Scarlett Johansson was in danger of becoming nothing more than an art-house habitue's dream after appearing in movies like Ghost World, Lost in Translation and The Girl With a Pearl Earring. Her gifts for angst and ennui, and even her wispy blond allure, which lent itself to vagueness, allowed high-minded movie lovers to project their lonely, secret passions.
She was in danger of becoming nothing more than a mood actress: an icon for the outre. So it's a relief to see her all toned-up and active in The Island, Michael Bay's latest special-effects extravaganza - just as it was a relief to see moody old Sean Penn do a Bogart-like star turn in The Interpreter.
Don't let the print ads fool you: She hasn't suddenly turned into a statuesque sex queen. Dressed in a sleekly tailored, mid-21st century version of prison whites, she's one lithe, supple spirit. And her character isn't exactly a stretch: She's playing a beautiful blank. But midway through, she becomes a blank who's hungry for experience - and Johansson's gleam gives this overextended version of a Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episode its only shine.
She lives along with scores of other men and women, including her co-star, Ewan McGregor, who plays her special friend, in a full-care facility that controls everything from climate to diet. Educated to a grade-school level - between bouts of physical education and menial work details, they read Dick and Jane books - they believe that the institute's authorities have protected them from the contamination of a post-apocalyptic world. Their hope is to hit it big in a regular lottery that lands winners a spot on the Island, the one pristine place left on Earth.
Like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Island is the kind of suicidal high-concept movie increasingly prevalent these days: a film so thoroughly pre-conceived and pre-sold that most audiences know more about what's going on than the characters do for half the movie. The few sheltered viewers unfamiliar with the story will sense something is wrong from the protagonists' names - Johansson is Jordan Two-Delta, McGregor is Lincoln Six-Echo. Or they'll guess at hidden evils from McGregor's dead-giveaway of a nightmare, or from perennial villain Sean Bean's presence as the institute's director, or from the sanitized environment's resemblance to that of THX-1138.
By the time Lincoln opens a door and visits an institute mechanic (the always-reliable Steve Buscemi) who labors amid normal industrial grunge, everyone in the theater knows Jordan and Lincoln are part of a lie. For those who don't want anything given away, let's just say the second half of the movie is one implausibly elaborate Bad Boys II-style chase as the hero and heroine try to escape that lie. It's full of plot holes so wide you could drive 21st century trucks and jet-bikes through them, which of course director Bay does on every possible occasion.
For those who don't mind knowing a bit more, the story revolves around cloning. Parts of it resemble more recent fantasies like The Matrix and The Truman Show. But the film it really apes - down to the eerie signature shot of bodies hung on long lines from a high ceiling - is Michael Crichton's 1978 adaptation of Robin Cook's best-seller Coma. Crichton's movie was 10 times the picture, and its heroine, Genevieve Bujold, was a vibrant, mature woman who developed a thrilling and excruciating rooting interest as she did battle with cold-blooded technocrats.
Within severe limits, Johansson does the same thing in The Island, eliciting funny responses from Buscemi's lowlife and McGregor's naif and unexpected ones from Djimon Hounsou as Bean's private security honcho. In my favorite moment, McGregor commits extreme vehicular mayhem and Johansson simply says "good job." The main thing to cheer about in The Island is Johansson's coruscating deadpan.
Starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson
Directed by Michael Bay
Released by DreamWorks
Time 125 minutes
Sun Score ** (two stars)