes and you wish for it? God’s the guy that ignores you.

MERRICK: Oh, no. It’s so much more than that. I have discovered the Holy Grail of science. I give life. The agnates, they’re simply tools, instruments. They have no souls. The possibilities are endless here. In two years’ time, I will be able to cure children’s leukemia. How many people on Earth can say that, Mr. Laurent?

Albert Laurent: [smiles] I guess just you and God. That’s the answer you’re looking for, isn’t it?

God-Like Man: You’re special. You have a very special purpose in life. You’ve been chosen. The Island awaits you.

[last lines]

MERRICK: I brought you into this world… and I can take you out of it.

Beginning with “The Matrix”, recent science fiction movies as diverse as the “Planet of the Apes”, “Equilibrium”, and “The Jacket” all construct fascist societies in which there is a victim population that must be brought to awareness in order to be freed. “The Island” adheres to a similar mold, but it also departs from the pattern in that, unlike the latter three films, the oppressive ideology is a secular and not a Christian one.

In the movie’s term, the clones live to be “harvested.” This is the term used in the current stem cell debate in which the crux of the issue is whether it is morally correct to grow and then use the parts of a living being who lacks consciousness in order to improve the life of one that has consciousness. Peter Singer has argued for the infanticide of severely disabled babies and euthanasia for incapacitated adults, suggesting that the “personhood” of a human being may not be determinable for 90 days after birth.

A prominent media critic at Newsweek dislikes Bay’s movies and writes: “‘The Island’ seems like a PSA by religious conservatives about the slippery slope of saving people from Parkinson’s disease.” Several critics, reflecting their cultural bias, have responded negatively to the seeming anti-abortion, anti-stem cell harvesting message of the movie. Clearly, the images support such an interpretation and constitute the film’s clearest exposition of ideas: aborting life and harvesting life for selfish purposes is bad. For those resistant to accepting this interpretation of the film’s rhetoric, Michael Bay himself makes clear the intent of the film in an interview with Dark Horizons: Lots of sci-fi movies are much ado about nothing. What I liked about [“The Island”] is that it’s a universal thing: we all want to live longer. But how selfish would you be to achieve that? You could get a liver, a heart, kidneys, essential things. But I wanted to show people going for things that were just so crass, like fresh skin for a face-lift. For some woman who doesn’t want to go through the pain of childbirth and have stretch marks, why not have your clone birth for you? How disgusting is that?

Implicitly, Bay indicates that his science fiction movie is much ado about something. Really, it is about two things: the sanctity of human life on the one hand, and the inhuman, impersonal selfishness of certain types of human persons—models, athletes, and politicians. Furthermore, Bay cleverly indicts—by conspicuously leaving them out—the category of persons that most quickly comes to mind when discussing facelifts, liposuction, Botox, transplants, and collagen injections for puffy lips: the denizens of Hollywood.

“The Island” simultaneously supports traditional liberal and conservative values while critiquing the kind of post human society that wants to expand the choices of what is human even while tyrannically determining what humans are permitted to do. This is why Lincoln Six Echo at one point rebels and asks why they must eat certain foods and not others, why must they dress in white, why can’t they make decisions for themselves? The reason is because they live in a totalitarian state in which all these decisions are made for them by a ruling knowledge class that knows best what is good for society and hence for them as individuals.

The movie’s conflict is between a classic liberalism that is compatible with religious belief and a secular postmodernism that is not. Thus, Dr. Merrick, the scientist in charge of the entire project, pronounces, “In two years I will be able to cure childhood leukemia. How many people can say that?” “Just you and God,” responds Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou), the French mercenary.

Dr. Merrick promises the clones: “Nature has left you a garden of Eden to repopulate!” By doing so, he figures Nature as the film’s god. In those two quotations, Bay illustrates the film’s antithetical values between science and faith, between a secular worldview and a religious one. As Bean says of his character in an interview, “He’s also got a Godlike factor in him, playing God.”

