‘The Island’ Might Be Bay’s Best; ‘Devil’s Rejects’ A Love Letter To Crud Classics, By Kurt Loder

Ewan and Scarlett star in sci-fi thriller with a brain; Rob Zombie goes too far — and keeps on going.

“The Island”: Club Dead

The year is 2019, and the surface of the earth is choked with lethal pollution. Deep below ground, a passel of shuffling survivors mill around in what appears to be a vast, sterile clinic of some sort. (It might be a health spa in Hell.) They wear white uniforms and bland expressions and submit unquestioningly to the directions of soft-spoken, black-clad minders. They pass their days doing meaningless busy-work, punctuated only by a daily lottery whose winners are transported off to “the island” — “nature’s last remaining pathogen-free zone,” they’re told — where they’ll be encouraged to join in the happy task of repopulating the planet.

Any science-fiction devotee will know immediately that this is all a lie. As has been revealed in the movie’s trailer and in several pre-release magazine features, these “people” are in fact clones. They are carefully maintained at the malleable intellectual level of 15-year-olds, and their purpose is to provide spare parts for the actual humans on the actually unpolluted surface up above who have paid fortunes to have them created. It’s a sinister and ethically abominable system, and when one of the clones, Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor), starts asking unexpected questions — like “What is tofu?” — the whole high-tech edifice begins to crumble.

It is irresistible to suggest that “The Island” is a Michael Bay movie with a brain. Bay, the director of such explosive entertainments as “Armageddon” and “Pearl Harbor” and the “Bad Boys” movies, is almost universally derided by film critics, if not filmgoers, as a blockbuster hack who has never seen 10 minutes of film he didn’t think could be improved by blowing something up in it. That’s a little harsh, probably. What really distinguishes “The Island” is that it’s a Michael Bay movie with a compelling idea, or at least a resonant question: What does it mean to be human? This is one of the oldest questions in the sci-fi firmament, of course. But given the ongoing lack of a definitive answer, it bears asking again. Bay does this with considerable style — and of course lots of explosions.

When Lincoln Six Echo learns the truly horrible truth about what’s going on in his subterranean prison, his first concern is for Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson), a super-cute clone for whom he’s developed vague, forbidden feelings — and who has, unluckily, just won the latest lottery. Filling her in on the fact that there is no island, and armed with some handy escape information inadvertently supplied by a nice-guy custodial employee named McCord (Steve Buscemi), Lincoln convinces Jordan to flee with him into whatever it is that lies up above the only world they’ve ever known. This sets off alarms in the office of the clone-master Merrick (Sean Bean), a corporate scumbag who runs this sub-rosa operation in collusion with the Defense Department. (“We have a product on the loose!” he yells.) Merrick dispatches an icy operative named Laurent (the rivetingly charismatic West African actor Djimon Hounsou) to retrieve his runaway property.

As Lincoln and Jordan make their way to Los Angeles in search of the humans who commissioned their existence, there are some pretty funny moments. When a bartender at a desert roadhouse they wander into asks Jordan if she wants her drink “straight up,” she stares up at the ceiling in clueless confusion. And when she and Lincoln finally try an exploratory kiss, he pulls back with a big grin and says, “That tongue thing is amazing.

Mainly, though, the second half of the movie is a destructo-derby — and a good one. A freeway car chase enlivened by the accidental dumping of a truckload of big, bouncing steel train wheels is a unique action concept. And a different kind of chase, careening around the skyscrapers of a futuristic L.A. on wild-looking airborne motorcycles, truly is spectacular. (These flying choppers apparently cost the filmmakers an arm and several legs to procure, and at one point seriously threatened the movie’s budget.)

The picture is an unabashed pastiche, clapping together elements of such earlier sci-fi films as “THX 1138,” “Logan’s Run,” “Minority Report” and, of course, “Blade Runner.” But the stars add wit and warmth (Ewan McGregor is the anti-Cruise), and even the most delirious action scenes aren’t entirely gratuitous. “The Island” actually is a Michael Bay movie with a brain, I guess. It may be his best one, too.

“The Devil’s Rejects”: Captain Blood

Writer-director Rob Zombie’s trashed-out, blood-smeared sequel to his 2003 debut, “House of 1000 Corpses,” brings back the loathsome Firefly family for another round of shooting, stabbing, strangling, whipping, cattle-prodding, hand-nailing and, in a lyrical interlude, some light slapping. The camerawork is almost entirely hand-held, the color arterial; and the cast’s past credits are once again an honor roll of beloved crud classics: “The Big Doll House,” “Death Race 2000,” “Macon County Line,” even the gormless “Police Academy” movies. (That would be Leslie Easterbrook, as nuanced an actress as ever she was back in the 1980s, barreling in to replace Karen Black in the role of the demented Mother Firefly.)

The movie opens with a naked dead woman being dragged through the woods by a fat man with a bag over his head. Cut to the squalid Firefly farmhouse, which is being stealthily surrounded by heavily armed lawmen. Inside, where the fridge is stocked with body parts and the basement has been converted into a mass grave, the rancid family — Mother Firefly, son Otis (Bill Moseley) and daughter Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) — drowse unawares. Otis appears to be sacked out with that naked dead woman we just saw — resting, perhaps, from exertions that have surprisingly been left undepicted. The encroaching cops unleash a barrage of gunfire, but Otis and Baby manage to escape. After knifing a helpful woman motorist, they make their way to a dismal motel, where they take some hostages with whom to while away the time as they wait for their appalling father, the black-toothed killer party clown who calls himself Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), to come bail them out of this mess. But will he reach them before the enraged Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe), who’s in furious pursuit and bent on revenge for the murder of his brother? Will they live to kill again another day? And if so, will there be anyone left to annihilate?

I don’t want to give the impression that “The Devil’s Rejects” is just dumb, disgusting fun. Well, it is. But Rob Zombie’s all-encompassing sarcasm and general screw-you attitude lift (or sink) the movie to another level. Faced with killers who take their names from old Marx Brothers movies (Captain Spaulding was Groucho’s character in the 1930 “Animal Crackers”), it does make a twisted kind of sense for the sheriff to consult a local film critic for advice. And since every over-the-top movie needs a way-over-the-top wind-up, why not rip off the ending of Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” — one of the most reverently esteemed movie sequences of the 1960s — and play it for stupid, sloppy laughs? Screw you, Artie!

The acting here is variable, to put it kindly. (Forsythe is solid, but Sheri Moon Zombie is too wholesomely pretty to play a bloodthirsty backwoods slut; sorry.) The jittery camerawork lends the action passages a certain chaotic energy, though; and the director, being a musician of some note himself, has packed the soundtrack with cool tunes by Muddy Waters, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Joe Walsh and Blind Willie Johnson. (There are also cutaways to TV screens on which we see snippets of vintage performances by the great Chicago blues guitarist Otis Rush, and by honky-tonk hero Buck Owens and his great guitarist, the late Don Rich.)

It would be obtuse to ask what motivates the characters in a movie like this. Nothing motivates them. They just kill people. “The Devil’s Rejects” isn’t scary, really; it’s barely even a story. At heart, it’s basically a catalogue of loving references to lowlife gore films of the past. Those pictures had real zing in the context of their times; they were exploitation flicks that thumbed their noses at genteel period sensibilities, and they drew a young audience that cheered their daring gross-outs. That context is gone, of course; and a movie that apes those old films in this sated era can’t help but be almost a scholarly exercise. There was nothing scholarly about the old films, though. And after you’ve finished laughing and gagging at this one, you might want to check some of them out.

—Kurt Loder

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Island” and “Devil’s Rejects.”

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