The next entry in my “summer of reconsiderations” series is another maligned/failed blockbuster, Peter Benchley’s The Island. Now chances are most folks don’t even recall that this movie ever existed, much less that it was hyped as a major summer release in June of 1980. Because it tanked so badly, and is truly such a weird film, it’s been relegated to the wastelands of junk culture cinema. This is pretty incredible given that it sprung from a bestselling author (Benchley) and popular director (Michael Ritchie) of the era. Not to mention that it stars two movie greats in the form of Michael Caine and David Warner. So how is it that the follow-up film to the mega successes that were Jaws and The Deep could have landed with such a thud? Well there are a few answers to this timeless riddle that I will suggest in the following paragraphs, but none of them add up to a bad film. In many respects The Island is the most interesting entry of the big screen Benchley cycle, and is certainly the wildest hands down. It features great performances, high tension, and stomach churning gore (which is either a good or bad thing depending on your tastes). So were audiences off the mark 30 years ago, or is this a lost masterpiece? Let’s dive in shall we . . .
It’s a bit hard to appreciate unless you lived through it, but as a kid growing up in the 70’s Jaws (1975) was nothing short of a full-blown phenomenon. I and most of my friends were mesmerized/terrified by the film, and its reach invaded pop culture like an actual force of nature. In addition to seeing Jaws at the drive-in and every time it came on television years thereafter, I had the crazy board game (which was basically the shark’s head filled with debris), the poster, poured over Mad/Cracked parodies, and was generally obsessed with sharks. I even ate up (pardon the pun) imitators like Piranha and Orca during the long wait until Jaws 2. Truly Jaws launched the summer blockbuster era, and made later obsessions such as Star Wars, Alien, and Superman possible. And it made Peter Benchley a star. Following on from Jaws Hollywood was eager to cash in on the Benchley machine, and subsequently adapted The Deep in 1977. I saw this at the drive-in as well, and even if it didn’t have a shark it still had Robert Shaw, Jacqueline Bisset, barracudas, and an evil Louis Gossett Jr. Great stuff. While it wasn’t the behemoth that was its predecessor it still did great business at the box office, and further cemented Benchley’s star status. In effect he was the equivalent of an aquatic Stephen King, and tinsel town couldn’t get enough. And then came The Island . . .
While I don’t have industry numbers in front of me, I have no doubt that The Island was a bestseller. I certainly remember it being everywhere when it came out. After all it was by the guy who wrote Jaws. And you may recall I was obsessed with Jaws. When I saw The Island at the local bookstore I asked my unsuspecting mother if I could please have it, and she (knowing of my obsession with Jaws) relented. With the novel happily in hand we went a few shops down to the ice cream parlor where the helpful clerk happened to notice I was holding a brand spanking-new copy of Peter Benchley’s The Island in hand. The helpful clerk then informed my mother that she might want to reconsider letting me read the book, as it wasn’t such a good read for a pre-teen such as myself. We sat down with our ice cream and my mother opened up to a random passage in the book, and long story short I didn’t end up reading it until years later. It was probably a good call all around, but I wasn’t too thrilled at the time. Not surprisingly I didn’t get to see the movie version on opening day either.
So what was so objectionable that my thirst for reading was extinguished so violently in that ice cream parlor lo those many years ago? While I can’t discuss the specifics in polite company, suffice it to say that the threats in The Island don’t involve sharks or barracudas. Instead they involve men. Pirates to be exact. And these pirates don’t just board vessels and make people walk the plank (although there is some of that). There’s some pretty crazy stuff going on, and I’ve gotta think that the studio execs just decided to make another movie by the guy who wrote Jaws without worrying too much about the specifics of the plot. Unfortunately for them Peter Benchley faithfully adapted his novel into a screenplay, and Michael Ritchie faithfully put it all on film. As a bit of a purist when it comes to these things, I completely appreciate this fact and am glad the two gentleman were so successful in making such an uncompromising piece of work. As it turns out mainstream audiences were not so appreciative going into a film from the author of Jaws and the director of The Bad News Bears, and being treated to a brutal film about pirates that borrowed from sources as diverse as A Clockwork Orange and The Wild Bunch.
