The Island of Dr. Moreau is Hollywood’s third attempt at framing H. G. Wells’ novel, and they have yet to get it right. The 1933 Island of Lost Souls, although the best of the three, eliminated the subtleties of the novel and played it purely as a monster bash. Although this year’s Island of Dr. Moreau doesn’t reverentially follow the novel, it is much closer than the prior two films, particularly than the 1977 Burt Lancaster fiasco. The film starts out promising, with a terrific pulse-quickening intro, segueing into the tale of Edward Douglas (David Thewlis), adrift on a life raft in the Java Sea after a plane crash. He is ultimately rescued by Montgomery (Val Kilmer), who nurses Douglas back to health. Montgomery is the assistant of Dr. Moreau (Marlon Brando), a brilliant geneticist who now chooses to work on a remote island. Douglas is stranded on Moreau’s island, but Montgomery assures him that his stay will be brief…the communications gear will be operational shortly, and help can be summoned. Douglas soon meets Aissa (Fairuza Balk), and exotic woman who claims to be Moreau’s daughter. However, before Douglas gets a chance to meet Moreau or explore the island, Montgomery locks him securely in his room. Douglas manages to escape and discovers the secret of the island… Dr. Moreau is performing genetic experiments upon animals to give them humanlike abilities and intelligence. The film begins its fall with the tumultuous first appearance of the Doctor. Brando spends all his screen time in high camp, highly contrasting the film’s sci-fi thriller opening scenes. When he’s not acting like a hideous hybrid of clown and Pope, Brando shares his screen time with an extremely tiny midget (whose only beastial traits seem to be reddish mottled skin and one claw hand). Director John Frankenheimer obviously gave Brando too much free rein, perhaps fearing a fate similar to Richard Stanley, the film’s first, quickly fired, director. As a result, the film spirals downward into a demented parody of itself. This twist may have worked, but the rest of the film takes itself too seriously to play along. A second major shift in tone rings the deathknell for this film, as the movie goes from out and out parody into a violent explosionfest. This, followed by an extremely tacky ending, marks a complete departure from the book and renders any achievements from the prior ninety minutes obsolete. David Thewlis doesn’t seem to take much of a stretch as the everyman narrator…in fact he seems rather awkward and out of place in the role. Kilmer does a decent job as the good doctor’s assistant (he does a killer Brando impersonation), but the screenplay makes a major error by transforming him from a chronic alcoholic into a raging dopefiend. There’s a great story to be told in Wells’ classic novel, but Hollywood still has yet to find it.
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