Set in the near-future, the film begins amid a strangely sterile colony of humans -- presumably the sole survivors of an ecological catastrophe that has made the entire planet, apart from one remote island, uninhabitable. But their existence differs little from that of prison inmates, assigned menial tasks and governed by rules -- including proscriptions on intimate relations between the sexes -- meant to keep them docile and obedient. The only thing that gives them any hope at all is the nightly lottery, the winner of which is promised a glorious new life on the fabled "island."
It is, of course, an elaborate ruse, for there is no island, nor are these individuals truly human. They are clones, bred and farmed from the DNA of the rich and famous, to be used for spare parts should there come a day when the original clients find themselves in need. Merrick (Sean Bean), the brilliant but megalomaniacal architect of this plan, has taken great pains to insure that each clone is imprinted with nothing but fabricated memories. But Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) suffers from nightmare flashbacks that are almost certainly inherited from his genetic progenitor. And he knows things aren't as they appear.
To this point, "The Island" shows considerable promise. Though obviously rooted in present-day concerns about genetic engineering and cloning, the story has been cleverly cobbled from a quartet of classic '70s era sci-fi thrillers: "THX-1138," "Logan's Run," "Coma" and "Soylent Green." McGregor's Lincoln is a compelling hero in the Orwellian mold while Scarlett Johansson, as his achingly beautiful (and platonic) companion Jordan Two Delta, supplies the obligatory sexual tension. It's hardly great art, but measured against Bay's previous work, it might as well be Ingmar Bergman.
Unfortunately, it's a short-lived sobriety; as Lincoln and Jordan discover the truth of their existence and take desperate flight into the real world -- a hired commando search team led by Djimon Hounsou hot on their heels -- the old Michael Bay resurfaces with a vengeance. Like a drunk who's just fallen off the wagon, Bay retreats into his own worst proclivities, assaulting the audience with nearly 90 solid minutes of painful sensory overload -- explosions, chases and computer-generated mayhem including one particularly ludicrous set piece that drags on for nearly 40 minutes without respite.
Conceived and written by Caspian Tredwell-Owen, who shares writing credit with rewriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci of "Alias" and "Lost," "The Island" means to address the same questions posed by its '70s era predecessors, mostly existential concerns regarding life and what it means to be human. That's in stark contrast to the techno-fetishism of Bay's previous science fiction opus, "Armageddon," in which a lot of stuff blows up. One can only imagine how "The Island" might have turned out in the hands of Ridley Scott or an Andrew Niccol -- filmmakers who have already demonstrated an aptitude for doing this kind of thing right. That Lincoln and Jordan, in their quest to become human, must fight the powers that be, is to be expected. That they must also fight the film's director is beyond unacceptable. Starring Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Djimon Hounsou, Sean Bean, Steve Buscemi and Michael Clarke Duncan. Directed by Michael Bay. Written by Caspian Tredwell-Owen and Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci. Produced by Walter F. Parkes, Michael Bay and Ian Bryce. A DreamWorks release. Sci-Fi/Action. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sexuality and language. Running time: 135 min