Friday, October 12, 2007

Old men staring out to sea

There is a Film Forensics about The Island; but I just saw it the other day and had to write something. Or, I saw it the other day and just had to write something.

I can’t remember the last movie I saw that started out with so much promise and then collapsed so completely. It was like The Matrix and the first of those crummy Matrix sequels had been combined into one movie. It was like Highlander and Highlander 2 had been combined into one movie. It was like the screenwriter had disappeared halfway through, and been replaced by his 15-year-old clone who liked to blow things up.

So my first suggestion for improving the movie would involve the following two steps:

(a) Cut it in half
(b) Throw the second half away

Two things bothered me, besides the long and tedious action sequences. The first was the economics of the cloning operation, and the second was the behaviour of the people involved in it.

Economics first: $5 million is just too much to pay if all you get is replacement organs, and them not on demand: who wants to wait in a coma for months or years while your replacement parts are grown? Androo hit the nail on the head: “If the technology is there for building adult bodies, it’s not so much of a leap to go further and have brain transplants. Why bother repairing the old host body, when you can just move your brain into a new body? Ickier, more memorable, and we have a chance at some interesting plot points to go with it. The clones have to be physically trained to match (or exceed) the capabilities of the originals, which is a better explanation of why they have to be conscious...”

Then the people: Of course, groups of people can easily be persuaded to do evil things to other people. You usually need to do two things: isolate your group of evildoers from outside norms of behaviour, and convince them that their target group is subhuman. In The Island, there are too many humans working with the clones, and they interact with them all the time and see them behaving like regular humans. They are allowed to treat them occasionally in dehumanising and cruel ways, but not as a matter of course, since that would spoil the product. And they do not live on an isolated company compound, but commute to normal homes in the outside world. I think, if under these circumstances none of them have had pangs of conscience, if none of them have squealed about what is going on, it can only mean the rest of the country shares their morality. It only makes sense that they would behave that way if everyone considers clones to be inhuman, whether they are conscious or not, and that the uplifting scene of clones wandering across the desert at the end will soon be followed by scenes of helicopters rounding them up and taking them back to the pens.

In my version, most of the black-shirted people wandering around managing the clones will be clones themselves, who believe the same backstory, but have been conditioned to believe they have an important role in managing the facility and will automatically be sent on to the Island after a given length of time. Among these will be a few humans, some of the very few who know the whole story. Upstairs, where the clones are processed, things will be as automated as possible, and most humans working there will be unaware that the products were ever conscious.

The first part of the film will therefore unfold almost exactly the same as before, except that, of course, there is no need for white-suited clones to know how to read. I expect black-suited clones will be able to read. Also, the sleazy mechanic will be played by Jet Li.

When Lincoln escapes into the upper part of the facility, he will not find bustling corridors full of medicos, but- after a bit of atmospheric wandering around looking at cool special effects- an operating theatre where remotely operated robodocs are operating on the football-player replacement clone. Everything is under control: there is no racing about trying to escape. Lincoln just sees the guy lying there, obviously the man who won the lottery. An unspeakable machine comes up and puts some tubes in. Another one puts in some more tubes. Some lights flash. Maybe something beeps. Another machine comes up and shaves a small spot on his head. Splot, a machine sticks a thick steel tube through his skull. Schlurp, we see his brain being pumped, grayish-pink and icky, through a transparent tube. He is shrinkwrapped, a few more tubes are attached, and then a door whooshes open and a couple of gowned figures come in to check dials and wheel him away.

Consumers don’t come to the facility. That would be bad. So there is no scene with a baby being handed to grateful parents.

Then, there is no stupid action scene when Lincoln and Jordon get away. The clones are smart. Androo, again, has it perfectly right: “Have them both with some notion that they’re escaping to somewhere incredibly dangerous: that the world is not only radioactive, but filled with hideous beasts, as they see on the videos. They dress in radiation suits, take fresh water, weapons, and other supplies, and are cunning about hiding.”

