Thursday, May 10, 2012


Sitting through “Prophecy” director John Frankenheimer’s pretentious, half-baked, horror fantasy “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” (** out of ****) starring Oscar-winning actor Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, may be enough to turn anybody into an animal.  Presumably, the financial success of genetic thrillers such as “Jurassic Park” and “Species” prompted producer Edward R. Pressmen to reanimate H.G. Wells’ literary classic for its third rendition.  Ironically, this deeply flawed but imaginatively updated version suffers a fate similar to that of the genetic mutants created by the titular villain on his remote island.

The movie opens on three plane crash survivors who have been adrift in the Java Sea for days.  Two of them are killed by a shark leaving our hero, Edward Douglas (David Thewlis of “Naked”), a United Nations peace negotiator.  Douglas awakens to the sight of a sailing vessel hovering over him.  He collapses from exhaustion and reawakens to find Montgomery (Val Kilmer of “Tombstone”) attending him.  Douglas is too weak to do anything more than swoon.  Eventually, the ship deposits them at an exotic island where the research center of Dr. Moreau is located.  Montgomery persuades Douglas to join him; on the basis that they have a telecommunications system on the island that Douglas can use to contact the UN.  As we soon learn, however, Montgomery is lying.  The island is actually the home and refuge of Dr. Moreau, a brilliant geneticist who was forced into seclusion due to his controversial experiments on animals.  Moreau has learned how to transform common animals into human beings, or almost human beings.

 Douglas finds himself trapped on the island, surrounded by Moreau’s beastly creations.  He tries to escape several times to no avail.  First, he stumbles in on an ungodly birth scene, and then finds himself in a half-man, half-animal zoo at an abandoned military airfield.  Finally, Douglas meets Moreau.  They argue about which way the scales of morality should tilt and dredge up Biblical passages to support their arguments.  Moreau tries to explain how his experiments will help mankind.  He reveals that he has discovered that the devil is a collection of genes.  Moreau means to sort out those bad genes and produce an ideal human.  He is even willing to accept a failure or two along the road to success, which accounts for the vast number of beast-men.  Moreau keeps these ugly creatures under his thumb by means of implants which he uses to shock them into paralysis.  Meanwhile, Montgomery keeps the creatures dazed and confused with narcotics.
The inventive but predictable Richard Stanley and Ron Hutchinson screenplay updates the 1896 Wells novel and does a good job of establishing the action in the 1990s.  The opening 40 minutes introduces audiences to everyone and everything they need to know about the plot.  Sadly, the script packs no surprises.  If you cannot figure out what’s going to happen from one moment to the next in the film then you must be on horse tranquilizers.  Suffice it to say, “Moreau” doesn’t qualify as a date movie, (unless you never want to see your date again).  Some of the gruesome looking creatures may even go on to inhabit the island of your dreams.  Stan Winston’s creature designs are impressive.  His mutants look as convincing as mutants could possibly look.  Sometimes, they are even nauseating.  Typically, they retain the basic shape of the animal from which they were mutated so they have a beastly looking head, hands and feet, while the rest of them is hidden beneath their apparel to conserve on costs.  The first grisly glimpse that Douglas gets is a multi-breasted beast mother siring an “E.T.” infant.  The other animals are a hideous collection of mutants with claw hands and snaggled teeth.  They gallery of beast men and women appears twice as grisly, gyrating their horrid bodies as Montgomery peddles narcotics to kill them happy. 
Marlon Brando treats moviegoers to another of his characteristically peculiar performances.  There is nothing ordinary about Brando’s brilliant but eccentric Dr. Moreau.  Brando stages a dramatic entrance, swathed in white garments under a pagoda-style hat, resembling a Japanese Kabuki actor in sunglasses.  He tolerates the steamy island heat and wears chalky make-up to preserve his delicate skin from the sun.  Metaphorically, this sun allergy relates somehow to Moreau’s moral infamy; he cannot stand up to the light of morality.  He appears like the great white hope in the camp of the beast men.  Brando adopts the same sissified voice that he used for his Fletcher Christian in the 1962 version of “Mutiny on the Bounty.”  He also never appears twice in the same wardrobe.  One scene finds him garbed like a nocturnal fridge raider while in another scene he appears bundled up like an Arab sultan.

A similar air of mystery surrounds Val Kilmer’s Montgomery.  Montgomery gravitates between moments of extreme clarity and apathetic zombie like drug dazes.  Either the script is purposefully vague or (more realistically) the editors sheared Kilmer’s performance to reduce the film’s running time to 90 minutes so they could squeeze in more showings and parlay a quick profit.  Ultimately, Montgomery assumes a Lucifer-like character in his apparent rivalry with Moreau.  Again, the script doesn’t clarify this part of the story.  Is Montgomery Moreau’s rival?  We never know for certain.
Audiences are meant to identify with the David Thewlis’ narrator.  Incidentally, Thewlis replaced actor Rob Morrow of CBS-TV’s “Northern Exposure.”  As Douglas, Thewlis is required to make his eyes bulge and to act in a manner that makes him appear ineffectually wimpy. The Stanley &  Hutchinson screenplay doesn’t allow Thewlis to cut the heroic profile that Michael York did in the 1977 version of “The Island of Doctor Moreau” with Burt Lancaster as the eponymous character.  The best that Thewlis can do is fire ill-aimed bullets at the rowdy beasts.

The trouble with this take on Wells classic is that movie audiences may find themselves frustrated because the only sympathetic character is a dud.  Thewlis does hold his own in his confrontations with Moreau as they argue about morality.  Moreau alleges that they has found evil and resolves to destroy it.  In destroying it, Moreau has recreated evil in his own warped image.  The atmospheric photography by William Fraker makes “Moreau” both fun and interesting to gaze at for long stretches.  Fraker lensed the action on location in sunny Australia.  In fact, “Moreau” looks as god as any movie that Frankenheimer has directed. The 66-year old director carved out his reputation back in the 1960s with classics such as “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Seven Days in May,” “Grand Prix,” and “Seconds.”  In his 1979 thriller “Prophecy,” Frankenheimer explored the theme of wildlife gone crazy because of polluted streams so he brings considerably artistry and some knowledge about the genetics in “Dr. Moreau.”
“The Island of Dr. Moreau” ranks as an ambitious but flawed horror fantasy.  Anybody who relishes Frankenheimer’s version of “Moreau” can hope that someday New Line Cinema will release a director’s cut that restores the lost parts of the film.  Indeed, an unrated director's cut was released, but it included on four extra minutes of footage. This well-made but routine epic concludes with Douglas moralizing about how Moreau’s island serves as a microcosm of the world and that we must all go in fear of man’s unstable nature.  The only thing that audiences can really go in fear of is the sequel that might lie over the horizon.  Troubled plagued the production from start to finish. Kilmer switched characters from Douglas to Montgomery.  Reportedly Kilmer--who was enduring a divorce at the time--clashed with director Richard Stanley.  Kilmer's clout was such that Stanley was gone and Frankenheimer took over the helm.  Frankenheimer experienced similar problems with Kilmer as well as Brando.

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