Sitting on the shelf of the video store where I used to work was a laser disc – yes, one of those giant platter DVDs – called The Island. This was, it should be noted, years after Laser Discs went obsolete, but there were a number of motion pictures that, for one reason or another, had never been released on DVD or the newly-introduced Blu-ray format, and my beloved Laser Blazer (now also a thing of the past) kept Laser Discs on hand for collectors, and because it was the only way to see films like Rolling Thunder, Galaxy of Terror and The Island. As of Tuesday, December 11, all of those films are now available on contemporary home video formats (we’re still waiting on a Blu-ray of Rolling Thunder), because for the first time in many years, The Island has been properly released.
The cover of that Laser Disc always looked badass to me. The painted cover of a tattooed hand brandishing a knife, emerging from the water in the foreground, with a seemingly innocent island in the background, was a masterpiece of intriguing production art, back before Photoshopped heads were all the rage (and before Photoshop even existed). The movie I had in my head for The Island, which stars Michael Caine in a contemporary setting, fighting esoteric pirates led by TRON’s David Warner, was something special indeed. Now that I have finally seen the movie, courtesy of Scream Factory’s Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, I can say that “something special” is a pretty apt description. If by “something special” you will allow me to mean “weird.”
Peter Benchley, the original writer of Jaws, adapted his own novel into The Island, and his preoccupation with aquatic danger and island communities with misplaced priorities is in full view once again. Michael Caine stars as Blair Maynard, a newspaper reporter looking into a string of mysterious boat disappearances off the coast of Florida. He takes his son with him, played by Jeffrey Frank, but soon their own boat is hijacked and they find themselves at the mercy of a band of buccaneers, isolated for centuries and clinging to both violent piracy and off-putting, antiquated dialogue. Justin is brainwashed into their cult. Blair is chained up and repeatedly raped to keep the inbred killer clan’s bloodline strong. I’m not sure I ever wanted to see Michael Caine lubed up and straddled against his will, but because of The Island, I have. Um… thanks?
Perhaps there’s a vital piece of context that I’m missing, because The Island seems like a remarkably scattered production. The first third of the film, with Michael Caine and Jeffrey Frank bonding whilst investigating the mystery, is a nifty littleadventure yarn with a pretty cool plane crash and some fine performances from both actors. When the pirates attack them – making one wonder why Caine, who knew that boats were disappearing left and right, would agree to take his son on an all-day fishing trip in dangerous waters – the film changes tone and style dramatically.
Blair and Justin wake up surrounded by old timey pirates, and that’s odd enough, but the paths of the characters – Blair trying to escape while Justin adopts the new culture with a passion – don’t seem like an extension of their characters. Justin seems like a cool kid, but not like he’s desperately seeking adventure that his father cannot provide. Dad gave him a plane crash on their vacation, so at least life isn’t dull. Nor is Justin morally torn in any particular direction. It’s not as if he’s a bully suddenly given permission to run amok, or a definitively good kid suddenly embracing his violent id. And while Blair seems somewhat mild-mannered, we know he fought in the Korean War, so it’s not as if we he’s thoroughly incapable of handling this dangerous situation. They both just seem like normal, well-adjusted individuals, and getting kidnapped by pirates doesn’t force them to either regress or grow. It just seems like a bunch of stuff that happens.
But one thing’s for sure, it’s not boring. The Island is such a strange cluster of ultraviolence, pirate clichés, anthropological nonsense and father-son bonding that it holds your attention from beginning to end, and it’s definitely worth watching if only for the thrilling hijacking sequences. The score, by the great Ennio Morricone, gives the modern day piracy a heroic theme that nicely contradicts the terror on screen, making a neat little point of how Hollywood’s romanticized vision of pirates is ironic at best, and disturbingly ignorant at worst. And the scene where a pasty guy in a blue Speedo lays waste to pirates with kung fu for minutes on end is worth the price of admission alone.
The Island comes to Blu-ray with an impeccable transfer but without a single special feature, which is unfortunate because after watching this bizarre motion picture you’ll definitely want someone from the production, or at least their next of kin, to explain what the kind of film they were trying make. It’s not quite exciting enough to be a great action-adventure, it’s not quite scary enough to qualify as a horror film, and it’s not quite weird enough to warrant “cult classic” status. It’s just a curious footnote in Michael Caine and David Warner’s careers, but it’s still worth seeking out if you’re a movie lover who thinks they’ve seen everything.