Monday, April 03, 2006

"The Island": A Movie Review.

The Island (Dreamworks/Warner Bros., 2005), $10.50 admission, $16.95 for a "Supercombo," plus another $2.95 if you throw in the Twizzlers. Now available on DVD at Tower Records and Videos, for $19.95.

The Island is a great "good time" movie. It has all the ingredients to thrill the male "geek" population without boring their beautiful girlfriends. This is the year of "Beauty and the Geek." I saw lots of both at this movie. Beautiful women have finally come to appreciate the wonders of geeks. This is what nature intended. George Bernard Shaw, upon receiving a letter proposing marriage from a beauty queen (who asked him to consider that a child with her beauty and his brains might "rule the world"), declined the offer with a reminder that the child might have his looks and her brains. Shaw's caution should serve as a warning for scientists working on ambitious genetic engineering projects.

The Island works on several levels: first, there are lots of great action sequences, chases, explosions and thrills; second, there are important philosophical issues woven into the plot, which are perfect for "after-the-movie-what's-it-all-about" discussions; and third, Scarlett Johansson is in this movie. Ms. Johansson need not act -- and usually doesn't have to in this movie -- as long as she can step before a camera and smile, she will be successful. If you wish to see Ms. Johansson act, then rent Woody Allen's Match Point. I enjoyed seeing the "Island" film and have done some homework on the philosophical puzzles that I recognized in the plot, but I may have missed some. If I did, then everybody else missed them too, since none of the reviews that I have read discussed most -- or any -- these issues.

"Guys" should know that this is your perfect date movie for this year. If you can't get a date, then close your eyes and think of Scarlet Johansson as you shell out your ten dollars and fifty cents. It may be the best money that you have ever spent. Her smile will kill you.

My review begins with a summary of the plot, then I move on to the key issues and ideas addressed by Michael Bay, the director. Among these issues are the conceptual puzzles -- only one "error" inserted so far! -- surrounding personal identity ("bifurcation cases") in our new bioethical environment; also questions concerning utopian political thinking in a scientific age, loss of privacy due to technological surveillance and control by way of Foucault, Orwell and Huxley.

Some reservations are expressed in this film concerning "scientism," focusing on the increasingly suspect role of scientists and psychologists in "controlling" populations. Marxist issues concerning the scope and limits of commercial relations can also be found in this movie. There are doubts expressed about the ethics of cloning for fun and profit, together with fears of governmental paternalism or totalitarianism with a friendly smile.

Religious allegories and a defense of love as an answer to many of these questions are also detectable in this film. These are only some of the issues tucked away in the movie, which is ultimately about freedom and what it means to be human. A useful comparison can be made between this film and such predecessors as The Matrix, or Logan's Run, even 2001, A Space Odyssey and Brave New World, or 1984.

Mr. McGregor is "Lincoln Six-Echo" an everyman living in a highly regimented and sanitized society, where his bodily functions are monitored for perfect health. His every movement is observed at all times. No, this is not New York in 2006 -- not yet, anyway -- but an entirely artificial environment, created early in the 21st century.

Like all other residents of this "utopia," Lincoln believes himself to be one of the few survivors of a catastrophe that has engulfed most of the planet wiping out the bulk of the human population with some new survivors found and brought into the city. (The analogy to G.W.'s America and the fear of "terrorism" is a little obvious and heavy-handed.)

Like all residents of this sanitized and regimented city, Lincoln enters a weekly lottery to see whether he will win a trip to the "island" -- a paradise -- which people are told is the only remaining place where humans may still live, safely, without fear of contamination. All human contacts are monitored so that persons remain socially isolated, residents have no sexual contact with one another or meaningful social relations of any kind. Again, this society begins to look uncomfortably familiar to audience members. Are we in New Jersey?

Ms. Johansson's character, called "Jordan Two-Delta," is attracted to Lincoln as he begins to experience doubts about the myth that the residents have been taught. In fact, Lincoln realizes that the lottery is only a death sentence and discovers that all of the residents of the city or "techno-polis" are merely human clones, or "products," created by a corporation for human clients seeking to cheat death by using the clones for spare parts. It is easier to destroy "products" than "persons." Dehumanization always has a linguistic aspect.

When Jordan "wins" the lottery, Lincoln realizes that he must get her out of their womb-like environment to safety. Hopes for immortality do not fare well in this movie. The sanitized environment is also a kind of plastic Eden, a land of innocence. Definitely not New Jersey.

The corporate honcho, chief scientist-psychologist and Dr. Strangelove character in this piece is played in standard mode by Sean Bean. The great and "heroic" Djimon Hounsou is wasted in a small part, as a bounty hunter and executioner sent to destroy the two "products," after Lincoln and Jordan escape the "sanctuary."

Mr. Hounsou would have been better in the lead, getting to ride off into the sunset with Ms. Johansson. You forget that he is a bad guy in this movie and find yourself cheering for him. Hollywood or the audience may not be ready for this just yet. Too bad. I think the film would have been even better with Mr. Hounsou as the hero.

