**½/**** Image B Sound B+ Extras F
starring Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer, David Thewlis, Fairuza Balk
screenplay by Richard Stanley and Ron Hutchinson
directed by John Frankenheimer
by Walter Chaw This is a tough one. As an avowed if guarded fan of director John Frankenheimer, his involvement with The Island of Dr. Moreau is something like a gobsmacker. Sure, he'd ventured into genre before with the ridiculous Prophecy, while, arguably, his two best films--The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds, his masterpiece--are genre pieces, too. But I think at the time, bringing in Frankenheimer three days into a troubled shoot to replace that assclown Richard Stanley was more an act of expediency than of ingenuity. If New Line thought they were getting a closer, they were right; if they thought they were getting someone who could corral the downward-spiralling Val Kilmer, they were less right ("Will Rogers never met Val Kilmer," Frankenheimer famously said). What they probably weren't expecting was that Frankenheimer would turn in something that, though critically-savaged at the time, had some legs. No, The Island of Dr. Moreau isn't a whole, falling apart as it does in the last half-hour or so, but it is the sort of movie that hints at larger issues and boasts enough indelible moments to deserve another look. Truth is, only movies this odd and discomfiting earn this amount of misdirected ire. It's not to say there's not a lot wrong with the film, but rather to suggest that the chief criticisms of it being strange and "a mess" aren't among them.
The film opens with plane-crash survivor Douglas (David Thewlis) adrift in a raft in the middle of the ocean, witnessing two co-survivors kill each other over their last drink from a canteen by falling into the water, spilling blood, and getting eaten by a shark. No, seriously. Douglas passes out, and when he comes to he's in the good graces of neurologist Montgomery (Kilmer), aide-de-camp to mad, Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Dr. Moreau (Marlon Brando), who has of late sequestered himself away on his titular island, where he's been messing with human and animal DNA--resulting in a horde of Stan Winston-created manimals led by Hyena-Swine (Daniel Rigney) on the one side and the noble Sayer of the Law (Ron Perlman) on the other. Soon, as it does in Jurassic Park, nature asserts itself against civilization, and all Eden breaks loose.
All of these creatures are implanted with pain chips that Dr. Moreau controls with his giant amulet. It's true: The Island of Dr. Moreau is batshit, cross-eyed-badger-spit insane. It's also the best kind of science-fiction: boundaries-busting and willing to go places that arguably nothing should ever go. Its failures are grand failures, its dramas are melodramas, and moments like the Salome-esque introduction to feline love-interest Aissa (Fairuza Balk, your first clue) are so ridiculous they become iconic. Ditto Brando's appearance, first in white pancake makeup and mosquito-net veil, then with jerry-rigged personal-temperature-control hat. Ditto the frankly remarkable Kilmer as, essentially, the Dennis Hopper character from Apocalypse Now--a performance also mostly ad-libbed, also twisted and disjointed by personal agonies (he was arguing with divorce lawyers between takes) and a hallucinogenic film shoot in a remote backwater.
Much has been made of Frankenheimer's exasperation with his eccentric leading men, but Brando's bizarre proclivities and ultimately-failed attempts at disguising his girth beneath flowing gowns--and his grief at his daughter's recent suicide--result in his most personal late-career turn. He's crazy, that much seems obvious, but when he expresses affection for his herd of deformed (his daughter Cheyenne had suffered a facial injury in a car accident a few years prior to hanging herself), deranged (both Cheyenne and son Christian Brando were variously diagnosed with mental illness; Christian, of course, killed one of Cheyenne's boyfriends at Marlon's house in Mulholland), and defiant monsters, there's real tenderness and remorse to him. His appearance lends Moreau pathos even as it distracts from the same; in the end, he's exactly the right shepherd for these lost children. Kilmer, too, actively cultivating his reputation as the biggest asshole in a city of them, parlays (or is it Frankenheimer who does that?) his own mental/emotional collapse into a character, Montgomery, humiliated and demeaned, the fool, and Frankenheimer, for his part, played a role in demeaning Kilmer further. Out of hatred, I'm sure, yet from it, again, lovely, indelible work. More? Perlman is extraordinary as the hybrid-ram Sayer, the animal high priest who makes satire of the religions of man; and two-foot Nelson de la Rosa, as homuncular Majai (parodied endlessly by "South Park" along with Brando's Moreau, and of course the inspiration for Mini-Me), is a singular grotesquery.
Shot with a strong sense of the surreal by DP William Fraker, channelling a little of his time with Roman Polanski and Fritz Lang, The Island of Dr. Moreau would be a legitimate classic instead of a camp curio and a bit of a tease had it not settled in the end on people in animal suits firing machine guns. I like that the menagerie figures out how to remove the microchips that control them, as well as the speech the leader of the rebellion, Hyena-Swine, gives as he syllogistically challenges The Law with his father ("So, no pain means no Law?"). What I like less is the idea that given free reign, weaned off their drugs and hormones, the rebels don't devolve as much as they get all Rambo up in there. Well, maybe I like that a little. But there's so much more room for innovative mayhem, so much more opportunity to honour the ideas of unnatural creation suggested in the material, so much more opportunity to squeeze more juice from the angry, combustible fruit of Brando and Kilmer. Frankenheimer, had he only followed Coppola's lead and marched this production into the abyss, could have gone full lunatic as opposed to half. In the case of The Island of Dr. Moreau, after all, the lunatic half is the one that's good.
Acknowledging its many faults and its late-film collapse, I gotta confess I popped the Blu-ray back in immediately afterwards just to watch the Kilmer and Brando scenes again. It's not a freakshow--well, that aspect isn't--so much as it's a genuine and affecting document of mental illness of the temporary, and permanent, kind. Lost in this conversation, alas, is Thewlis: A late replacement for a suddenly-skittish Rob Morrow, he has several moments of real, affecting pathos--his silent screams, his harrowed demeanour. Maybe it's not all acting, but it hardly matters.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
New Line dumps The Island of Dr. Moreau onto a single-layer BD in a 2.40:1, 1080p transfer that shows impressive clarity and detail in close-ups. You can see the sweat and make-up cracking on Brando's face, a sad reminder of not only the ravages of time and inattention to health, but also then-fresh tragedy. The image is lush, appropriately lurid, and appropriately pulpy, though it could have been better, certainly--less denoised and not so inky. Eyelines, too, butt up against the top of the frame at times, possibly indicating that the Super35 source isn't matted correctly. Still, it's asking a lot to expect a better presentation than this, which is at least status quo for a catalogue title. Likewise solid is a 5.1 DTS-HD MA track that separates information with logic and a basso profundo depth. Sadly, the lone special feature is a vintage "Making of" (8 mins., SD) that completely sidesteps any of the on-set controversy and disastrous reception in favour of boilerplate promotional interviews. The biggest opportunity for a film like this would be for someone interested enough in it to craft a detailed, thorough account of what went wrong, who blamed whom, and how a film resulted anyway. (Editor's Note: Of interest in this regard is Criterion's The Island of Lost Souls Blu-ray, on which Stanley spends more of his supplemental interview discussing--and apologizing for--the genesis and collapse of this remake than he does talking about the titular film. It's a start, anyway.) It's an even greater shame that no one thought to do something like that while Brando and Frankenheimer were still alive. Two trailers round out the platter. Note that this disc contains only the 100-minute Unrated Director's Cut prepared for DVD in 1999; for comparison's sake, it would be nice if the the long-OOP 96-minute theatrical version were included, but again this release is not exactly an act of curation.