Netflix's 'The I-Land' Is a Hell of a Lot Like 'LOST,' Except Bad
This story contains spoilers for The I-Land.
Who needs high-concept science fiction entertainment when you've got The I-Land? Netflix's new limited series, which dropped last week, may look a bit like LOST -- and Westworld, The Matrix, and The Hunger Games. But looks, dear friends, can be deceiving.
The seven-episode show tells the story of 10 strangers who find themselves on a mysterious island with no memory of who they are or how they got there. Their memories may be wiped, but some conveniently placed items -- and some ill-conceived video game logic -- help to set the stage for what should be an engaging series about humanity's survival.
We open on Chase (Natalie Martinez), the lead character of this ensemble group. She's holding a seashell, which may well be a visual homage to Lord of the Flies, and immediately tries to get the lay of the land. It's not long before she discovers two things: She's not alone and she's armed with a knife. Fellow survivor K.C. (Kate Bosworth) is the first person she has a one-on-one interaction with and it's… not pleasant. While the audience gets the immediate sense that Chase is the one worth rooting for, these two seem to hate each other. Immediately. We never get any reason why.
One by one, the other survivors wake up on the beach. They're all suffering the same case of amnesia. They're all wearing white shirts and khaki pants. And for the most part, Chase is the only one really triggered by these odd surroundings; everyone else seems to fall in line, accepting this situation as somewhat normal. Instead of working together to find their way off this mysterious island, the group decides in-fighting and half-naked flirting is a better use of their time. Why figure out the nature of this odd island when everyone can go for an afternoon swim, instead? A surprise shark attack in the shallowest of waters almost kills one of the team, and pushes the rest back to dry land.
If this were a video game, this type of sequence would make sense. Clearly, this would be the game establishing boundaries for the player, and there is some sense of that here. But in this TV show's universe, almost everything that happens makes little to no sense. Netflix may want The I-Land to be their next big series for sci-fi fans to binge, but there's an insurmountable lack of connection -- between the director and actors, the actors and the script, or the script and mere logic -- that leaves this program, created by Neil LaBute, drowning under the weight of its own aspirations.
The team eventually builds some semblance of trust, at least between a few of the survivors, which is a feat unto itself considering how hostile everyone immediately is towards everyone else. But it feels like the actors are walking around with blinders on, focused more on their own internal character truths instead of successfully connecting with the scene partner right in front of them.
There's a redemption theme connected with this mysterious place. Random items -- a paperback book referencing "The 39 Steps," a big sign on the beach that says "FIND YOUR WAY BACK," a pocket compass, a giant orange life raft that just appears in the water one morning, that conch shell Chase woke up gripping -- all pop up throughout the first three episodes with the intention of leading our group to salvation. The 39 steps motif is something that is mentioned again and again. Is this a reference to the classic Alfred Hitchcock movie? Or the key to escape?
It takes three episodes before we get any answers, which makes watching the series a grueling exercise in patience. After a load of unnecessary drama and uneven story pacing, we discover Brody's (Alex Pettyfer) dead body on the beach, stabbed to death with Chase's knife, which is relevant since Brody had tried to sexually assault Chase when they had walked away from the group in an earlier episode. (It's an assault that transpires without witnesses, and a game of island he said-she said commences. With lines of dialogue like, "There's no rape here, just sex or no sex," you can probably guess how Brody's actions are received by the group.) As she pleads her innocence to the group -- who beat her and tie her up to punish her for this crime -- she simply wakes up. From the very first minutes on the island, Chase has been the one searching for answers. So of course, she's the one who learns of the true state of this place.
You see, the main crux of the whole thing is that the island isn't an island at all. It doesn't even exist, at least not in the tactile version of reality you'd expect. It turns out, the whole thing is a simulation put in place by the state of Texas to weed out any redeemable criminals serving time on death row. Chase gains consciousness in prison garb, under maximum security, and learns the truth of her situation through the prison's villainous, scenery-chewing Warden Wells (Bruce McGill), who feels like a cross between Boss Hogg from The Dukes of Hazzard and Foghorn Leghorn.
