THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU ** 1/2 (1996)
One hundred years ago the visionary writer H.G.Wells published "The Island of Dr. Moreau" in which a scientist transformed animals into something like humans.
In 1933, the novel was filmed as "The Island of Lost Souls." The ruler of the remote Pacific Island was played by Charles Laughton as a merciless, whip-cracking plantation owner. With talented gusto, he hammed up his verbal and body English. The film was once banned in Britain for its vivisection scenes, tame by today's standards. According to historian Carlo Clarens, "Wells openly repudiated the picture as a vulgarization of his novel." But then both book and movie were more effective as horror than as science.
Its director Erle C.Kenton was a prolific, minor figure who tried various genres, including comedies with W.C. Fields or Abbott and Costello, Frankenstein derivatives, whodunits. Some were pretty good but Kenton is only remembered for "Moreau", his "magnum opus."
The Don Taylor remake in1977 went back to the Wells title, starred Burt Lancaster, lasted 34 minutes longer, was more serious and eager, played pretty well but did not dethrone its predecessor.
Now the second remake has a director who came in on a "troubled" picture. John Frankenheimer was one of the major new filmmakers of the 1960s, with good to excellent films in a variety of genres and with an almost unbroken string of successes : "The Young Savages" (with Burt Lancaster); "Birdman of Alcatraz"; the legendary, paranoid political thriller "The Manchurian Candidate"; the military conspiracy thriller "Seven Days in May" (Lancaster, Fredric March, Kirk Douglas); the WWII adventure "The Train" (Lancaster); the racing story "Grand Prix"; the haunting, sinister sci-fi rebirth thriller "Seconds," one of the best pictures of the decade and possibly Rock Hudson's top role; "The Fixer"; "The Gypsy Moths."
There was a decline in the 70s, except for "The Iceman Cometh," "French Connection II," and "Black Sunday" (1977).It continued into the 80s and early 90s, when Frankenheimer made only about six features.
The fans of the director were pinning their hopes on "Dr. Moreau." Alas, this is not a comeback movie. It is not bad, but it just isn't good enough either. In it, David Thewlis (who triumphed in "Naked") plays Edward Douglas, an Englishman on a U.N. mission and the sole survivor of a plane crash in the Malay Sea. (The aquatic parts and all else are shot beautifully by veteran, versatile master cinematographer William Fraker, now 73).
Rescued by the mysterious Val Kilmer, Thewlis is led to the island where he becomes a guest-prisoner. He discovers that Nobel prize-winner Dr.Moreau (Brando) had been there for 17 years, after being thrown out of the USA by animal righters. Kilmer, his factotum for 10 years, is ambiguous, takes drugs, perhaps aspires to become the new Moreau. He gives a wickedly good imitation of Brando.
Moreau works with genetic engineering, creating beings from "animals fused with human genes," in search of the perfect homo sapiens. He fabricates horrible-looking monsters, a gallery of mutants with endless combinations like parts of two animals along the human side. He calls them "my children." His only near-total accomplishment is beautiful Aissa, but even she needs regular potion fixes so as not to regress into savagery.
The Law of the isle is a vegeterian version of Thou Shalt Not Kill. Infractions, unlike in the original movie in which the critters were punished by torture in The House of Pain, are dealt with through electronic implants. With a touch of a button in his remote-control gizmo, Moreau can send a culprit writhing in pain.
Soon, the frightened, disgusted Douglas, along with the frightened and illogical Aissa (doesn't she know that without her doses she'll revert to a beast?) try to escape and are caught. Then the beast-people, do the Spartacist thing and revolt... Then Douglas discovers files and vials with his name on them. Then....
The movie is rich in visuals and effects, many of them splendidly computerized. But they are counter-productive in their excess. Past the well-handled first part, you can't see the forest for the trees, the continuity becomes messy, many incoherences enter the film. Metaphors abound--the expected ones like "Don't tamper with the work of Nature," "Don't fool with evolution," "There is a beast inside each human." Yet more specific connections to our waning century's crucial issues of DNA, gene-splicing and the like, are buried under the confused/confusing script.
What is new and positive are the movie's funny aspects, whether planned or not. Marlon Brando is a hoot. His first public appearance is in a Brandonmobile, the analog to the Popemobile. Sitting high, looking like a Kabuki Buddha, a Deity with a huge tent-hat and veils, Marlon even blesses his flock from above. Perhaps the filmmakers also had in mind a Rajah nodding to his subjects from atop an elephant?
Brandon, thinking that his Moreau is allergic to heat and sun rays, convinced Frankenheimer that because of the destruction of the ozone layer, the doctor's face had to be marmeladed over with a white, oozy sunscreen. A howl. That's not all. Moreau's mumbo-jumbo explanations are tongue-in-cheek. Outrageously and ludicrously delivered, they're quite comical.
We wonder where all this state-of-the-art medical and electronic equipment came from, and was bought with what money? But leaving logic in the Malay Sea, we can enjoy every single scene with Brando. He sits at a grand piano, with his smallest "son" (a dwarf's dwarf in size-- how did they do it?) at a child's piano that belongs to the Guinness Book of Records as the minusculest functioning grand ever. Together they tinkle away a four-hand rendition of Chopin's Polonaise No 6. They are very pleased with themselves.
Later, when the now carnivorous humanoids invade the room and bang on the pianos, Moreau, trying to soothe them, tells them that the sounds are most interesting: "Reminds me of a man called Schoenberg... 12-tone music." He proceeds to attempt calming the savage breasts with Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."
Watching this re-remake you seesaw between high camp and monstrosities, including a scene that brings to mind Nazi crematoria. Animal lovers will be saddened at the moral and physical uglification of beasts. When Moreau's Law ceases to work, it's the law of the Jungle that prevails, but by now we all know that this law, once maligned, is an exquisitely complex, beautiful construct.
The movie could use much more simplification on one hand, subtlety and complexity on the other, instead of ending up as just a Grand Guignol spectacle. Still, Brando's screen time is worth the price of the ticket. In French, super-artists are called "sacred monsters." That's what Brando still is, especially here.