Here be monsters

The Island of Dr. Moreau is a shambles, but too bizarre just to ignore

But this elliptical ecological parable, one as full of allegory as The Lord of the Flies, is simply unable to maintain its special brand of vulgar creepiness long enough. Even if it had, it probably would have imploded well before the final shot. That's due, in part, to the difficulty of giving a fresh cinematic tilt to the film's subtext: that God's greatest folly was in creating man in the first place. H.G. Wells was an idealist and a dreamer, but his view of the future of humanity was more grim than hopeful; in A Modern Utopia, he called man "the unnatural animal, the rebel child of nature, and more and more does he turn himself against the harsh and fitful hand that reared him." Those could very well be the introductory words to The Island of Dr. Moreau, where the theme of man's inherent savagery mixes dangerously with his vain belief that he can overcome it. At the heart of Wells' story, humans have, by trying to understand and even control the natural world, created something far more primitive and scary: a hell on earth where man, in all his glorious flaws, is god. That's a shocking premise, and The Island of Dr. Moreau is occasionally a shocking movie, but the shocks become mired in a screenplay that self-destructs because of its own aimlessness.

Centuries ago, ancient explorers would direct their cartographers to write the words "Here be monsters" on any portion of a map that they'd left uncharted on their journeys. It was a way of scaring away the curious, but it served another purpose, too: It reserved the area for the explorers themselves, a place to return to after they had finished weeping for having no more worlds to conquer. The Island of Dr. Moreau blunders because it sails directly at the monsters--takes us right into their faces--but then blinks and heads for the safety of the shore. The disappointment rests in the movie nearing the brink of insanity, but not trusting us to take the plunge. The effect is like lightning: troubling, fast, unpleasant, oddly vivid. You're relieved when it's over, but are forced to admit--a bit sheepishly, perhaps--that you respect the intensity of the event even as you hope it will, mercifully, never happen to you again.

The Island of Dr. Moreau. New Line. Marlon Brando, David Thewlis, Val Kilmer. Written by Richard Stanley and Ron Hutchinson, from the book by H.G. Wells. Directed by John Frankenheimer. Now showing.

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