The Promise of an Island

March 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Photo by Sean O'Flaherty aka Seano1 atwal singh, published on Wikimedia Commons.

It is easy to dismiss Michael Bay’s dystopian action thriller come road movie sci-fi romance “The Island” (2005) as a failed “Matrix” runner-up. In fact, most critics seem to agree on the point that the film wants to include too many classic action movie elements into a challenging story line on human cloning – and fails to satisfy expectations within the short time frame of 130 minutes (See www.rottentomatoes.com/m/island/). And yet, for all its polished aesthetics, including the protagonists’ unisex surfaces called Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson), the film also asks a fundamental question about individuality and its value in a consumerist society.

At first sight, all the elements of a classic action/sci-fi thriller appear in place: a dubious multi-billion dollar corporation cloning human organs and babies, run by an evil scientist with a god complex, who has created a minimal-stimulus, isolated, subterranean lifeworld to house his “products”. All of the inhabitants of this clinical environment lead identical lives, go to the same workplaces, wear the same clothes, live in identical cubicles, and are closely monitored by managing and security staff. Technologically overwhelmed and constantly under surveillance, all inhabitants accept their fate without doubt, dreaming of winning the daily lottery for a place on “the Island”, the last inhabitable spot on earth – as they are told.

But of course, the quarantine of this place is not perfect. Borders are permeable. And Lincoln begins to question “where all these tubes go” that he and his colleagues are filling with nutrients, day in, day out. His acquaintance with a maintenance guy from behind the scenes, James McCord (Steve Buscemi), makes him question the myth of the contaminated outside world. Now, surprisingly, the flight from the netherworld is not the climax of the film but appears with almost mathematical precision in the middle. What follows is another plot line, that focuses on Lincoln and Jordan seeking to “raise awareness” among the real humans, that they are getting their organs and babies from other human bodies, who are killed for the purpose. Although McCord cautions that “Just because people eat the burger doesn’t mean they wanna meet the cow” Lincoln and Jordan seek out their genetic doubles to confront them. The endeavor spins another sequence of car chases and explosives going off, which seems to start a new film altogether. Most reviewers focused on the human cloning aspect of the movie and its overbearing emphasis on the action sequences in that second part. And admittedly, here the films fails.

“It’s the New American Dream”

But going back to the beginning, the opening sequence gives the film an altogether different mood. In a dream sequence, Jordan sits atop a futuristic boat, surfing across the ocean. Lincoln approaches her from behind, and as they make contact, he is brutally gripped by two men and pulled into the water. Awaking from this sequence in his concrete, white-grey room, a computer diagnoses an “erratic REM sleep cycle”. The theme that continues through the sequences of the first part is individual aberration from the prescribed and accepted norms of the environment. The controlled environment for all clones homogenizes all elements, from clothes to drinks to work and social conduct, in order to allow only minimal sociality.

In the words of its chief engineer, the cloning of organs alone did not create the desired results. Bodies needed the feeling of being alive, even in such a reduced, sensual environment. As Dr. Merrick explains,

“After several years of trial and error we discovered that without a consciousness, without human experience, emotion, without life the organs failed.”

In order to achieve sociality (devoid of risk) and stability (devoid of alternatives), the engineers project a variety of life stories to their clone bodies at infant stage. While each body contains variants of a memory from a fake past, all of them together are bound together with a common threat, a threat that rationalizes acceptance of their condition.

“We control them with the memory of a shared event. A Global contamination. It keeps them fearful of going outside. The Island is the one thing that gives them hope. Gives them purpose. Everything we expose them to, their programs, their cartoons, books, the games they play, are designed to manage aggression and reinforce simple social skills. To avoid obvious complications they aren’t imprinted with an awareness of sex. We find it simpler to eliminate the drive altogether. In a very real sense, they’re like children, educated to the level of a 15-year old.”

Now, this entire plot immediately triggers a cultural-pessimistic perspective, a criticism of homogenization vs. individuality, control vs. freedom, Levittown suburb structures vs. historical bricolage chaos. The centralized facilities of the netherworld are the most efficient control mechanisms in which the human drives are contained in a post-histoire vacuum. Against the neon-lit caves, halls and laboratories, Jordan and Lincoln are bathed in sunlight once they have escaped. The whole film thrives on these opposition pairs in almost all of its sequences, and, admittedly, this is a fairly simplistic dramaturgy.

