In a media landscape already saturated with dystopian fiction, few would argue that we need another bleak, futuristic series imparting lessons about our baser human instincts, but Netflix’s The I-Land, which drops on September 12, seems poised to make a pretty good case for it. For one thing, the cast and crew are packed with recognizable names: Kate Bosworth (who’s also a producer), Alex Pettyfer, and Maria Conchita Alonso all appear in the first season, and acclaimed playwright/director Neil LaBute writes and directs.
Although the premise — ten strangers dropped on some kind of virtual-reality deserted island by malevolent gamemasters testing the human condition — isn't the most original, a tense, action-packed pair of trailers suggest that it’ll at least be well-executed.
The teaser trailer (above), rife with nods to the Fyre Festival, invites us to delight in the misfortune of the principals as they gradually realize their deserted island is far from paradise. The official trailer (below) offers a little bit more information, but both previews raise far more questions than they answer.
Having pored over these two clips for further clues, we can tell you first-hand they're pretty inscrutable. To that end, here are a few of the most nagging questions we have about the I-Land on the eve of its release.
The obvious question (and the one the show clearly wants us to be wondering) is what is the entire point of this exercise? It's referred to as a "simulation," which suggests that there is no literal island, but since the castaways themselves don’t seem to know who they are or how they ended up there, it’s impossible to tell whether they volunteered for the task or were conscripted. It’s also impossible to tell if they know each other outside of their current circumstances, or whether who they are in the "real world" actually even matters. Is the objective to pass an arbitrary number of challenges, to escape the island, or simply to survive?
For some reason, everyone gets dropped off on this island dressed like they just got off a shift at the Olive Garden. Unless one of the simulation's incentives is laundry service, their shirts should be practically black by the end of the first episode. It’s not exactly a decision that inspires confidence in the game-makers.
Whenever a show has the audacity to drop some apparent strangers on an apparent deserted island, there’s no way a would-be viewer can avoid drawing comparisons. Even the heroes themselves seem to take it as their first assumption: when they wash up on a beach with no explanation, they conclude they must be there because their plane crashed.
Certainly things seem to escalate more quickly here than they did for the LOST gang: where it took LOST the better part of two seasons to introduce the Dharma initiative, at least a few of the I-Land’s inhabitants become hip to the presence of something sinister behind the scenes within the first season. And while LOST’s pilot gave us a relatively bloodless death sequence involving a man and a jet engine, there’s at least one shot in these trailers that makes that infamous scene feel like something out of Paw Patrol.
Of the footage we've seen, the most arresting (and the least LOST-like) involves a young woman (Kota Eberhardt) screaming while clutching her freshly de-fingered hand. (In another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot, she’s scaling a seaside cliff while covered in blood.) The scene is here to let us know that whatever this simulation is, it’s not messing around. But it’s still hard to tell whether these effects are reversible inside or out of the game, whether the injury means this woman is out of the running for whatever this is, or how useful she’ll be without fingers.
While we do get glimpses of quite a few apparent non-castaways across both trailers, most seem detached and academic. This guy, on the other hand, casts a shadow over the proceedings that’s a little more salt-of-the-earth. Cowboy Hat Man (played by veteran character actor Bruce McGill) shows up seemingly out of nowhere and dispenses a few cryptic words of warning, but badge on his shirt notwithstanding, his motives aren’t clear. He doesn’t seem to be terribly optimistic about anyone’s chances, and there’s maybe even a sardonic edge to what he’s saying. Is he here to help or is he did he just come for the schadenfreude? Whatever his actual role, he’s easily the most compelling character ahead of the show's debut, and we’d better get his story.
For that matter, is it a competition? Are the castaways expected to compete against each other or is the expectation that they’ll collaborate in order to pass muster? In other words, does the simulation work like Saw or is it more like The Hunger Games? In the cryptic words of the cowboy-hatted spirit guide, “if you die out there [on the I-land], you die in here [presumably, though not necessarily, real life].” And as another non-castaway observer explains, “your choices determine your next challenge.” We see one castaway apparently shoot another, but we also see the group working on a distress signal and discussing strategies for rescue. If Jeff Probst himself emerged from the jungle to evaluate their progress and invite them to vote someone off, even that wouldn’t seem completely out of place. And what actually happens if/when you appease your game-masters? That’s anyone’s guess.
Whether it’s a contest or some sort of incredibly twisted Outward Bound exercise, there seem to be enough open-ended questions to sustain at least one full season of intrigue. And as long as the showrunners have the answers from the jump and can give us a clear trajectory to arrive at them ourselves, The I-Land could very well be a worthwhile watch. Here's hoping.
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Jessica Liese has been writing and podcasting about TV since 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @HaymakerHattie.