The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)
The new version of The Island of Dr. Moreau is scary for reasons that have nothing to do with the movie itself. The first adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel — 1933’s Island of Lost Souls, with Charles Laughton as the mad scientist — seemed to predict Dr. Mengele’s horrible experiments in the Nazi camps. The second, released in 1977 and starring Burt Lancaster, seemed to foreshadow Jim Jones’ bungle in the jungle the next year. What future atrocity is this third film preparing us for? (Cloning, perhaps — possibilities abound.) Maybe nothing. But the chilling idea of Wells’ story — that the fusions of man and animal must struggle to keep the humanity that humans so rarely show — comes through loud and clear in the new film. In fact, this Dr. Moreau, unlike Laughton and Lancaster (and very like Wells’ original concept), is basically benevolent if deluded — a tragic hero, almost.
This Moreau begins like the others: a civilized man (David Thewlis) finds himself on the island, where animals are turned into humans and kept in line by a set of laws — “Not to go on all fours,” “Not to eat meat,” “Not to kill.” The “manimals” are the children of Moreau (Marlon Brando), an animal lover who somehow misses the contradictions in his work. Brando has done jungle fever before, of course, in Apocalypse Now, whose Colonel Kurtz might have been a warm-up for the godlike Moreau. Charles Laughton’s Moreau was a milestone in creepy acting, and Brando seems to be going for a Kabuki parody of Laughton, wearing messianic robes and thick, white sunblock, as well as a series of progressively goofy hats. Brando, who’s often hilarious, magnetizes the camera even when surrounded by Stan Winston’s elaborate creature make-ups.
The same can’t be said, sadly, for the usually electrifying David Thewlis, who is given nothing to do except react with disgust to Moreau’s hobby. If you saw him here for the first time, you’d never know he could make poetry out of scuzziness (Naked, Prime Suspect 3). Val Kilmer turns up as Montgomery, Moreau’s junkie assistant; he does a funny Brando impression near the end, but most of his performance isn’t worth the hassle he reportedly caused on the set, leading to the dismissal of original director Richard Stanley. John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) took over for Stanley, and he does credible work; this isn’t a hack job like his 1979 horror attempt Prophecy. He gets a touching performance from Fairuza (The Craft) Balk, as Moreau’s “daughter,” who is slowly regressing to her feline origins. But Frankenheimer doesn’t do her character justice, and he seems unsure whether he’s making a horror movie or an action thriller with horror elements. The climax involves a depressing amount of gunplay.
Still, this Island is worth visiting. It retains Wells’ anti-vivisection concerns, and asks who is more bestial: the animal or the scientist who experiments with it. And it has Brando keeping himself amused, like a deadpan Falstaff in the jungle. Maybe his great days are gone. But now that the pressure of greatness is off him, he knows that all he has to do is show up and have fun.