The most striking exposition of religion in the film is accomplished through a visual contrast of captures. One of the methods in which the guards restrain violent “products” is to shoot miniature harpoons into them and then reel them down the hall. The premise of such a weapon is so ludicrous that it defies credibility: how do you drag the huge Michael Clarke Duncan across the floor, against his will, by means of hooks in his flesh? Clearly, the laws of physics would require the hooks to tear out. That this expedient is used on three separate occasions in the movie is both annoying and purposeful. Not until another unbelievable sequence in the second hour can we understand the meaning of the fishhooks and reeling guns. When McGregor and Johansson fall from a skyscraper, they improbably plunge through the destructive wreckage and land safely onto a large net. The black construction worker (blacks are the only acceptable Christians in liberal myths) pulls them out and smilingly says to McGregor, “Jesus must love you.” When he pulls out the lovely and busty Johansson he intones facetiously, “I know that Jesus loves you.” The moment plays for a laugh that distracts attention from a key metaphor. What are the two ways to catch fish? With a hook or a net.

Secular science uses the hideous violence of a hook in the flesh of another human to fulfill what McCord proclaims is “the new American dream”—to “live forever.” The promise of eternal life through Christianity is secured with the “net” of belief that “Jesus loves you” and doesn’t require victimizing another human being.

In “The Island”, all the clones wear white shirts, white pants, and white shoes and live in a “white” environment: controlled, programmed, sexless. The ruthless mercenary, Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou), undergoes an ideological conversion when he sees the brand on Jordan Two Delta’s (Johansson’s) wrist. He displays a brand on his own palm and in doing so references one of the signature images in Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” where humans, representing American slavery, were branded with a twisted cross to show the tyranny of Christianity. Bay undoes that liberal myth here because it is a secular tyranny that brands the clones, that uses them for parts, that says they are without souls (as humans were said to be without souls in Planet).

The film concludes with one last metaphor, a reference to the film’s first scene in which Lincoln dreamed of himself and Delta floating on the sea in a beautiful yacht called Renovatio. Dr. Merrick helpfully informs us that this is Latin for “rebirth.” Lincoln and Delta and all the clones who escape the containment centre and who were born only as “tissue” and “product” are reborn as persons. There is a lovely consonance of imagery as they escape in waves of white figures across the red earth. The desert is like a sea and each of the little figures floats across it like sail boats, finally free. Or, to use another metaphor from the movie, they are like the moth that Lincoln set free earlier: so many papillons fleeing with their arms outstretched from the prison island of the containment centre.

The clones are transformed from so many products on a shelf into real people. The film implies that rebirth is not physical, nor merely intellectual, but consists of the one that is humanity’s alone of all the species on earth: a spiritual one.

Ultimately, the meaning of “The Island” is that it is an isolated state of mind, one that exists artificially in an inhuman landscape of ideas and that denies personhood to human beings in the service of power, privilege, and wealth. I believe that Bay is arguing that such people, like those found among the beautiful celebrities of our time, think that life is expedient to their needs and are blind to the monstrous consequences of their selfish desire to live longer, more beautifully, more perfectly. It is they who live on an island.

In April 2002, President Bush warned that cloning will lead to experimental human beings, “embryo farms,” and “a society in which human beings are grown for spare body parts and children are engineered to custom specifications.” The Island dramatizes the truth of his prediction.

Some may claim that, as a nation founded upon liberty and freedom of choice, America must well uphold its tradition as a democracy rather than backslide into a Communist reign of pure governmental authority. Individualism and capitalism have always been central themes in American literature, and private enterprises have been embraced wholeheartedly without question throughout its history. However, as modern scientific progress slowly creeps towards its potential climax, how will society face the dreading possibilities of a moral and ethical recession, which shall manifest itself as an origami of changing societal laws, especially when governmental regulation is often debated when it comes to controversial issues?

One key with three different heads – that opened all the doors in the building – the tri-keys symbolized the (Holy) trinity, and that the movie essentially portrayed these men as trying to assume the role of God by opening the doors of science and new life. The idea that “if I can give life, then I can take life” supports the pro-choice argument.

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