It's all an experiment put in place to see if the hardest criminals could find redemption. Each of the survivors, from Kate Bosworth's K.C. (which, we eventually find out, stands for "Killing Children" because she killed her children to get back at her abusive husband) to Gilles Geary's Mason (a young man who went on a shooting spree at a shopping mall), are all here vying for the audience's empathy, which is unfortunate, given the unlikeability exuding from each and every one of them.
In the real world, Chase is courted by the Warden to be on her best behavior. Not only does he know she didn't kill Brody, he laughs off his murder. It turns out the island rapist was in prison for being a serial rapist. Wiping one's memory can only go so far, we guess. But Wells doesn't really believe in the simulation, nor does he think any of the convicts in the prison are worth saving. Instead, he finds endless joy in toying with those partaking in the simulation while drinking whiskey in the comfort of his own office. Needless to say, in a series full of abhorrent characters, Wells here may be the worst.
Chase does her best to escape confinement once she learns of the simulation. But instead of making it to freedom, she finds her way into the belly of the beast. Attempting to hide in plain sight, wearing a stolen laboratory worker's coat, she finds the bodies of the island survivors in a sort of stasis situation, laying in Matrix-like pods, jacked into the system, completely oblivious that this, right here, is their reality.
The Warden and his goons track her down, and after a bit of gloating, he has Chase knocked unconscious and jacks her back into the game. This is when she takes on the futile task of explaining the baffling glitch she found in the proverbial Matrix. We have to at least give LaBute credit for not stringing this frustrating plot point on for long. That credit is short-lived, though, as the arrival of two new avatars named Bonnie (Clara Wong) and Clyde (KeiLyn Durrel Jones) add an even more ridiculous layer to the mix. If you die in the simulation, you die in real life, and these two rogue marshalls -- who are obviously working for the Warden -- came in with one mission: to let loose and serve justice as they see fit, ie. by killing people.
For the most part, Bonnie and Clyde trudge around the jungle giving unnecessary exposition. They do give the prisoners a warning that their memories will come back, and when they do, the urge to kill each other will apparently be unbearable. And even though a bright orange raft just floated ashore one day, the two henchmen tell the survivors to avoid the urge to escape. If they do try to leave, Bonnie and Clyde will kill them.
One unlucky criminal does escape, though. And while we're not given that much insight into her experience, we do know she ends up on another island… with a cannibal. You want to know more about the cannibal storyline. We want to know more about the cannibal storyline. That is all the show gives us of the cannibal storyline.
You can tell a bunch of head-scratching ideas were thrown at the proverbial wall to make this show, and a whole slew of them fall into the audience's lap in the finale. We find out that Chase was set up for the murder of her mother by her husband, who happens to also be in prison, and on the island, with her. Because of this revelation, she's taken out of the system and released from captivity.
The audience is then dealt a cavalcade of details:
- The 39 steps motif was referring to the number of steps from the cell block to get to the electric chair.
- It's 25 years in the future and climate change has put most of Texas underwater.
- Due to the effects of climate change, crime skyrocketed leading to an overcrowded prison system, which led to this I-Land simulation.
- The prisoners are a lot older in real life, but at least they're still young and hot on the imaginative island that doesn't even exist.
We mentioned LOST earlier, and all it takes is one look at the trailer for the series to see the influence JJ Abrams' series had here. By all accounts, it looks like Neil LaBute is trying to achieve Mystery Box greatness with The I-Land. It seems that no one involved in the project got the memo: Ripping off LOST is a fool's errand. Nearly a decade after the ABC show's polarizing finale, networks keep trying to replicate LOST's magic -- 2005's Invasion, 2009's Flashforward, 2010's The Event, and 2018's Manifest all come to mind. While Manifest recently received a second season order, we have to wonder if there is any real life left in the narrative formula LOST created.
Over the course of its seven-episodes, The I-Land toggles the line between ridiculous parody and laughable drama. Could the entire story be told in a 90-minute movie? Probably. But what would be the fun in that? In an era where thought-provoking genre projects like The OA gets cancelled, one has to wonder what's going on in Netflix's hive mind. Is this the algorithm at work? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe Netflix is taking a break from logic so it can take a little swim with the shark before they decide to jump it completely.