Michael Bay's frequently thrilling, completely bananas demolition derby, ''The Island," has Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson playing unreasonably attractive clones who are shocked to learn they've been hatched in a lab.
Among the downsides to being pod people are that intimacy is a no-no, they have no sex drive, and their wardrobe consists only of snug-fitting black-and-white track suits and Puma sneakers.
Everybody in this utopia looks like a personal trainer at the George Lucas Stormtrooper gym. The upshot is that if you win the daily lottery, you get to stop toiling in the film's ultra-sanitary sets and retire to the Island, a tropical white-sand paradise, where, presumably, Ricardo Montalban and Herve Villechaize await.
Of course the premise of this movie, which is set in middle of the 21st century, is that the Island isn't remotely what the clones populating the Merrick Biotech plant have been led to believe. Indeed, when one elated lottery winner, a football star played by Michael Clarke Duncan, discovers his true, ghastly destination, he freaks out and tries to escape. Witnessing this ugly and eye-opening event is a clone named Lincoln Six Echo, played by McGregor in, ironically, one of his most warmly human modes.
Lincoln has been more curious about his sterile environment than his fellow drones. His questions worry the facility's director/shrink/sexy evil genius, Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean), who's even had to warn security to issue ''proximity alerts" whenever Lincoln gets near Johansson's Jordan Two Delta. Jordan is the woman for whom Lincoln has intense and therefore illegal feelings. When the lottery turns up her name, Lincoln rescues her from potential horrors, and together they flee the facility and experience the real world -- well, OK, Los Angeles. The place looks a lot like Detroit and is teeming with flying cars and mass-transit trains suspended high enough to make potential stops in the smog.
In this altered La-La land, the clones try to find their human counterparts and complain to them about the lab's inhuman treatment. Their search entails evading police and the bounty hunters (led by Djimon Hounsou) whom Merrick has hired to nab his ''products" and return them. This inspires a 90-minute spree of jaw-dropping near-death adventures that send McGregor and Johansson dangling off skyscrapers, plummeting many stories in large metallic props, and participating in a particularly exhilarating highway sequence, the brute force of which won't be topped anytime soon. Needless to say, it's much more exciting than anything happening in Merrick's lab.
Jordan Two Delta has a tough time believing she's a real clone until she sees herself, tellingly enough, in a Calvin Klein ad, the very ones Johansson has actually starred in. The clone's owner is called Sarah Jordan, which appears to be the movie's way of approximating ''Scarlett Johansson." When Lincoln meets his owner, things get even more enjoyably in-jokey.
Johansson's skin gets more beautifully milky with each sequence, and I'm pleased to report that, having ditched the tracksuit, she accomplishes her stunts sporting low-slung jeans, pointy black boots, and a French manicure. This is the sort of perplexing ridiculousness that is among Bay's specialties. In his last movie, ''Bad Boys II," he orchestrated a sequence in which a Hummer destroyed an entire Cuban ghetto. Prior to that, he managed to flatten one of the most harrowing chapters of World War II into a corny comic strip called ''Pearl Harbor."
But Bay's strength as a filmmaker, the reason his superficial yet entertaining productions can never be completely ignored, is that he appears to lack shame. He'll blow anything up and run anybody over. The moral complexities don't matter to him. He just wants to stage spectacles, appreciate very good-looking people, and assert his cowboy aesthetic.
This brings Bay close to his cinematic forebear, Leni Riefenstahl, the auteur who made movies under the Third Reich and had a blind spot in moral matters, while ensuring that her interest in staged order and physical perfection neatly aligned with her fascist backers' interests in self-promotion. Bay's lust for choreographed mayhem is the opposite of Riefenstahl's affinity for control. In both cases, there isn't a lot of room for ideas to blossom.
The movie, whose script is credited to Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Caspian Tredwell-Owen, musters only a passing disdain for the perils of cloning, while the false promise of the Island stirs an eerie Holocaust metaphor. But the social and moral questions are merely springboards for Bay to play action-pornographer. When nothing is being hurtled or detonated (as is the case with the first 40 minutes of ''The Island"), his movies are inert. Human beings make vague impressions on Bay -- Steve Buscemi, who's very funny in a brief role as a worker at the cloning plant, is someone the director seems to like. Otherwise, people aren't people to Bay unless they're being flung toward the screen.
In places, ''The Island" makes overtures to the totalitarianism in Stanley Kubrick's ''A Clockwork Orange." And it bears more than a passing resemblance to ''Logan's Run," that 1976 sci-fi adventure about a man and a woman who flee Elysian climes to avoid being killed on their 30th birthdays. More often though, ''The Island" often feels like a series of epic television commercials that leave you wanting to buy something expensive, ridiculous, and unnecessary -- like a copy of yourself.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.