There are few finished films that have as infamous a genesis as the 1996 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau. It’s truly the stuff of legend; a young director on his way up the ladder from low budget exploitation fare who’s clearly out of his depth (who’s fired a week into filming and then manages to sneak back on set as an extra – and even ends up in the film), a legendary actor – way past his prime – who decides to just keep adding bizarre character traits and costume choices, a spoiled brat actor who decides to be difficult seemingly just for the sake of it, sinking sets, a new director who just doesn’t get (and doesn’t particularly care for) the material and much, much more. The story of the film’s troubled production is infinitely more interesting, dramatic and entertaining than the movie we ended up with – which is hardly surprising, given the too-many-cooks approach, coupled with the disasters and mishaps that plagued the project. Much of it is told in the superb documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, which I reviewed yesterday, which – whether or not you have any interest in the source material itself – is an absolutely fascinating watch.
It was due to the fact that I watched Lost Soul that I decided to finally watch what eventually became John Frankenheimer’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. Could it really be as bad as its reputation? The answer, of course – which will surprise no one who’s watched the tale of its production in Lost Soul – is yes. It’s abysmal.
The film starts reasonably promisingly, however, with a nicely done credit sequence that also has a nicely foreboding soundtrack. We’re swiftly introduced to the protagonist of the story, Douglas, who’s fighting for survival with two other men on a life raft after their plane crashes; he’s soon rescued by Kilmer’s character, Montgomery, a vet who’s travelling to the eponymous island. Once there, Douglas discovers various factions of animal-human hybrids that Marlon Brando’s scientist has been creating for the last seventeen years – and it doesn’t take long before events take a violent turn.
The film heavy handedly tries to make the point about humans and their animalistic nature at a few key points, but for the most part it’s a muddled mess of weird performances and even weirder scenes. Brando’s appearance – with increasingly odd costume choices and makeup – and odd, lisping accent don’t do the film any favours, but then Val Kilmer’s detached, inconsistent behaviour doesn’t either. Later in the film, he’s Kilmer is called upon to do an extended impression of Brando’s Moreau, which makes things even worse. Thewlis is no better, with oddly OTT reactions to what’s going on around him – but, given the late stage that he was brought in to the film and the mess he would have been walking into, this is no surprise. Fairuza Balk does well in a pretty thankless role, built up endlessly throughout the running time and then dispatched, cruelly, off camera in a very sudden encounter which comes out of leftfield.
And that’s the problem, really. So much that happens has such little justification or makes any sense that it’s hard to care about any of the proceedings. The special effects range from passable – even the much vaunted creature effects are often unimpressive, because they’re shot in such bright conditions for the most part – to terrible, with some atrocious 90s CGI in a couple of shots. The music, despite the excellent opening theme, is completely forgettable – and there’s even a few really jarring scenes with 90s rock songs that don’t fit in at all.
It’s supposed to be disturbing and scary, but it’s all so laughable and performed so melodramatically that it descends, almost immediately, into camp. That the film ends with a montage of real life violence, accompanied by a voiceover by Thewlis – lamenting humankind’s capacity for viciousness and self destruction – feels like another misstep given the daft scenes that have directly preceded it.
Weirdly, as I watched it I became convinced that I recognised all of the scenes from beginning to end. Had I watched it at some point in the last 24 years and just completely stricken the whole sorry mess from my memory? Perhaps. It’s best left in the mists of time; half glimpsed like some fever dream or with the most infamous scenes viewed in isolation, if only so you can understand where the inspiration for Dr Evil’s Mini Me in Austin Powers came from. At least we can be thankful for The Island of Dr. Moreau for that. There’s little else here of worth or any sort of cultural significance, unfortunately. Do yourself a favour and skip this, but do make sure you watch the brilliant Lost Soul.
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