The Island of Dr. Moreau” won’t be seen in its full glory until it turns up on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” An embarrassment for all concerned, this updated third screen version of H.G. Wells’ disturbingly prophetic novel, published exactly 100 years ago, makes hash of its source and is wildly unfocused dramatically and tonally. Star names and promise of gruesome thrills should generate decent openings, solid foreign biz and a healthy vid life down the line, but bad word-of-mouth will hasten a quick decline in domestic theatrical fortunes.
For mainstream sci-fi and horror devotees, the half-human creatures running amok here rather too closely resemble those in “Planet of the Apes” and even “Cats” to set pulses running very quickly. Brando fans will only be dismayed at seeing him, fatter than ever, delivering a performance that can best be described as half Sidney Greenstreet and half Quentin Crisp, while those fans drawn by Val Kilmer will wonder what happened to his part. For good measure, assiduous followers of director John Frankenheimer’s career will be put in mind of his beastly 1979 outing “Prophecy.”
After an eye-catching opening-credits sequence, Douglas (David Thewlis), a British U.N. peace negotiator stranded in the Java Sea after a plane crash, is plucked from his raft by the shady Montgomery (Kilmer) and taken ashore at the latter’s destination on the titular tropical isle. As an uninvited guest, Douglas is kept on a short leash in the owner’s compound, although the interloper does connect with the Nobel Prize-winning scientist’s alluring, albeit somewhat odd, daughter (Fairuza Balk), and grabs a peek at the shocking birth of some unidentifiable monster in the off-limits laboratory.
But the great man himself remains scarce until a half-hour in, when he is conveyed into the village of the Beast People in a vehicle resembling the Popemobile. Bedecked in a cascading white robe, veil, quadrangle hat, sunglasses , and done up in Halloween whiteface and lipstick, Marlon Brando’s Moreau is a most peculiar creation, almost as weird as the mongrel beasts whose genes he has fused with human ones in an attempt to scientifically forge an obedient new species.
Up through a grotesque piano duet between Moreau and one of his mutant servants and a subsequent dinner at which the demented visionary attempts to explain his rationale for genetic engineering, the film retains a certain curiosity value, as one waits to see what riffs it intends to play on familiar material that was originally intended, as much as anything, as an anti-vivisection tract, an angle dropped here.
But what initially seems like difficulties in getting on track and controlling the tone soon metastasize into blunders of fatal proportion. Failing entirely to construct a narrative spine, scripters Richard Stanley (the pic’s original director) and Ron Hutchinson have an unappetizing upstart creature named Hyena-Swine kill Moreau off after an hour (thereby leaving Brando with just a half-hour’s running time in which to maneuver). A subsequent would-be significant scene shows Kilmer’s dope-smoking second-banana character assuming the guise of his former boss, but this “Heart of Darkness”-like allusion quickly falls by the wayside in favor of a half-hour’s worth of utterly mindless and meaningless destruction by the marauding beasts, whose animal instincts have reasserted primacy over their grafted-on human traits.
Pic is riddled with colossal miscalculations. Thewlis is miscast as the accidental tourist who must function as the audience’s looking glass into the story’s bizarre world. Presumably a man of some intellectual craftiness and manipulative skills by nature of his profession, the character displays no insight or smarts whatsoever, and his lack of distinction isn’t helped at all by Thewlis’ squirmy, uncomfortable performance.
Kilmer, who might more plausibly have played Thewlis’ far more central role, creates no characterization whatsoever in a part that bears evidence of severe cutting. As for Brando, it is pretty sad to see this once-magnificent physical actor assuming a truly Wellesian girth. Moreau, played in earlier screen versions of the tale by a hammy Charles Laughton (1933) and Burt Lancaster (1977 ), should be a villain of mesmerizing demonic genius; Wells’ creation was later seen as an eerie prefiguring of Hitler by several decades. Using a gentleman’s English accent, Brando, with an intriguing undercurrent of both camp and delicacy, tries to play him as a nice guy somehow gone seriously astray, but the dialogue just isn’t there to give Moreau the desired dimensions of a fascinating , amoral madman.
Stan Winston’s creatures are serviceable if not particularly memorable, although Ron Perlman, as the beasts’ putative theological leader, has been done up to resemble a ragged simian version of Charlton Heston’s Moses, staff and all , and has been given some final weighty lines that rank high in the all-time pantheon of mock-profundity.
Shot in Queensland, Australia, pic has a proficient look.