The Island (2005)
“I want to live! I don’t want to die!” These frantic and forlorn cries, made by a desperate escapee to his pitiless captors, embody the essence and the thesis of this film, an anti-cloning and anti-forced-organ-removal drama set in the not-so-distant future.
Indeed, in some ways that future is now, as so-called “embryo models” (early-stage human beings generated from human stem cells) are being created with plans to use them to harvest cells to aid with organ transplants.
The story opens with what turns out to be a recurring nightmare suffered by the hero, Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor). Waking up, he begins another of his humdrum days as a worker-denizen of a highly regimented underground colony that might as well be a prison. The residents have been told, via “memory-imprinting,” that they must live as they do because they are survivors of a “contamination” that has killed everything in the outer world.
In the facility that is their world, nobody can leave, guard-goons monitor everyone’s behavior, everyone wears identical white uniforms and must stand in line for meals issued to them, familiarity with others is frowned upon, and no one has a spouse and family. Not only that, but no one dares express any opinions, the P.A. system pointedly advises everyone, “Remember: be polite, pleasant, and peaceful,” and all have to work at repetitive, mundane assigned jobs.
This particular day, though, will become anything but mundane for Lincoln. He is an exception: he has been wondering why things are as they are. He wants more, and that is dangerous. The cruel boss of the place, Dr. Bernard Merrick (Sean Bean), calls him in for questioning and ends up strapping him down for a “painless” test in which he painfully inserts bb-like optic-nerve sensors inside his eyelid that will record everything he sees for the next 24 hours. After this abuse, Lincoln still has to report to work.
Lincoln is a rebel at heart, and he makes an unauthorized visit to a friend, James McCord (Steve Buscemi), who works in another sector and is not one of the uniformed residents. Lincoln discovers a flying bug that has entered through a shaft – proof that, contrary to what they’ve all been told, life can and does exist outside the colony.
Lincoln has a friend, Jordan Six Echo (Scarlett Johansson), who likes him a lot, and he tells her about the bug. Complications ensue when Jordan wins the colony’s daily lottery. The residents all pine every day to win the lottery prize, which everyone believes is release from the colony to the surface’s supposed single uncontaminated place, “The Island,” a paradise where they can live in bliss for the rest of their lives. Lincoln is crestfallen but congratulates Jordan anyway.
After a nightmare that night, Lincoln ventures out of his room and goes to the shaft to free the bug, which he’d kept. Lincoln follows up the shaft to see what he can find out, and the result is hideous – and life-changing. On an upper floor, he witnesses atrocities. First, a nurse gives a fatal injection to a mom who has just given birth, and they present her baby to an unawares couple waiting next door.
Then, and this is where we came in, a previous lottery winner is placed on an operating table and prepped to have his liver taken out and given to a paying customer. The man awakens as the surgery begins. He jumps up and flees down a hallway, but goons brutally subdue him and drag him back for his “extraction” as he piteously screams a universal human cry, “I want to live.”
Now Lincoln realizes that there is no “Island” and the lottery is a cruel pretext to lull the residents into complacency before they are victimized for their organs or their babies. He gets Jordan and they flee, setting off on a series of narrow escapes and feats of derring-do that occupy much of the rest of the film. Still inside the complex, they encounter a roomful of encased people being grown to become “donors.”
Lincoln and Jordan reach the surface and are wonderstruck as they see the outside world for the first time – exactly as in Keats’s poem, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”: “…like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes / He star’d at the Pacific – and all his men / Look’d at each other with a wild surmise – Silent, upon a peak in Darien.”
Until now Jordan and Lincoln have spent their whole lives in a former military bunker. They now run away as fast as they can.
In the meantime, a group of prospective Merrick customers is told that the facility is engaged in “the next stage of science,” in which usable donor organs are being grown in “agnates” (“paternal kinsmen,” Merriam-Webster tells us) who are not human and are in “a persistent vegetative state.”
Incidentally, if all this talk of prospective customers and the extraction of useful organs reminds you of what’s been going on with a certain abortion-giant enterprise, you’re not alone.
Dr. Merrick now summons outside security expert Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou) and his team to go after Jordan and Lincoln, who is the first “product” to “question his existence.” Merrick will be in big trouble if the public learns about laws he’s broken in creating his “products.”
The fugitives Lincoln and Jordan meet Lincoln’s pal McCord and seek his help. (Lincoln had a matchbook with an address that led him to McCord.) They are shocked when McCord fumblingly admits – SPOILER ALERT – that they are “not like a real person” but are clones – identical “copies of people out here in the world” who have paid millions to stockpile them as “insurance policies” to be killed for their organs should the need arise. McCord gives them the identities and locations of their “sponsors” but is killed by Laurent’s pursuers as he sends the couple on their way.
In true dystopia-movie fashion, Lincoln and Jordan – SPOILER ALERT – eventually return to the colony to rescue the hapless residents there. They end up heroically doing so and wrecking the entire facility as well, with the help of Laurent, who has finally seen in them echoes of tragedies his own family underwent – and who had accused Merrick of playing God after he bragged about “giving life.”
Merrick broke laws in his quest for organ extractions. But in real life, politicians’ moves are becoming uncomfortably similar. British Prime Minister Theresa May announced last October that her government favors making Britain’s organ “donor” program opt-out instead of opt-in; the presumption will be that you have given consent for your organs to be harvested by the National Health Service unless you have formally indicated otherwise. A bill is making its way through the British Parliament that could install such a “presumed consent” system as early as January 2020. (To be viable, major organs have to be extracted before a patient’s death.)
Observers rightly point out an opt-out policy’s moral problems. Professor John Fabre of Kings College London has said it would “degrade the ethical framework of our society… into one of the state taking back what it thinks is its, while intruding on one of the most personal and delicate moments of a family’s life. No longer would we be free autonomous individuals, but rather we would become nationalised property that the state reclaims after our death.”
The movie’s MPAA rating, “PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sexuality and language,” is an example of ratings-creep downward. The film features bloody images, several dirty lines, an instance of near-blasphemy, several obscenities, a sex scene, and extremely violent scenes.
Michael Bay directed The Island. Caspian Tredwell-Owen, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci wrote the screenplay. Steve Jablonsky was the composer, Mauro Fiore the cinematographer. Paul Rubell and Christian Wagner were the film editors. Nigel Phelps was the production designer. Rosemary Brandenburg was the set decorator and Deborah Lynn Scott the costume designer.
— Dan Engler
Editor’s Note: The introduction to this piece was updated 9/12/23 to reflect news of advances in the creation of human embryo models (very young human beings).