THE ISLAND. A Zanuck-Brown Production, distributed by Universal City Studios. U.S. -1980. 1 hour 49 minutes, Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 (Panavision). Director: Michael Ritchie. Screenplay: Peter Benchley based on his novel The Island. Music: Ennio Morricone. Cinematography: Henri Decaë. Production Design: Dale Hennesy. Costume Design: Ann Roth. Visual Effects: Bill Taylor, Albert Whitlock. Producers: David Brown, Richard B. Zanuck.
CAST: Michael Caine (Blair Maynard), David Warner (John Nau), Jeffrey Frank (Justin Maynard), Angela Punch McGregor (Beth), Frank Middlemass (Dr. Windsor), Don Henderson (Rollo), Dudley Sutton (Dr. Brazil), Colin Jeavons (Hizzoner), Zakes Mokae (Wescott).
After what many must have considered a dumb, B-movie project about a big man-eating shark terrorizing a North Atlantic resort town, entrusted to a 28-year-old young turk, demolished the box office of 1975, the movie's producers David Brown and Richard B. Zanuck, not surprisingly, tightly held on to the author of the bestselling novel from which the prodigious hit was adapted, Peter Benchley. His source novel essentially welded the setting of Henryk Ibsen's Enemy of the People to sensational monster-movie shenanigans with just enough hints of local verisimilitude and pseudo-scientific realism to entice the summer mass-market-paperback readership. It was a winning formula, at least for a commercial success, but Benchley's true interest seems to have been early modern history of the Caribbean Islands, especially Bermuda (he allegedly had pitched a nonfiction book about the North Atlantic pirates to the publishers prior to the submission of Jaws). Some of these interests are reflected in Peter Yates-directed The Deep (1976), which does not quite gel as a compelling thriller, despite an attractive cast headlined by Jacqueline Bisset, beautiful underwater cinematography and John Barry's beguiling score.
Thereafter, Benchley came up with a rather strange idea for his next novel, The Island, that the descendants of the “buccaneers” from 17th century, an inbred, cackling horde of British and Spanish pirates dressed in mismatched rags and wielding rapiers and (looted) M-16s, have somehow survived in one of the islands in the Caribbean, frozen in time and raiding yachts and commercial ships passing through the nearby seas. And this, he posited with a straight face, was the real cause behind the disappearances of ships and people in the so-called “Bermuda Triangle!” And I always thought it was the pink jellyfish… Given the box office success of The Deep, the Zanuck-Brown team decided to try their luck with Benchley one more time, although the weird premise described above should have signaled a full stop to any producer shopping for a summer blockbuster material.
The Island is in fact competently directed, expertly lensed in the Panavision widescreen mode by the great Henri Decaë (responsible for many French classics including The 400 blows and Purple Noon, later rendering his skills to Anglo-American blockbusters such as The Boys from Brazil and Bobby Dearfield), set- and costume-dressed by top-notch Hollywood talents, and graced by Ennio Morricone's ethereal and (when needed) suitably suspenseful music score. And yet the film in the end is no re-discovered masterpiece: it is most notable for its bizarrely mismatched tonalities that undermine any sense of fun. It is also severely miscast, the point to which I shall come back shortly. Despite all these negative traits, The Island somehow remains compulsively watchable, the kind of fascinating train wreck that is just well-made enough to make you imagine what it could have been under different circumstances.
Directing duties were performed by Michael Ritchie (1938-2001). Ritchie in such films as The Candidate (1972), Prime Cut (1972) and Semi-Tough (1977) certainly demonstrated that he knew how to bring together daringly naturalistic attitudes toward sex and violence and pitch-black satirical interpretations of the “mundane” details of American life. It is possible that Ritchie conceived of the current project as a black comedy, a wry (in truth, nasty) commentary on the way “civilized” city liberals in '70s were turning their noses away from the gun-obsessed “hicks” in the heartland. The modern “buccaneers” in The Island are deliberately designed to appear as un-romantic and uncouth as you could possibly fancy them to be. They indulge in vicious, ugly acts of violence both physical (a slobbering pirate bloodily slashing the throat of a young mother) and psychological (their leader, John Nau, convinced that the captured Maynards are the descendants of Robert Maynard, a Royal Navy lieutenant responsible for killing Robert Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard, decides to adopt the boy Justin as his own, precipitating a series of very uncomfortable sequences in which the boy is brainwashed through sleep deprivation and other means of psychological conditioning). Their "raids" are frequently interrupted by pointedly ridiculous slapstick actions but are scored to the majestic tunes of Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben, obviously telling us to savor the gap between these toothless, unwashed wonders and the romantic, mythical imagery of them as seafaring adventurers.