Now you probably couldn’t help but raise a curious eyebrow at the mention of the fact that this film was helmed by the director of The Bad News Bears, not to mention Fletch. If this is your experience with Michael Ritchie then you’re probably like I was (at least up until a year or two back) in puzzling over how he came to be attached to such a project as this. Well I’ll just say this about the director of The Golden Child starring Eddie Murphy – Michael Ritchie is one daring fellow if given the right material. I discovered this by accident a few years ago when I was on a big Lee Marvin kick. During that period of watching stuff like Point Blank, The Killers, and yes even The Delta Force, I happened on an obscure little movie called Prime Cut. At the risk of overstating the case, I can honestly say that it is one of the most insane movies I’ve ever seen. It’s not so much that I haven’t seen crazier things take place in a movie, but just that it was so unexpected in a film starring Lee Marvin, Gene Hackman, and Sissy Spacek. Prime Cut has the appearance of a mob action film on the surface, but is so over-the-top in the situations and characters that it depicts that offending every audience member had to be one of its chief goals. Don’t misunderstand it is an amazing film, but it makes Tarantino’s Kill Bill and Grindhouse fantasies seem like Romper Room by comparison. It’s that crazy.
With that in mind it is no surprise to me at all that Ritchie got this gig, The Bad News Bears notwithstanding. It’s actually more of a wonder that he was hired for Fletch after The Island. Ritchie by way of Benchley goes to places in The Island that are rarely seen in the multiplex during the summer months (or fall, winter, and spring for that matter). There is brainwashing, kidnappings, medical procedures using leeches, kung-fu, machine gun massacres, plane crashes, the selling of firearms to minors, numerous mentions of Disney World, David Warner in a thong, and of course piracy. Yet this just scratches the surface. Without saying too much about the plot of this movie (you really should see it cold for the utmost effect), it involves the hijacking of Caine and his son and their being subjected to a protracted mental and physical assault by the pirates. The tension created by this is extremely effective, and punctuated by visual assaults on the viewer’s senses by the pirates’ extremely violent tendencies. Perhaps the only thing about the whole business that is amazing to me is that Ritchie got all of it through the censors.
One thing I found interesting from the get go was that Ritchie mimics the visual style of the other Benchley adaptations . The opening credits feel like Jaws right down to the orchestral music (by the great Ennio Morricone). Despite the fact that this movie is not blockbustery fun, the music has a playful/adventure film type feel to it. So you get the feeling you’re about to see more of the same as the opening credits roll, only to be treated to a violent pirate raid mere minutes later that would be right at home in a Friday the 13th film (which incidentally itself launched that very summer). The symmetry with other Benchley films was also evident in the poster campaign pictured above. Jaws had a shark rising from the depths, The Deep had Jacqueline Bisset swimming frantically for the surface, and The Island has a knife-wielding hand coming up for the kill (indicating that the threat is man this time around). It’s a pretty effective poster image if you ask me, and certainly worked in capturing my interest. I suppose a pirate hand doesn’t have the same draw as a shark or Jacqueline Bisset, but let’s be fair it’s still pretty cool. Certainly better than Michael Caine piloting a boat or something of the kind.
It’s sort of fun thinking about this film being released between The Empire Strikes Back and Superman 2 that summer of 1980. If you take my advice and muster the courage to watch The Island, keep that in mind as you make your way through. Can you imagine the average filmgoer heading out to the local multiplex to see a new movie by the guy who wrote Jaws, from the director of The Bad News Bears, and walking into this madness? Especially when said filmgoer decided to see The Island over the amazing sophomore entries in two of the most popular movie series of all time. Chances are most of the few people who did go to see it were none too pleased. In my opinion they should have been because they received an experience that defied explanation and good judgment at every turn. It pretty much ended Benchley’s Hollywood ride, but at least it ended on such an unapologetically outrageous note.
As an aside The Island is not presently available on video in the U.S., but as I discovered you can readily download it in widescreen/Dolby 5.1 surround from Itunes. It prompted me to start hunting through Itunes for other films unavailable on video and I found quite a few, including my favorite discovery so far House of Dark Shadows! I’ll be reviewing that and other Itunes discoveries over the next few weeks, sharing with you rare Itunes finds that are worth checking out. The Island is a great start to the adventure, but I’m really looking forward to Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold! Thanks Itunes : )