When a block­buster goes awry, it’s usu­ally because too many resources were applied to too lit­tle story.  The Island is a fas­ci­nat­ing excep­tion to that rule: it had a $20 mil­lion bud­get (big money for 1980), the same pro­duc­ing team that han­dled Jaws and the author of Jaws adapt­ing his own hit novel for the screen.  However, the result was off-putting and strange in ways that block­busters sel­dom have the courage to be, which led to a quick death at the box office.  However, The Island is enter­tain­ing in its own defi­ant way, the kind of film that you could describe as a block­buster made from horror/exploitation ele­ments that has an unex­pected and a wicked satir­i­cal streak.

The Island takes the late 1970’s fas­ci­na­tion with the “Bermuda Triangle” and comes up with a novel way of explain­ing it.  The hero is Blair Maynard (Michael Caine), a reporter who talks his edi­tor into let­ting him go down to Florida to study a recent string of boat dis­ap­pear­ances on the open sea.  He’s also an errant divorcee dad who takes along his pre­co­cious son Justin (Jeffrey Frank), try­ing to con­vince the smar­talecky kid that they’re on a vaca­tion as he searches for leads on his story.

Unfortunately for Blair and Justin, dad finds his story: it is revealed that the islands off the coast house a group of pirates who have formed their own bizarre cul­ture, sep­a­rate from the rest of human­ity, with its own code and weird English/Spanish/French hybrid lan­guage.  Their world revolves around the attack and plun­der of boats that allows them to main­tain their strange exis­tence and the leader, John David Nau (David Warner), is deter­mined to take Justin as a son/successor and reduce Blair to a slave for Beth (Angela Punch McGregor), the wife of a pirate he killed dur­ing his cap­ture.  As the days pass, Blair real­izes he will have to escape before this soci­ety turns his son against him.

This is a highly unusual plot for a would-be block­buster but Benchley had hit adap­ta­tions of Jaws and The Deep to give him­self the brand name needed to pull it off.  His script is a lit­tle weak on logic at points (no one ever comes to look for Blair despite the fact that he’s on an assign­ment).  The struc­ture feels more nov­el­is­tic than cin­e­matic and this often gives it a stop/start pace, which is a dan­ger inher­ent to a nov­el­ist adapt­ing his own work for the screen.  That said, the film’s odd­ball blend of adven­ture, shock hor­ror and social com­men­tary ele­ments is truly unpre­dictable.  It’s also not bash­ful about the vio­lence ele­ment of its adven­ture scenes — and it’s shock­ingly bloody and/or vicious in a few spots.

Another thing that makes The Island unique amongst would-be block­busters is the quirky, semi-satirical approach it takes to its sce­nario.  That can most likely be attrib­uted to its unusual choice of direc­tor in Michael Ritchie, a film­maker who was bet­ter known for satires of American soci­ety like The Candidate and Smile.  However, he also has the sim­i­larly odd and bloody Prime Cut in his fil­mog­ra­phy and that film pro­vides an apt com­par­i­son for the work he does here.

Ritchie weaves in the kind of satir­i­cal ele­ments you’d expect from his other work, like a scene in a gun shop that sub­tly sends up American gun cul­ture and a funny gag where loot­ing pirates seize on a t-shirt as prize booty but throw out a huge cache of cocaine.  He also shows some dar­ing when sat­i­riz­ing the action and vio­lence com­po­nents of the film, par­tic­u­larly in oft-misunderstood moments where the grisly pirate raids are scored with rous­ing “swash­buck­ler music” by Ennio Morricone.  Often crit­i­cized as a bizarre mis­step, the odd score in these scenes is actu­ally Ritchie’s way of skew­er­ing the machismo that informs the pirates’ cul­ture and the “boy’s own adven­ture” tone of Benchley’s narrative.

The blend of con­tent and style doesn’t always gel but it’s a lot bet­ter than it gets credit for.  The fact that the film had big-budget resources ensures that it has an impres­sive look and sound that lives up to its pedi­gree.  Accalaimed French cin­e­matog­ra­pher Henri Decae han­dles the visual chores and does an excel­lent job, cre­at­ing a lush and lovely trop­i­cal style that makes an ironic back­drop for the grim goings on.  There’s also a fine score from Morricone that includes every­thing from jit­tery sus­pense cues to the afore­men­tioned ironic swash­buck­ling music.

The bud­get also made it pos­si­ble to get the kind of actors who nor­mally wouldn’t be seen in such a bizarre, bloody story.  Caine was in the mid­dle of a long stretch of odd­ball for-the-money gigs here but he does pro­fes­sional work, car­ry­ing his weight no mat­ter how strange the going gets.  Warner brings a suit­ably regal tone to his evil pirate cap­tain char­ac­ter.  Frank is often crit­i­cized for his work here but per­haps that is because the script goes out of its way to make his char­ac­ter a brat and he’s very con­vinc­ing at deliv­er­ing early-teenage attitude.

Most of the pirates are played for pure grotes­query but McGregor is a sur­prise, mak­ing her char­ac­ter sym­pa­thetic and oddly like­able in her own sub­tle way.   There is also an amus­ingly witty from Frank Middlemass in a piv­otal sup­port­ing role and an early appear­ance from future The Serpent And The Rainbow star Zakes Mokae.

In short, it’s easy to under­stand why The Island didn’t make the grade as a block­buster — but its com­bi­na­tion of an eccen­tric sto­ry­line, major stu­dio resources and unex­pect­edly satir­i­cal direc­tion make it a one-of-a-kind propo­si­tion for the cult movie-minded.  It’s rare to see such a hand­somely pro­duced slice of odd­ball entertainment.

Blu-Ray Notes: This title was recently released by Scream Factory as a blu-ray/DVD combo pack.  The trans­fer is gor­geous, cap­tur­ing the trop­i­cal look with rich col­ors and sharp detail.  Better yet, the disc also includes an excel­lent new 5.1 loss­less stereo remix that fea­tures a lot of depth and activ­ity in the rear speak­ers.  Extras are lim­ited to a trailer gallery but the excel­lent trans­fer and the added value of the blu-ray/DVD bundling make this a strong value for fans of hor­ror and big-budget exploitation.