But on the other side, this film is not so banal as it seems. Human cloning as a way to extend life is firmly anchored in a consumerist setting which privileges those able to pay horrendous sums for “owning” a genetic duplicate of themselves while keeping those copies in a monotonous environment of self-sameness. All the clothes are white, all the Nike- shoes that Lincoln finds in his drawer are equally white, all the drinks are optimized for their levels of vitamin and nutrients. In this aesthetic monotony the missing differentiation of products only covers up the apparent self-sameness of product categories in real life. So, if the de-individualized array of products in the film plays out a powerful (yet predictable) metaphor of homogenization, it leaves the seeming differentiation of Nike shoes alive. It even affirms the schema of identical mass produced fare as a rational basis for individual choice. The film (along with its corporate sponsors) thus offers a vision of a near future, in which homogenization serves as the (visual) mechanism to leave the belief in product differentiation, freedom of choice and individuality based on consumer experience intact. The “new American Dream” of owning genetic copies of oneself is then the old American dream of “making it,” of extending life through wealth, fame and possession.

In his book Archaeologies of the Future, Fredric Jameson argued that the task of science fiction was not to deliver a plausible, detailed vision of the future but to “demonstrate and to dramatize our incapacity to imagine the future” (288-89). Because a detailed account of future live forms would soon appear banal in face of the present, science fiction can “serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come.” Representations of the future were a function to create an awareness of the present, which is “untotalizable and hence unimaginable” (See further my article on “Images of the Cybernetic Body, or, The Banality of the Future“). In “The Island” the regulation of drives reflects the sedating power of consumption, which privileges the immediately available over the unrealistically utopian. The island in the film is an animated vision of a common hope, a constantly actualized common reference point for all entrapped in the netherworld of daily doses of moderate consumption. In keeping with the dream structure of a joint vision the film delves into a fantasy of escape that can only function within the narrow limits of the action genre. Jamesons’s perceptive analysis of the temporality of science fiction, raises the point as to how such a vision of an escape can relieve the stress of accepting that in real life such an escape is less than probable.

From the beginning sequence, “The Island” plays out the dream-like dimensions of a common fate sustained by individual ambitions. The shocking grip of the assailants who submerge Lincoln under water is at the same time a shock to prepare the viewer for the de-individualized netherworld, an environment that is aesthetically and functionally homogenized. But only through this demarcation can the film question the homogeneity of consumption that thrives on menial differentiation. The promise of an island becomes then less of an empowering vision but stands in for the unchanging (and inescapable) structure of regulation.

Richard Price brings the “Lush Life” to Berlin

May 30, 2010 § 1 Comment

On a warm, sunny evening at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, American author Richard Price read from his latest book, Lush Life, a crime novel set in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. From the gallery opening out to Pariser Platz and the Brandenburg Gate, Price’s reading was remarkable for the vivid style of his presentation which found unintended echos in the scene behind him. Impersonating more than one character through his tone of voice, jargon and versatile lingo, the city of Berlin seemed to answer back through the glass veil.

Price became famous as a screenwriter for numerous Hollywood movies such as The Color of Money (1985), Michael Jackson’s/ Martin Scorsese’s Bad (1987), the reissue of blaxploitation classic Shaft (2000), and most recently the HBO series The Wire. Next to his screenplays he is also an acclaimed author of novels, which are marked by an “ear for dialogue”, bringing to life the multicultural, multidimensional and contradictory voices and views of inhabitants in metropolitan American cities. Asked about the role of the city in his novels, Price conceded that the city was an important character, created through the voices and stories of the people who inhabit it. The format of the crime novel is here especially suited to explore the urban interplay of languages, voices and secret stories.

In The Wire, Price and his co-authors have followed this lead and laid out a panoply of voices from Baltimore, making the city the central character of the narration in its divers episodes. Price mentioned “social realists” on city life and more poetic authors such as James Baldwin and Hubert Selby Jr. as his most admired authors at an early age. In college, the “bebop” feel for rhythm of the beat poets was a strong inspiration for his style, although he would “be asleep in three minutes” today reading through Jack Kerouac’s On the Road again.

Price’s view of working for the movie industry was highly amusing to the audience that consisted mainly of scholars and professional devotees to American literature and culture. Having to balance writing novels with commercial script writing for movies and television, Price professed no interest in literary theory or scholarship. Rather than think about what he should do, he rather wanted to “get it done”. His unpretentious and outspoken look at his own work was a welcome reminder of the separate spheres academic and popular writers still inhabit. Doing something lucrative, Price summed up, allowed him to pursue his novel writing and have greater control over his work. On the occasion of the German American Studies Association annual conference, entitled “American Economies“, the reading of Lush Life and Price’s take on artistic and commercial production delightfully challenged the tacit separation of markets and metaphysics.

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