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A science fiction fable for our time


Unlike Steven Spielberg's essentially unimaginative version of War of the Worlds, Michael Bay's new and less heavily hyped picture, The Island, engages some of the important matters that traditionally supply the themes of science fiction literature and cinema. Again unlike Spielberg's most recent work, this movie in fact contains enough action and character for two or three additional films, not all of them falling precisely within the boundaries of its nominal genre. It also addresses some significant issues of science, politics, and belief, all of them relevant to our time.

The picture initially presents a situation resembling a great many works in the history of the form, a society of the future --- 2019 --- whose oddly named citizens dwell in some streamlined, antiseptic wonderland, with elements of both Brave New World and 1984, where a benign central authority, deeply concerned with their health, regulates every aspect of their lives, from the breakfast they eat to the clothes they wear.

The huge enclosed structure they inhabit shelters them from some unspecified contamination that apparently devastated the planet, making them a sort of colony of survivors. A regular public lottery enables one lucky winner to leave the colony and live in a paradise simply called the Island, a destination they all hope to attain.

One inhabitant, Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor), frequently awakens from troubled dreams with no apparent source in his own experience, disturbing him so much that he begins to question the life he leads and the world around him. His inquisitiveness leads him to the discovery that he and his hundreds of companions, cloned at enormous expense from the cells of wealthy and important people, exist as "insurance policies," a kind of cattle bred as repositories of organs and killed when needed to extend the lives of those investors. He and a female companion, Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson), escape the facility and embark on a desperate flight to find their original selves, so to speak, and reveal the horror to the outside world.

Although the basic premise and the future setting certainly establish The Island as a science fiction film, the director, apparently not content with exploring that situation, then moves the action in a different direction, turning his film into a wild pursuit thriller. McGregor and Johansson flee from the Western desert toward Los Angeles, tracked by a squad of high-tech killers under the leadership of Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou), in a long series of breathless chases, spectacular crashes, and noisy shootouts. After surviving all of that, the pair discover the identities of their originals and return to their breeding ground with the intention of destroying the place and freeing all the clones.

The Island suggests at least one response to the acrimonious public debate over matters like cloning, harvesting of organs, stem cell research, and of course, scientific research in general, especially in a time when the current administration and its allies promulgate a programmatic ignorance. That response reminds us of the traditional tendency of science fiction to address some of the major issues of its temporal context, from nuclear warfare to environmental pollution, usually with an eye to the generalized cultural paranoia that has gripped the nation since the end of World War II.

The movie also confronts an important and sometimes poignant theme, the difficult question of identity, of just what it means to be human, which has troubled the genre from Frankenstein to I, Robot. The film suggests that every artificially created being endowed with consciousness, whether a patched-together monstrosity, a reanimated corpse, or some mechanical simulacrum, will eventually develop intellectual curiosity, a set of emotions, and the desire to transcend their condition and evolve into a higher state. The clones ultimately acquire what we think of as a soul, and like all of us, want to assert their own selfhood, to become, in short, fully human.

Although The Island deploys just about all the special effects available to the maker of an action blockbuster, it hints at something more powerful than mere pyrotechnics. It exhibits the most exciting and compelling vision of a fable of identity since the often affecting I, Robot, and even concludes with a stirring crowd sequence that parallels the ending of that picture, a triumphant vision of liberation and rebirth, a hint that a truly brave new world awaits the clones.

The Island (PG-13) directed by Michael Bay is playing at Cinemark Tinseltown, Loews Webster, Pittsford Plaza Cinema, Regal Eastview, Regal Henrietta.