Review: The Island

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

By heroic effort—and a curious failure to look very closely at the knife-holding hand breaking out of the Peter Benchley sea in the ad art—I managed not to know the dread secret of a certain sector of the Caribbean where small boats and their passengers and crews have been disappearing in recent years. Hence I was able to find the first half-hour or so of the latest Zanuck–Brown–Benchley sea meller agreeably titillating, especially since the hand of director Michael Ritchie was detectable in the satirical handling of the first boatload of victims, a party of American medicos chirping merrily in the tropic night about fees, patients, and their own overripeness. The Ritchie of Smile, The Candidate et al. also came through during a visit, by weekly-newsmag investigator Michael Caine and his slightly resentful child-of-divorce Jeffrey Frank, to a Miami gun shop where a goodly swarm of tourists and locals banged their rocks off on the shooting range out back; and there was an amusing interlude with a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-passenger’s-pants pilot whom Caine had engaged to fly him into the mystery zone, and who effectively crashlanded Caine and son there. And when this potty old Somerset Maugham doctor started waving petulance and disagreeable odors and flaky innuendo in Caine’s direction, well, that was sinister in an amusingly-off key. But within about five minutes of Caine and son’s abduction, from a rented motorboat, by savage zanies who turn out to be descendants of Caribbean buccaneers from Teach’s time, good faith began to run thin. For one thing, the sheer ugliness of the film from a visual standpoint: Henri Decaë was once second only to Coutard among the cinematographic wonderworkers of the nouvelle vague, but The Island is the kind of movie that looks as if it had been designed for showing out of focus. Maybe the idea was to stress the grey-black mud and slime, the suspension of history and the devolution of civilization, the truly scurvy nature of Benchley’s inbred idiot crew, by sullying the image at the levels of lighting, focus, even of emulsion; if so, it quickly gets to be a boring, bleary-making idea. Nor is the film more attractive at the conceptual level. Key ethical foci of the narrative are the relationship between Caine and the pirate wench who takes him for unwilling but forcibly erectible consort, and that between the pirate chieftain Nau (David Warner in his standard slurring-together of subhuman crud and fallen gentleman) and Caine’s boy. Angela Punch McGregor (who, as Angela Punch, played Len Maguire’s strict Catholic spouse in Newsfront) is very shabbily used indeed—introduced as a mud-caked night thing (presumably in mourning for the consort Caine has killed in self-defense), converted to a grimly businesslike breed cow, then given three or four opportunities to demonstrate a fully felt commitment to Caine at the risk of life, limb, and communal ties … and then abruptly forgotten about by the narrative with devastating absoluteness. As for the boy, we are treated to the spectacle of his ready adapting to and adopting of buccaneer ways—playing fun games with weaponry, turning a cold eye on his proper dad while smugly glorying in the adulation of his adoptive father Nau. Potentially interesting, this: See the savage lurking beneath the veneer of spoiled brat. See Oedipal resentment have its time in the sun. Entertain deep thoughts about the parallels between piratical bloodrites and the recreational fervor of those gun nuts back in Miami. Wonder, along with Caine, whether the boy is playing the game and waiting for his best shot, or whether he could pot his old da if the occasion—or Nau—demanded. We do, in fact, get to see the boy pick off an unidentified victim vainly hiding up a mast when the pirates raid a schooner a little past the midpoint of the film. The Island eventually reaches a murderous happy ending that leaves father and son alive and reunited, but what effect that earlier killing had on the lad’s psyche, what spirit it was committed in—indeed, whether Benchley & co. reckon it should have any particular effect at all-are questions blithely left unconsidered.

© 1981 Richard T. Jameson

THE ISLAND

Direction: Michael Ritchie. Screenplay: Peter Benchley, after his novel. Cinematography: Henri Decaë. Music: Ennio Morricone; Ein Heldenleben by Richard Strauss. Production: Richard D. Zanuck, David Brown.
The players: Michael Caine, Jeffrey Frank, David Warner, Angela Punch McGregor, Frank Middlemass, Don Henderson, Dudley Sutton, Colin Jeavons, Zakes Mokae.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


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