To answer the two questions you’ll be asking about 20 minutes into Netflix’s new castaway thriller The I-Land:
1) They tell you how the 10 strangers with wiped memories came to wake up simultaneously on a desert island at the start of episode three, so skip there if you just want to know before you quit;
2) No, this isn’t some deadpan spoof of bad sci-fi, with the lumpen writing, catatonic acting and thuddingly inelegant plotting there to make a postmodern point. It’s really as bad as it initially seems.
Well, almost. Once The I-Land does reveal its hand – basically it’s Lost meets The Matrix, although there’s a lot less to it than that – it improves purely by dint of making us wonder what handbrake turn into a new field of randomness it’ll perform next. Moreover, nothing can be as poor as the bewilderingly disastrous opening episodes.
Written and directed by Neil LaBute – once an enfant terrible of US indie cinema with films such as In the Company of Men, now better known for TV vampire-dystopia romp Van Helsing – episode one is a lesson in how not to pilot. The first meeting between feisty Chase (Natalie Martinez) and glassy, pessimistic fellow castaway KC (Kate Bosworth, who talks throughout as if she’s being fed unfamiliar lines through an earpiece) sets the tone: instead of conflict occurring organically as an extraordinary predicament is explored, everyone is just pissy with each other, like characters in a soap nursing trivial grudges – or perhaps just shallow millennials as imagined by a fiftysomething writer.
One of many baffling sequences sees a young woman breezily put aside her worrying new circumstances to enjoy a spot of sunbathing: meanwhile the heroine Martinez, who does her best with the clumsy dialogue (“I just don’t know where ‘where’ is!”) exists in a low-cut vest top that’s often wet and at one point struggles to cope with a Baywatch-style running slo-mo. The treatment of an attempted rape is queasy too, as it merely leads to more of the same empty shouting and moody stares into the middle distance.
The flimsy script is more often hilarious than offensive, though: nobody in 2019 should be given the line “I have a bad feeling about this!”, but to have someone say it right after a character has been eaten by a shark suggests LaBute and his colleagues were not even trying.
The I-Land certainly isn’t worried about negative comparisons to Lost. It wilfully invites them, setting up a crude version of the Jack-Kate-Sawyer triangle, quickly hinting that the desert island is somehow malignly sentient, and even trying to get a spooky numerology thing going. It also indulges in explanatory flashbacks, but since it can’t use them as Lost did, to add further nuance to the island-dwellers’ characters – because it has no plausible characters – they’re dumped on us at the halfway point, arriving like a series of lurid Lifetime melodramas about people with reasons to feel guilty.
Exactly what kind of purgatory these protagonists are in is where The I-Land leaves Lost behind to explore more futuristic, tech-horror territory. As it does so, the absurdities intensify, right up to a twist ending that’s almost magnificent in its will-this-do lack of relevance to what has come before. This is sci-fi without a vision, a genre piece that doesn’t know how its own genre works. The I-Land is begging to be forgotten.