Now, if you were running a facility like this, where would you put it? A disused military base in an open democracy where there are things like a free press and an activist judiciary? Only if you are a Michael Moore-style fantasist and the government is in on the deal. No, when they get out of the facility, the clones are not in the Nevada desert. They are on a bleak street in a Chinese industrial city, tarted up to look a bit more like Blade Runner because it is after all 2042. As they wander down the street, totally lost and looking like dills in their radiation suits, we see that the ‘Medical Supply House’ they have escaped from is not the only one. No, this street is lined with them. They can’t tell, because they can’t read.

Since, for a brand new body, $5 million is not so much. Millions of people can pay that. There are hundreds of these places here in Chengdu, where labour is cheaper and regulations less strict than they are in Nevada.

We flash back to the excitingly CGI-rendered video conference (clients aren’t going to travel out to the middle of nowhere to listen to a sales talk, after all) where the evil scientist fills in the back story for the folks at home. Its not good for old geezers to be transported into a body that is bed-ridden and weak from just sitting there in a vegetative state, of course: so it has to be exercised, by the latest top of the range equipment which keeps it in tip-top condition. Our automatic equipment for exercising our vegetative clones is the best in the world, which is why our bodies command premium prices, etc., etc. Because, and this is why the guys who own this place are really evil, they don’t have to keep the clones conscious in order to make their product. It’s just cheaper that way. It’s all about the bottom line.

The clones are wandering down the street when Lincoln sees his old friend Jet Li. Jet Li drops his dinner, which he is carrying home, in surprise. Jet Li can fill the clones in on his version of the backstory back at his place.

Now, I have slightly reconsidered my first suggestion, which was to throw the second half of the movie away. Perhaps some essential part of The Island is the dichotomy between a cerebral, intelligent world that is a total fraud and a stupid world of ultrakinetic action that is reality. Instead, we will make sure that the hyperkinetic action sequences are justified by the only justification for hyperkinetic action sequences, that they be part of the Hong Kong action movie tradition.

So, there is some artificial plot device to stop the clones from contacting their owners right away. They are pursued by the police and by the mercenaries. Far fewer things are totally destroyed, since we have spent more of the special effects budget on booze. The police will actually collect the clones, bring them into the station- not to charge them with the murder of Jet Li, because he is alive in this version, and they’ve brought him into the station too, but because it is an authoritarian state where they can do what they like to simple-minded foreigners in weird costumes who run away and break things- and then they will be grabbed by the mercenaries, who have more impressive special effects than the police.

The clones will be tied up and spirited away, but we always thought the mercenary leader was going to turn out to be a good guy, and our suspicions are about to be confirmed: he has gotten a better offer and is being nice to the clones and taking them somewhere else. Meanwhile it will be revealed to the viewers at home that, going through proper channels, what the police were going to do is hush things up and disappear the clones quietly. The mercenary leader is taking the clone to Matt Damon of Team America: World Police, who is investigating dumping of cheap Chinese clones on the market. We are just starting to like the mercenary leader when he turns evil again and is shot by Matt Damon. Lincoln borrows Matt Damon’s mobile phone and calls his owner. His owner is mortified and nice, and immediately arranges for the two clones to be repatriated.

Lincoln and Jordon go to live with Ur-Lincoln, who lives on- dramatic music- an island! Yep, it’s a real nice private artificial island, either in Tampa Bay (like in that Alan Dean Foster book based on Navajo mythology), or part of The World in Dubai. (There will be nothing in this film to offend any geography pedants.)

We see the same police who were going to hush things up barging into the upper floors of the clone factory, now that it is no longer possible to hush things up.

We see the other clones owned by Americans being happily repatriated to a real swell holding facility in Nevada, until Team America:World Police can figure out what to do with them.

We see Lincoln and Jordon sitting on the beach happily drinking pina coladas.

We see the inert bodies of the evil scientist and the rest of his evil non-clone collaborators, and yes, that’s Jet Li there too, he was caught by the authorities as well- being processed on a conveyor belt. A robodoc much like the one we saw in use in their facility is dissecting them for organs. Splot. Schlurp. Buzz, whir.

Then we pan along that street in Chengdu again, past ‘Medical Supply House’ after ‘Medical Supply House’.

Everyone happy. Cue credits. Await diplomatic incident.

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