Okay, we got that. But so what? John Milius's Conan the Barbarian, equally uncouth and ridiculous in spots, at least exuded the conviction of the filmmaker's quasi-fascistic, anti-'60s philosophy. The Island lacks such conviction, for better or worse, and we sit in front of the screen wondering what it is that we are supposed to feel, as the (by and large talented) cast members do their best to make sense of their gnarly, unsympathetic characters.
Jeffrey Frank, who plays the boy, is not bad, but his character is basically an unpleasant twit. The little girl who initially entraps him is obviously meant to be another survivor brainwashed to accept the pirates as her surrogate parents: again, her acting is rather convincing but this whole set-up seems straight out of a nasty horror film, like an adaptation of a Ramsay Campbell story (not to mention reminding us of the truly sickening possibility of sexual abuse she would have been exposed to in a real-life situation similar to this).
This brings us to the casting of Michael Caine as the foppish, "liberal" journalist Maynard and David Warner as the pirate leader Nau. Caine is as always fine and is above trying to sell an "East Coast American accent" or do something equally distracting. Yet he is clearly not finding the right purchase on this character, either. He spends most of the film bound, leashed and abused by various cast members and we either expect him to remain an ironic, passive catalyst for the whole tribe to implode unto itself, due to the inevitable contamination from the modern world, or grow into a cool action hero in the mold of Harry Palmer and save his son from the clutches of the Wrong Father. The film reluctantly settles on the second path, what with Caine beginning to shoot lethal glances out of the corner of his eyes, but then again Ritchie pulls the rug out of under the actor's feet, by saddling him with a silly, hyper-violent solution to all the mess, a textbook definition of deus ex machina (intended as such as an ironic statement on the destructive capacity of modern civilization. Sure, sure)
David Warner is, like Nicole Williamson, one of those brilliant Shakespearean actors Hollywood seemingly did not know how to handle through '70s and '80s. Here, he is intelligently menacing and restrained, with hints of madness glinting behind his quiet eyes, but it is pretty obvious that applying such subtle levels of acting to this character, Nau, was like preparing a delicately sculpted parsley flower to decorate a tray of Big Mac. What was required was a loud, even scenery-chewing performance obviously in on with the joke: Max Von Sydow's Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon comes to mind. Another thing: I believe Warner in real life is probably a tall man (much taller than me for sure!), but in The Island his extremely gaunt physique is mercilessly exposed: he in fact looks positively emaciated, if not actually ill. At no point in the film I could persuade myself into believing that Maynard was in any physical danger from Nau, armed with a sword or whatnot, which for me pretty much killed any sense of suspense during their climactic confrontation.
Blu Ray Presentation:
Scream Factory. Region Free. Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1, 1080p. Audio: DTS HD Master Audio 2.0, Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0. No subtitles. Supplements: None. Street date: December 11, 2012.
Scream Factory, the horror-thriller imprint of Shout! Factory label has released The Island in a DVD-Blu Ray combo edition. Perhaps unable to procure any participant who could have said positive things about the production, they disappointingly let out a bare-bones edition. At least Shout! Factory does not try to sell it as some romantic swashbuckling adventure. The case is marked as Region A but the disc itself is region free.
The transfer looks fine, if not spectacular, with fine sheets of grain present in night scenes and conveying detailed textures of seawater and wood well. In some scenes the movie has that strangely powdery, pastel-tone look of an '80s American film: it is not the dominant visual scheme of the film, thankfully. Overall The Island sports a gritty and humid countenance rather than a sunny, postcard-pretty one.
As for the audio, Ennio Morricone's score (chronologically written between the masterpiece Days of Heaven  and the misused but still interesting The Thing ) comes off okay but is in my view mixed rather indifferently. The maestro's main theme is almost elegiac, and in the pirate's dens he let loose with surrealistically weird, atonal music (a sliding whistle that goes up and down in ear-scratching glissando, for instance), all of which accurately captures the crazy tonal shifts of the movie. The dialogue comes off cleanly. Unfortunately there are no English subtitles.
The Island is a strange film, a quasi-black comedy in search of a proper subject to satirize, a generally well-made production full of unpleasant and incongruous elements, a few of which are admittedly fascinating in the ways probably unintended by its makers. It is primarily recommended to the fans of Michael Caine and connoisseurs of bizarre Hollywood fares.