I have a feeling that Mr. McGregor would love to play the villain for once, relishing the opportunity to trade parts with Mr. Hounsou. Actors tend to welcome the chance to chew the scenery as a truly evil character. Occasionally, very little acting is required for such a part, though Mr. McGregor does not fall into the "Obnoxious-Hollywood-Superstar" category.

Lincoln, true to his name, returns eventually to destroy the facility, after meeting his "maker," in order to liberate his fellow slaves. It is in the process of discovering love and sensuality -- no, they did not eat an apple -- that Lincoln and Jordan realize that love is the island paradise that humanity always seeks and calls "heaven," or the "workers' paradise," or (in America) a "tax free zone."

What they also find is their freedom in the awareness of mutual moral responsibility and passion. They find themselves when they discover that they care about one another. They only see themselves (become self-aware) when they see each other (experience love and eros).

As I sat in the movie theater munching on some popcorn, it occurred to me that the sanitized environment where the human clones were "kept" resembled Jeremy Betham's "Panopticon" ("all seeing") prison design, and must have been taken directly from Foucault's Discipline and Punish. The set looked like the drawings for the Panopticon: a circular structure with a tower in the center for total observation of inmates that was also a subtle gesture in the direction of Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001, A Space Odyssey. At the outset, everything is in white, including the actors.

Is this a blank screen or John Locke's tabula rasa? Is this blankness a metaphor for the mind prior to socialization? Heaven? Eden? The State of Nature or "pre-political" situation where characters operate behind a Rawlsian "veil of ignorance"? You decide. ("What is memory?" and "'Total Recall': A Movie Review.")

Commenting on Foucault's work, Mark Poster writes:

"The ingenius purpose served by this arrangement was that the prisoner would be conscious of being under continual surveillance. The guard, a representative of society's authority, became a kind of God-surrogate who could observe the prisoner at will, monitor behavioral aberrations or improvements and mete out rewards and punishments accordingly. Foucault does not draw attention to the likeness of the Panopticon and the Christian God's infinite knowledge. Nor does he observe the similarity of the Panopticon with Freud's notion of the superego as an internal monitor of unconscious wishes. An even closer parallel that goes unnoticed by Foucault is that between the Panopticon and the computer monitoring of individuals in advanced capitalism, ..."

Foucault, Marxism & History (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1984), p. 101; and Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (New York: Vintage, 1979), p. 301 ("The Carceral Network").

The lives of these beings are entirely subject to "surveillance" for ostensibly paternalistic reasons. Bodily waste is instantly analyzed to determine necessary alterations in diets, exercise is provided for, levels of social interaction are strictly controlled, decisions about how much contact is permitted (and with whom) are made by those "in control," who know better than the "products" what is "for their own good."

This hell-like dystopia resembles the paradise of the "politically correct" thought police, made up of psychobabblers and their acolytes, usually found in California or in far more dismal locations. That's New Jersey. Residents are always "on camera." Fame becomes a matter of birthright in this future world. This is hell as a sinister, Fascistic, Oprah Winfrey-like version of paradise. Trenton?

Depending on your politics you may prefer to think in terms of Christian fundamentalists and their corporate partners as the oppressors. There are some digs at the Bush Administration in this movie, as I say, and a tacit critique of the phenomenon of "privatizing" police work, prisons, medical care, and so on.

Governmental paternalism, State-made determinations concerning what is "for your own good," or what your taste or values should be, is profoundly antithetical to advocates of civil liberties and conservatives alike because it results, ultimately, in a slave-like condition for those subject to it who internalize the lesson to become "docile bodies." No one may decide what is for the good of another law-abiding adult human being. So long as a person foregoes decisions about his or her own values, that person is not free; hence, he or she is lacking in "enlightenment." For the sake of those who have not figured it out yet, let me spell it out: No one can tell you what opinions are "politically correct" because there should be no such thing as government mandated "political correctness."

Not only is Big Brother "watching" you in this future world, he is also testing your blood and urine -- something that never occurred to Orwell, though Huxley might have anticipated it -- and deciding with whom, or whether, you can have sex. Privacy is non-existent and autonomy could not arise in this social setting. As you might have guessed, those who claim to know best what is for everyone's good, usually don't. But they sure know what is for their own good.

Some things are universal and timeless. David Karp's cult masterpiece One (London: Penguin, 1972), at page 87, contains a perfect description of a New Jersey psychobabbler's vision of paradise:

"Happiness, my dear Dr. Wright, comes from conformity -- comes from being exactly like your fellows. Your joys, your sorrows, your aims, your hopes, your dreams when shared and felt with others make for happiness. Man is a social animal and the State is helping him to the realization of the perfect society -- a complete identity of community interest, where all feel a part, take a part, are a part. ... [a part which the therapist-torturer provides for them]."

Lincoln discovers that there is life beyond utopia. He decides to head "East of Eden," out of paradise, away from the closed and perfect womb-like existence that is reproduced by technology in order to accept Joseph Campbell's realm of opposites ("good and evil"), freedom, adulthood, danger and the possiblity of death by confronting his "sponsor," the human source of his genes, and demanding an explanation. I can relate to this, folks.

