It stars Michael Caine and it involves pirates. That’s enough to get me interested. Released in 1980, Michael Ritchie’s The Island is one of several films with that title; unlike the others, it’s based on a book by Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws. So all in all, it was looking like a pretty safe bet for a decent movie.
Caine plays Blair Maynard, a Korean War veteran since turned newspaper reporter. It’s implied his paper is little more than a gossip rag, but he manages to convince his editor to let him go down to Florida and the Caribbean to investigate a rash of disappearing ships. As his ex-wife is on vacation with her new beau, he takes his 12-year-old son Justin (Jeffrey Frank, who only starred in one film) with him, promising him a chance to visit Disney World along the way. Of course, a trip to see Mickey Mouse and Goofy would not make for an action movie (although I invite studios to prove me wrong), so you know that’s not what’s going to happen.
This is not the Magic Kingdom.
Things start going wrong for Blair and Justin almost immediately. Blair’s investigations go nowhere in Florida, so he charters a plane to take them to an island closer to the disappearances. Their pilot, an irresponsible idiot, crashes the plane, leaving them stranded for the day. Blair befriends a retired professor on the island, Dr. Wescott (Zakes Mokae), who fills him in a little on the history of the place, but generally dissuades him from investigating further. Still, Blair manages to enlist his help in getting him a boat to use for the day, ostensibly to take Justin on a fishing trip. Shortly into their fishing trip, they are beset and captured by pirates.
Possibly the worst way to find out what’s going on.
These aren’t the slick and charming pirates of today’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, or even the aristocratic Captain Hook. These pirates have been hiding out for generations, spanning back 300 years. Only their leader, John Nau (David Warner) is functionally literate, and many of the pirates speak in their own patois, with unfamiliar slang and broken English. They’re also more than a little inbred after 300 years of isolation, and have started kidnapping people to strengthen their bloodlines. Blair is made the slave of a woman (Angela Punch McGregor) whose husband he killed during the attack; the pirates’ intent is for him to impregnate her. With Justin, the pirate leader takes a more direct approach, brainwashing the boy into accepting Nau as his new father.
The plot is actually reasonably good, and it keeps the suspense up as to how Blair will win his freedom and save his son. And it strikes a good balance between making the pirates interesting without running the risk of making them appear to be likeable characters, with the exception of the intentionally-sympathetic Beth. Nau is charismatic, but it’s a cult of personality; even as we see why the pirates follow him, we also see that he’s deranged by modern standards. A lot of this comes down to David Warner’s portrayal, which has him always in control, but also always seeming to need to be in control, with a heavy reliance on the “scripture” of the pirates. Caine, too, is convincing as a man who is having to revert to combat skills that he hasn’t relied on in decades. Really, there are no bad performances among the principal actors, and even the minor pirate characters are interesting to watch.
The weakness of the film is the directing. Ritchie would go on to direct Fletch, which was great (and its OK sequel), but there are a lot of films in his resume that aren’t exactly swimming in praises. It’s enough to make me wonder if he had only one good film in him. At any rate, The Island isn’t it, and its flaws are all on him. The first half of the film could easily be mistaken for a horror movie, complete with cheesy scare chords, jump cuts, and all the standard “make the audience jump” tactics. But if it weren’t for the fact that those scenes set up the plot, it’d be easy to believe they weren’t even part of the same film. The second half is more of a standard adventure film. There’s a significant disjoint between the tones, and in-between there are some frankly uninteresting sequences to get Caine’s character into place. The film also has a somewhat abrupt ending, that doesn’t provide much in the way of details on the aftermath. Now, I don’t need everything explained; I can presume the kid’s mother exploded upon finding out what happened, and the kid spent years in therapy. But there is at least one character who essentially disappears in the third act, never to be seen again. Their fate is worth knowing, but is left a mystery. It’s not a big issue, but it’s there, and when the rest of the film isn’t blowing me out of the water, I’m going to point out flaws that otherwise might have escaped my notice.
The Island isn’t a bad film — I was able to sit back and enjoy it for the most part. But it’s pretty forgettable, and it’s easy to see how it could have been turned into a better film under different hands.