The Island (Scream Factory Blu-ray)
Directors - Michael Ritchie
Cast - Michael Caine, David Warner, Angela Punch McGregor
Country of Origin - USA
Discs - 2
Distributor - Shout Factory
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
Date - 1/2/13
The Film: 4/5
Somewhere in the Caribbean six hundred boats, along with their passengers and cargo, have vanished without a trace over the past three years. Sensing a real story opportunity New York newspaper journalist Blair Maynard (Michael Caine) decides to take a trip down to the islands in order to unravel the mystery. First he has to trick his pre-teen son Justin (Jeffrey Frank) into thinking they are going to Disney World for the weekend. Once there Blair's search takes him to an island where he encounters, among others, Windsor (Frank Middlemarch), a local doctor who rented many of the very boats that vanished in those waters. While Blair and Justin are out on the ocean in one of Windsor's boats fishing they are attacked and captured by mysterious marauders, one of whom Blair manages to kill with a handgun he purchased for his son in Florida. Their captors reveal themselves to be a band of bloodthirsty pirates who have established their own society, rooted in the language and customs of centuries past, on an uncharted island almost completely isolated from the rest of humanity. To Blair's horror their leader John David Nau (David Warner) takes Justin away to be indoctrinated into their way of life while his father is forced to be the mate of Beth (Angela Punch MacGregor), the wife of the man he killed on the boat. With no help coming from the mainland Blair must battle the vicious buccaneers for his son's soul and make every attempt he can to escape their clutches, even if it means spilling a lot of blood in the process.
When he passed away in February 2006 just three months shy of his 66th birthday, author Peter Benchley had come to the end of a very exciting life. Having started his career working at the Washington Post and then later serving as the editor of Newsweek before becoming a speechwriter for President Lyndon B. Johnson, scion of literary royalty Benchley would find his greatest success as the author of several blockbuster pulp thrillers involving seemingly absurd plots based on and around the mysterious and intimidating frontier that is the world’s oceans. His 1974 book Jaws blazed a fast trail up the bestsellers lists and later served as the basis for the definitive summer movie adventure that launched Steven Spielberg’s filmmaking career, and subsequent efforts like The Deep and The Beast both found varying degrees of success at the box office and as television miniseries, respectively. Benchley’s 1979 novel The Island also had no problem flying off bookstore shelves across the globe, but when a big-budget adaptation hit theater screens the following summer audiences who had been expecting either another killer sea monster flick or at the very least an experience comparable to Jacqueline Bisset in a soaking wet T-shirt greeted the movie with a mixture of confused indifference and apathy bordering on impotent rage. A would-be summer smash became a black mark on the cinematic track records of Benchley, Universal Studios, and producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck - the same team that had recognized the towering potential in making a movie of Jaws.
Unfairly maligned for more than three decades, The Island is finally getting its due thanks to a fantastic new Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory line. I had never seen this film until I was sent this disc for review and after it was over I verbally abused myself for the better part of an hour for not having the foresight to seek out The Island many years ago. The Island was born of the same salacious paperback potboiler origins that birthed Jaws, but while that movie was able to transcend its beginnings as goofy, gory trash through the power of Spielberg’s exquisite filmmaking craft and the stellar work of a brilliant cast and technical crew The Island chooses instead to remain a goofy, gory, trashy potboiler. That decision worked out the best in the end because had the material been taken too seriously the entire endeavor would have degenerated into a clusterfuck of biblical proportions. Under the direction of Michael Ritchie, a filmmaker best known for achingly human American comedy classics like The Candidate, Smile, the original Bad News Bears, and Fletch (still Chevy Chase’s best movie), The Island becomes a rip-roaring B-movie done on a massive scale, like most summer blockbusters that have come and gone since the era that birthed Jaws and Star Wars, but with 110 percent fidelity to its background as a shameless cash grab. Working from a screenplay written by Benchley, Ritchie refuses to shy away from the crazier, lurid aspects of the author’s original tale. Instead he embraces them in a bear hug to the point of nearly cutting off circulation. The director has always been at home with stories of outsized personalities and colorful grotesques crossing each other’s paths and disrupting the perfect order of things. The plot of The Island is just unusual enough to play into Ritchie’s skewered take on contemporary Americana and in the process becomes the kind of movie the characters in his better-known features would have loved. It is almost a meta achievement in the director’s storied career. But the story itself contains many memorable characters and moments to help it stand on its own handily among the movies adapted from Benchley’s novels. Brad Sullivan’s cantankerous, scarred cargo plane pilot Stark and Zakes Mokae’s wily Caribbean police chief Wescott are just two of the off-center individuals Maynard and his son encounter even before they are capture by the pirates. Mokae in particular always seemed to relish playing characters who appear to be at least two steps ahead of the protagonists without ever letting on.