There are echoes of Dorothy's journey to -- and away from -- Oz. Religious analogies surface. The most philosophically interesting issues arise when Lincoln finds and comes face-to-face with his sponsor, who is both his source of life and an identical double. The references at this point include all literary "fathers and sons," to borrow Turgenev's title, including the encounter between Shakespeare's Hamlet and his father's ghost (the part of the ghost was once played, ironically enough, by Shakespeare himself), not to mention the obvious association with the Frankenstein monster meeting his creator. Perhaps we may imagine dinner between G.W. and his dad.

Most fascinating of all is the puzzle of personal identity to which this scenario gives rise: which of these two identical men is the "real" human being? The original, who is terminally ill? The clone? Both? What do we mean by a human being? Or by a person? Do we use these words to mean the same thing? Pass me some more of that popcorn.

British philosopher Bernard Williams is one of the foremost contemporary thinkers to have examined the issue of personal identity. Williams comments on cases of "splitting":

"Splitting may look like a particularly good way of preserving one's identity through time. If I could split, it might seem that I could not only go on existing, but do so twice over. But in fact, division is typically destructive of identity through time. The amoeba does not appear in two places at once, but rather gives up its existence so that there will be two amoebae."

"Identity and Identities," in Identity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), at page 4.

The hope for immortality has been described as one of the greatest incentives to literary effort. Shakespeare even promised immortality to his lover as the subject of his work. Such survival is, of course, dubious (except for Shakespeare, for whom there are no rules), since the literary persona and the flesh and blood person writing a text are distinct.

Normally, the attempt to split ourselves in two -- usually in order to cope with an impossible double-bind situation -- leads to schizophrenia. This is not a good thing. What holds us together, if we are fortunate, is a relation or set of relations at the center of our selves. If we can find a love, or loves, towards which we can direct and unify our energies we may survive even a schizoid break with reality.

In our scientific age, since the Renaissance and the birth of modernity, the ambition for immortality has become literal. From Dr. Faustus to Frankenstein, it is science and technology that holds the key to immortality and worldly power alike. High tech reproductive technologies and genetics now offer the possibility of a near future in which persons will be able to clone themselves so as to create a storehouse of spare parts, or simply a chain of "selves," in order to live forever. Problems arise as we begin to examine the status of these clones: Are they persons? Are they "us"? Even more puzzling issues arise when we ponder the possibility of cyborgs dwelling among us. It is possible that they are here already? Has anyone seen Donna Haraway? ("A Doll's Aria" and "What you will ...")

Lincoln has no substantial interpersonal experiences. He is not well educated and is a twenty-six year-old virgin ("comparable to a fifteen year-old"), almost as though he had been asleep until his departure from the corporate city. (See "The Sleeping Prince.")

His sponsor, however, though vastly more sophisticated, sexually and otherwise, does not seem like a very nice person. For instance, the sponsor makes it a point to deceive his double, while planning to capture the lovely "Jordan" for himself. Yet they are said to be the same person, biologically or genetically identical, "but for" the differences in upbringing, education and context.

Paul Ricoeur reminds us, however, that "sameness is not identity."

The scene between the two selves may be interpreted as an encounter between younger and older selves. "I await myself in the future," says Sartre. It may also be interpreted as a meeting between different aspects of the psyche -- the thriving conformist ego (the performing self) and the natural man or woman, who rebels against society. 

One of the great blunders of contemporary American psychology is its decision to "get into bed" (I could not resist that metaphor!) with the State, becoming an instrument of conformity and oppression, denying all that is different and freedom-loving in those "non-conformists," who are far from enamored of the "air conditioned nightmare" of contemporary society, whose presence is so desperately needed in contemporary America.

The moral difference between sponsor and clone renders the "naive" Lincoln a better human being than his maker. Lincoln is more moral, in the sense of being self-sacrificing and honest, learning how to love and come to terms with his freedom in relations with others.

To the question whether nature or nurture is more important to the making of a human being's identity, this film says: "Both, equally and to the same extent." Moreover, identity is defined morally for the audience, that is, as a freely accepted quest for self-awareness and love that is shared. Bernard Williams writes of identity:

"Questions at this level about persons are, in a metaphysical sense, questions about who or what a person is. Such questions can themselves be related to ethics and politics, in a number of ways. They can bear, for instance, on the ethics and politics of euthanasia. But there is another kind of ethical and political question that can be expressed by asking the question 'What am I?' This kind of question concerns one's identity as a person who belongs to a certain family, group, or race; they are questions of social identity." (p. 7.)

It is no coincidence that Jordan, who discovers sex before Lincoln does, explains the point of their existence and the meaning of life to her heroic (but not too bright) boyfriend: "The island is us," she says. Paradise is a shared state of being that arises for people in love, as loving. Paradise (and maybe also the opposite, when lovers are separated) is love.

I like the explosions and car chases in this movie. I like the skin-tight, white outfit worn by Scarlett Johansson. Ms. Johansson will always do well in a movie with any director who photographs her, at least once, from behind. (Yes, I know I am being "politically incorrect.") The ideas and writing in the script are generally very good, except for some cartoonish villains and occasional heavy-handed satire.

I highly recommend The Island and plan to see it again.

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