The Island of Dr Moreau (1996)

The Island of Dr Moreau is not the turkey you may think, although it is certainly overcooked. It starts well and promises much, and despite the obvious flaws (storytelling that peaks far too early, confused performances, pointless deviation from the original story) it’s one of Brando’s greatest, later performances. These productions fall flat not because of poor acting, directing or writing, but because of ego, bad business and usually a lot of alpha-males trying to outdo each other. You never hear anyone say — ‘See that David Thewlis? He’s impossible to work with.’ As for Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer — you read little else.

The Island of Dr Moreau was a great book, and not just in its day. It lacks the comedy and mania of The Invisible Man and the skill of War of the Worlds, but it delves in its own way into both universal ideas and what were at the time, current themes. It’s possible that Wells was inspired to publish The Island of Dr Moreau due to the vivisection arguments that were starting to run for the very first time in the 1890s, and when it was published it was certainly brought to bear on the arguments.

It actually gets weirder than this.

This film version of The Island of Dr Moreau was as ill-fated and ultimately poor as anything Marlon Brando became involved with — barring his handful of triumphs. Putting it like that, it sounds like his fault, which it was not. Brando, who was known for most of the post 1960 career as being a turkey magnet, is not too bad in this, and seems to be having a lot of fun. Maybe that’s not appropriate, but there is something extremely comic about his bumbling English Moreau, and it’s not just his girth.

The problem with HG Wells on film is that Wells didn’t structure his novels for the cinema, and so Hollywood, which rewrites everything as a matter of course, attacks HG Wells’ books from many different angles, usually portraying a completely different story, featuring characters which have names taken from the novel. By that I mean that the names are all that usually remain of the characters, their actions and personalities having been erased in the important and careful process of adaptation.

 

See what I mean?

This is not the place to tell you how the film differs from the book. The discussion may be managed in one word, anyway — appallingly. I would have expected this film to mess with genetic ideas, and drag the themes up to date, but it does not. It simply shows a bunch of hams in animal costumes in a Lord of the Flies setting, baffling on about ‘The Law!’ as if we are supposed to know what that means.

And this is what happens when you snatch certain elements from a book — and ignore others. If anything The Island of Dr Moreau is more Mad Max than Mad Scientist, with large-scale apocalyptic set pieces, established on what I think is supposed to be an old Pacific air base, with a weird underground level, presided over by the very stoned, and quite inadequate Val Kilmer.

David Thewlis, proper actor, just not a full-scale egoist.

A shame that, because Val Kilmer is something of a star, and although he’s not exactly acting here, his good looks hold everything together reasonably well. David Thewlis really does put in a good performance however, and although he wasn’t born for action scenes, he has several star qualities of his own, and steals the show from both Kilmer and Brando.

I'll just improvise this one.

What, however, is the point of hiring scriptwriters, when all that happens is these Hollywood horror-heavyweights turn up and decide they have to improvise everything? None, I think, and what is worse, is that John Frankenheimer’s The Island of Dr Moreau comes quite close to succeeding but fails probably because the tension, mystery and chasing through the jungle begins far too early — even before we’ve met Brando.

It means that by the end of the film, you’re exhausted, having spent your emotional energy early on. In part recognition of this, John Frankenheimer and New Line Cinema did keep The Island of Dr Moreau at about one and a half hours, but despite apocalyptic ravages and great jungle scenery, the movie misses out on a chance to once more explore both genetics and the perennially fun ‘mad scientist’ theme.