H.G. WellsVal KilmerMarco HofschneiderMarlon Brando
The Island of Dr Moreau (1996)
Medium: film
Year: 1996
Director: John Frankenheimer
Writer: Richard Stanley, Ron Hutchinson, H.G. Wells
Keywords: The Island of Dr Moreau, Razzie-winning, horror
Country: USA
Actor: Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer, David Thewlis, Fairuza Balk, Marco Hofschneider, Temuera Morrison, William Hootkins, Daniel Rigney, Nelson de la Rosa, Ron Perlman, Peter Elliott, Mark Dacascos, Miguel Lopez, Neil Young, David Hudson
Format: 96 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0116654/
Website category: Horror modern
Review date: 9 August 2011
It's not particularly good. It was nominated for six Razzies, including Worst Picture and Worst Director, and Marlon Brando won Worst Supporting Actor. Roger Ebert thinks it's Brando's worst film.
As soon as I read about the production nightmare, it became a must-watch.
Richard Stanley spent four years developing this project, only to be fired after four days. The replacement director, John Frankenheimer, ordered script rewrites and shut down production for one and a half weeks while these were done. Frankenheimer would later have fights with Kilmer, Brando and the studio. In addition by this point Rob Morrow had quit the lead role and been replaced by David Thewlis, but both of these were last-minute replacements after Val Kilmer tried to back out of the film altogether and then as a compromise agreed to take the smaller role of Dr Montgomery instead. Kilmer had played Batman the year before, so the studio didn't feel they could afford to let him go.
New script pages would be delivered only a few days before it was time to shoot them. Brando gave up rehearsing these rewrites and instead got himself a radio receiver. Thewlis has said they'd "be in the middle of a scene and suddenly he'd be picking up police messages and would repeat, 'There's a robbery at Woolworths.'" Thewlis also said, "we all had different ideas of where it should go. I even ended up improvising some of the main scenes with Marlon."
During filming, Thewlis fell off a horse and broke his leg. He avoided the premiere and has sworn never to watch the finished film. Meanwhile Brando's daughter Cheyenne had just committed suicide, while Kilmer learned that he was getting divorced by turning on a TV and himself admits that his behaviour on that shoot was "crazy". He showed up two days late, not having learned any lines or even knowing much about his character. After shooting Kilmer's last scene in the film, Frankenheimer said, "Cut. Now get that bastard off my set." What he said later to the press (!) was: "There are two things I will never ever do in my whole life. The first is that I will never climb Mt. Everest. The second is that I will never work with Val Kilmer ever again."
Awesome. Just about everyone signed on in the first place to work with Marlon Brando, by the way.
That said, the first hour is good. I liked it. It goes to pieces in the last half-hour, but if you turn it off without watching that, you'll have a perfectly watchable Dr Moreau film.
It's not as disturbing or edgy as the 1932 version, of course. The biggest difference is Stan Winston's make-up, believe it or not. It looks outstanding, but it's impossible to see them as anything but animals. (One of them goes even further, looking like an aborted foetus that's grown up very slightly and is now trotting around.) This kills any racial subtext and instead turns it into science fiction with a religious allegory, as the beast-men cry, "We are men!" I quite liked that. I cared about these broken animals and their ambition to be something they weren't, although of course there are going to be others who choose another path.
Brando's Moreau is actually a lot of fun. Ignore the Razzie. He's no Charles Laughton, but instead an effete benefactor who's never anything but amiable and cuddly. He loves his "children". He's genuinely trying to do good and he nearly managed to talk me around to his side, despite his blind spots and his atrocities. He's a nice guy. Admittedly we first meet him as an albino transvestite pope, but being camp never hurt anyone.
Val Kilmer on the other hand is evil. If Brando is God, as per the script's metaphor, then Kilmer is Satan. It's actually a really interesting performance and I liked him a lot... until that final half-hour, when Kilmer gets lazy and throws away some thematically fascinating material.
Of the others, Thewlis is strong and even got a nervous laugh from me in the scene where he's being abusive to the beast-men's faces. "Monstrous disfigurements." That's strong material and Thewlis doesn't back down from it. I've liked him in all the films I've seen him in to date and I like him here too. Ron Perlman is the Sayer of the Law, but you'd never recognise him under the make-up. In fairness, he's used to that. Other cast members include Temuera Morrison (Jango Fett in Star Wars), Mark Dacascos (huge in the world of straight-to-video martial arts movies) and Fairuza Balk (Dorothy in Return to Oz, but eleven years later and so now grown up).
Act Three is where it all goes to pieces. They make it look like a Schwarzenegger film, with shooting and explosions, but without any goodies vs. baddies. It's not even baddies vs. other baddies. Instead we're simply watching animals blowing up scenery for no obvious reason, which goes through dull to become irritating. It would have been better if they'd allowed the story to become slower and more contemplative, although in fairness there's still a lot of philosophising as the movie turns into a combination of the Bible and Orwell's Animal Farm. Despite everything else the film gets wrong, at least it's kept its chosen themes and is plugging them to the absolute hilt. I liked that. It got me through to the closing credits. The religious metaphor of father, children and so on is carried a long, long way.
The ending's unsatisfying, but in an odd way that works for me. In this morally murky world, what could be more appropriate than one last bit of lying hypocrisy? The movie's a mess, but it's trying really hard to be true to its themes and the main impediment to that, oddly enough, is Val Kilmer's performance in his last fifteen minutes. There's too much action nonsense. It would improve the film no end to cut all scenes in which anyone runs or fires a gun. Despite everything though, I genuinely liked the first hour and sort of liked what came after, despite its obvious massive problems.
"But how can there be law without the Father?"