The pirates themselves are a swarthy, unsympathetic bunch who exist solely to laugh maniacally and bury machetes in skulls, with the exception of David Warner’s charismatic leader Nau. They survive by their own depraved code of honor, a code that seems designed to cause the put-upon Beth, possibly the only other character worthy of empathy in The Island other than Blair and Justin, as much unpleasantness as she can stand. You often wonder how they can mobilize so effectively to hunt down their victims and relish in the spoils of savagery when there does not seem to be a single strategic genius among their numbers, especially in an technologically-sophisticated age such as this. Had those concerns been addressed The Island may have come close to being a more effective and intelligent thriller, but Ritchie and Benchley are the most interested in presenting a straightforward, uncomplicated adaptation of the novel while simultaneously satirizing their own material. Ennio Morricone’s brash, adventurous orchestral score booms with high tension and the swashbuckling motifs of the classic seagoing spectaculars of the 1930’s and 40’s and there is definitely an influence by the great composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold in the music, even though those themes are often deployed at the most inappropriate moments. A male passenger on one of the pirates’ raids pulls out some impressive karate moves and all those scurvy scoundrels can do is look on with amusement (much like the audience) before gutting the poor bastard. The lush tropical locales are brought to life in bold and haunting color by the great French cinematographer Henri Decae, whose credits prior to The Island included such classics of world cinema as Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, Rene Clement’s Patricia Highsmith adaptation Purple Noon, Jean-Pierre Melville’s gangster great Le Samourai, and Francois Traffaut’s timeless coming of age tale The 400 Blows. Much character and humor lurk in the background of the sparse but meticulous sets, which is no surprise given that production designer Dale Hennessy served in the same capacity on Woody Allen’s Sleeper and the gargantuan 1976 remake of King Kong as well as working as the art director on Fantastic Voyage, Dirty Harry, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, and Logan’s Run. Clearly, Michael Ritchie had some first-class talent working with him on this film.
Eagle-eyed Star Wars will recognize Don Henderson, who plays the pirate Rollo, from his role as Imperial officer General Taggi from A New Hope. Michael Caine gives a measured and professional performance as Blair, a part he doubtlessly signed on to do purely for the fat paycheck he was promised but one that he manages to imbue with many sympathetic qualities. Those are further enhanced by the wonderful performance by Jeffrey Frank as his son Justin. Frank, in his only film role, is believably not only as a impressionable kid but also as one willing to embrace the twisted lifestyle of John David Nau and his scummy crew. I only wished that Benchley had added a darker dimension to the relationship between Blair and Justin as it would have made the boy’s conversion to the pirates more emotional and gripping, but in the grand scheme of things that is a minor complaint. By the time Caine is opening up a can of whupass on the pirates with a 50-caliber deck mounted machine gun in a scene of gleefully gratuitous carnage that Sylvester Stallone must have had in mind when he made the last Rambo movie you will hardly give a care for the depth of the characters’ relationships.
Part of their ever-growing Scream Factory line of classic horror and sci-fi titles (neither category exactly fits this feature), Shout! has presented The Island in a beautifully-remastered 1080p high-definition 2.35:1 widescreen transfer. The brightly-lit picture quality looks stunning with low amounts of grain and not a trace of noticeable print damage. The visuals are so sharp you can practically smell the blood, sweat, and grime on the characters. For soundtrack options we have English 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks and both sound fantastic but unless you have good speakers capable of amplifying every creepy ambient noise and Morricone's boisterous score your best bet would be to stick with the 2.0 track. The 5.1 track is fine for standard televisions though the volume level on the dialogue scenes occasionally needs adjusting. English subtitles are provided.
The only extras are a trailer for The Island and bonus trailers for They Live and Death Valley, both also available on the Scream Factory line. Some contemporary interviews with surviving cast and crew members would have been much appreciated. A DVD copy is also included.
Like a thirty-year-old dog-eared paperback novel you pilfered from the rusted spinning rack of a used book store, The Island is a terrific piece of unpretentious pulp adventure that does not take it itself too seriously and delivers plenty of goofy thrills with a side helping of interesting characters, solid performances, and a pretty gonzo finale. Despite a stunning lack of bonus features Shout! has done this long-derided cult thriller a huge service on this new Blu-ray/DVD combo pack with outstanding picture and sound quality. Recommended for you video thrill seekers out there who always begin their search at the bottom of the shelf.