The Island of Dr. Moreau

Dir: John Frankenheimer, 1996. Starring: Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer, David Thewlis, Fairuza Balk. Cult.
The Island of Dr. Moreau
In terms of guilty pleasures, John Frankenheimer’s 1996 kinda/sorta adaptation of H.G. Wells’s novel The Island of Dr. Moreau may elicit the most guilt but certainly a lot of pleasure. By most standards the film is a complete mess with a legendarily ugly story of getting to the screen. It’s utterly indulgent and over the top, but it also has a giddy grotesqueness that makes it completely entertaining. Like its characters it reeks of madness, in one of those “what were they thinking” kinds of ways. Much more interesting than the ‘70s Burt Lancaster version, this later edition plays like a long, drug-fueled trip you wish would end but that the next day you think back and decide maybe it wasn’t so bad after all.

After surviving a plane crash and now lost at sea, United Nations worker Edward Douglas (David Thewlis) ends washed up on some kind of hidden private island (the kind that may have existed in H.G. Wells’s day). It’s actually an experimental playground for ex-respected superstar mad scientist Dr. Moreau (Marlon Brando). He was once on the cover of Newsweek but his crazy ideas had him laughed out of academia. Slowly Edward begins to grasp what is happening here, with the help of his zonked-out, druggy assistant, Montgomery (Val Kilmer). Moreau has been playing with DNA and turning exotic wild animals into half-men, some more successfully than others. His father/god complex has alienated the wilder ones who feel enslaved; they put together a rebellion against their full human captors. 

Edward cooks up a romance with Moreau’s “daughter,” the half woman/ half pussycat, Aissa (Fairuza Balk). They run around the jungle together, but then things get a little dicey with the other half-animals lurking around. Edward is rescued when Moreau and his “mini-me” (an incredibly tiny man who wears matching outfits with Brando) show up. (These characters were later spoofed by South Park in a recurring “mad scientist” plot.) In one of the film’s strangest touches, Brando sports a huge muumuu and white pancake makeup on his face.

At this point trying to explain the plot of The Island of Dr. Moreau becomes futile—it’s so ridiculous, trying to rationalize the script is impossible. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few cinematic qualities that the film does have. It’s impeccably shot, the creature effects and makeup are first-rate and, frankly, if you do manage to sit through the whole movie, it will leave you with a very eerie feeling. Still, what makes the movie recommendable is the on-camera (and off) shenanigans that seem to be going on.
The film’s original director was Richard Stanley; he had done the cult flicks Hardware and Dust Devil. He wrote the script but was fired a few days into shooting, apparently because of his clashes with Kilmer’s out-of-control ego. The old pro Frankenheimer, who was definitely past his prime, replaced him.  Originally actor Rob Morrow (Quiz Show) was slated to play Edward but he left with Stanley and was replaced by the great British actor Thewlis (who had just given that amazing performance in the film Naked).  Apparently, instead of going home with his tail between his legs Stanley camped out near the Australian set. He even managed to sneak in donning a disguise where he secretly worked as an extra on the set (read the book Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made by David Hughes for more outrageous stories about Stanley).

Kilmer’s attitude and performance helped to end his career as a leading man in big films with big-time directors. A few years later he would begin his run of doing a half-dozen films a year in flicks that never see an actual movie theater. His lazy performances go straight to home televisions, only ever seen on DVD or more likely cable. That’s not to say that Kilmer wasn’t once talented and couldn’t have a comeback performance in him, but as Montgomery in The Island of Dr. Moreau, he doesn’t try to give his character any depth and seems to be more eager to let the audience know how embarrassed he is to be there. Every line reading of Kilmer’s has an air of condescension, like he’s saying “this sucks” or he just completely runs amok during a scene, daring Frankenheimer to fire him. Oh and this isn’t a bad thing, Kilmer’s indulgence is actually pretty fun to watch.

Perhaps Kilmer was only trying to keep up with Brando’s eccentric performance. But where Kilmer seems bummed to be there, Brando seems to be having a good time. Like a doddering grandfather exploring his grandkids’ toys, Brando is willing to inject anything and everything to bring his clichéd character to life. Though Brando went from a great-looking genius who changed film acting to a fat old man with little passion for the craft, he’s still utterly captivating and fascinating to watch on screen and makes the biggest mess of a movie still of interest. Last Tango in Paris is often considered his most personal performance, but The Island of Dr. Moreau may actually get the closest to the real man. Brando, like Moreau, lived in seclusion on his private Tahitian island (or up in his Mulholland mansion) surrounded by his dozens of hero-worshipping legitimate and illegitimate children. And like Moreau, Brando’s own shortcomings may have helped to lead off a number of tragic incidents that sent him on a lonely downfall and eventually to death. Once you get over the guilt, there’s some pleasure to be found here.


Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Sep 7, 2011 5:00pm
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