I’m at quite a loss on how to approach The Island of Dr. Moreau from a critical viewpoint in fact I’m at a loss on how to explain it at all. It’s the most jaw-dropping example of a large studio budget being wasted on nothing more than fireworks and egos with the actual production of a film being nothing but an after thought. I think the simplest and sanest thing to do would be to just describe the utterly mystifying bat-shittery as it happens and to provide a bit of a back story too.
If you’re familiar with the H.G. Wells book of the same name, and on which this is based, then you’ll get the basics of the narrative and that the titular doctor is a Nobel prize winning geneticist who has been chased from his homeland for certain nutty professor type crimes in which he can now indulge himself away from prying eyes and that will unfold spectacularly in the next 93 minutes (the gore was removed to achieve a box-office friendly PG-13 rating but a 100 minute director’s cut was later released restoring it back to an R).
The film opens with an overhead long shot of a dinghy floating aimlessly in a vast ocean in which three men are fighting under the supervision of David Thewlis’s apocalyptic sounding voiceover explaining that the quarrel is over the one remaining water canteen. After a minute or two of fisticuffs the extras who aren’t David Thewlis tumble into the sea and are eaten by a shark. Seriously. Thewlis is then saved by a ship that just happens to contain Val Kilmer and they’re taken to an island where the story can…err… properly begin.
Before we get stuck into the main course I’d like to digress and mention that this film has a healthy mix of then A-list stars, Marlon Brando as the mad doctor, Val Kilmer as Moreau’s drug addled assistant Montgomery & David Thewlis as Edward Douglas (a last minute replacement for the ship-jumping Rob Morrow who in turn replaced the petulant Val Kilmer from his original casting as Douglas) and character actors Ron Perlman as a blind sheep man & Temuera Morrison as a wolf in a tux, creature costumes were designed and created by the remarkable Stan Winston and, most bafflingly, it was directed by John Frankenheimer. This is the man who made Ronin, The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May and, his masterpiece (and one of my personal favourites), Seconds.
Frankenheimer’s involvement was induced after the original director Richard Stanley was relieved of his duties by New Line studio execs who were worried about escalating costs and his lack of overall competency after seeing dailies of Kilmer prancing about on set while he was supposed to be filming his lines (Kilmer had tried to leave the project but the studio put him on ‘contract lockdown’). Stanley would go on to burn all notes and papers from pre-production just to annoy the new regime and even threatened to torch the set, he did manage to sneak back in and, with help from disillusioned crew members, appears on film as a ‘melted bulldog’. The new incumbent would then hire his own screenwriter, Ron Hutchinson, to change the complexity of the story to his own vision and away from the awful original script but these re-writes would happen daily and on set much to the chagrin of the cast with Thewlis commenting “We would get pages and pages every day, and you’d read them and think “Well, these are shit as well.” And Brando, not being able to keep up with the constant revisions, would wear a radio ear-piece that would inadvertently tune in to police frequencies. While filming a particular scene it’s claimed he shouted “There’s been a robbery at Woolworth’s!”
Brando’s ego by this point was so large that nobody, including Frankenheimer, would dare say no to him or question any of his incredulous decisions. In one scene he wears an ice bucket as a hat simply because he was bored and he also demanded that a midget appear in every one of his scenes even wearing the same outfits. There’s a ludicrous scene where they serenade each other on the ivories with the midget’s little piano sitting on top of Brando’s grand piano. Brando’s entrance sees him arrive in a Guerilla-esque pope mobile, waving majestically at his populace while dressed in a large white cassock with his veiled face covered in flour and his lips and teeth smeared with lipstick. His wardrobe had a colourful, calypso theme throughout like he’d raided Whoopi Goldberg’s laundry basket with the addition of interchangeable extravagant headwear and beaded jewellery. Such a fall from grace for a once proud Hollywood legend is compounded in his death scene where he’s eaten by a hyena wearing Converse sneakers.
Val Kilmer wasn’t a stranger to inexplicable behaviour either. He would insist on wearing odd garments randomly placed around his body like a blue scarf on his arm that he refused to take off until he stopped getting attention for it. He also didn’t turn up for the first two days of filming with his agent boasting “You always lose the first two days of a Val Kilmer movie.” It’s thought that Frankenheimer was bought onto the project with the hopes that he’d whip Kilmer into shape but that wasn’t to be, after wrapping the final shoot he ordered his crew “Get that bastard off my set”. The two leads didn’t get on from the outset and Kilmer was even spiteful enough to mimic Brando’s slurry speech both on and off camera throughout the entirety of the shoot. In fact, Kilmer’s acting is basically non-existent, he takes long pauses mid way through sentences and sometimes just stares blankly into the camera, there’s something quite homo-erotic about his ‘performance’ too most notable in scenes shared with Thewlis.
That kind of sums it up really as the actual film itself feels incidental to the titanic battle of egos waged in the background and probably rightly so, it’s an utter mess of such magnitude that it surprises me it was finished and even got a cinema release at all but for the sake or good order I’ll try tie up the plot. After seeing his wolf friend die while on trial for killing a rabbit, the sport-shoe wearing hyena rips out the controlling chip which all ‘man-beasts’ have installed as a disciplinal measure and rallies the other grotesque inhabitants to form a militia and over-throw Moreau’s benevolent reign. Plenty of tiresome and poorly conceived sequences then follow mumbling and jumbling their way through to the contrite ending including a supposed exposition scene at a dinner table where Brando is just talking and talking, guffing volumes of nonsensical babble which serve more to confuse than to progress and there’s plenty more Val looking either bored or mischievous and adlibbing lines like “I wanna go to dog heaven”.
I’ve never been so aghast at a studio production, this fails so spectacularly on every level that it had me going through an emotional smorgasbord of negativity which I’m still finding difficult to negotiate and untangle like a big sticky web of shit. It’s the background to The Island of Dr. Moreau which lends it a slight semblance of charm and urges the curiosity of at least one viewing but most bafflingly it did manage to cover its budget on box-office receipts when essentially it was just one big snooker-loopy, dirty-laundry exposing, Hollywood squabble.
– Greg Foster
The Island of Dr. Moreau on IMDB
Read HG Well’s The Island of Dr Moreau (Penguin Classics)
Buy The Island Of Dr. Moreau [DVD]