Here be monsters
There were several reasons I had not anticipated reviewing The Island of Dr. Moreau. Not the least of these was that early word on the film wasn't exactly brimming with enthusiasm. Val Kilmer reportedly was so difficult to work with that he had the first director fired, and Marlon Brando, himself known to pitch a few fits while filming in exotic locales, in recent years has cultivated an unparalleled reputation for eccentric tastes--his decision to take the job is suspicious in itself. (Brando has long since ceased being a mere actor and entered a plateau he alone occupies, a shadowy realm where greatness and perversity crisscross and interact like strands of a DNA molecule.) Despite my own curiosity about the film, I simply couldn't imagine taking pen to paper for what promised to be the capstone to a summer of tedious blockbusters.
Then I saw the movie. As expected, it is a splashy, make-up-intensive sci-fi spectacle with little or no structure. What was unexpected is how compelling the film is, even as it fails on almost every level. I would never recommend that someone slap down six bucks to see it, but I certainly would be willing to talk about it with them if they did. The Island of Dr. Moreau may be a chaotic muddle, and not a very good one, but its ravenous, deliciously frantic energy grabs you and only loses its grip when it runs out of sick little corners of your mind to take you to.
The story, based on the book by H.G. Wells, hasn't changed much from its two earlier cinematic incarnations--once in the '30s with Charles Laughton, and then about 20 years ago with Burt Lancaster. It concerns a reclusive scientific genius named Moreau (Brando), who isolates himself on a South Pacific island where he dedicates his life to creating a private utopia. In addition to surrounding himself with the trappings of fine culture (a classical library, a conservatory), he genetically re-engineers the animal inhabitants of the island in order to create a race of docile, innocent humanimals--citizens for his private colony of freaks.
If one thing sets apart the character of Dr. Moreau from other literary scientists, it is that he isn't a madman in the tradition of bug-eyed cackling villains. He's much closer in spirit to a misguided philanthropist, one with so tenuous an understanding of the true nature of mankind that the world it creates has the startling arbitrariness of life in a madhouse. What's alluring about his story also makes it frightening--the rabid unpredictability of the fruits of his experimentation.
It seems fitting, then, that the first big scene in The Island of Dr. Moreau should be as Edward Douglas (David Thewlis), the lone survivor of a plane crash, struggles with dehydration and dementia, grasping to hold on to reality. The movie kick-starts itself with the same abrupt seizures in mood; it keeps the audience off-balance by approximating the disorienting craziness of a fever dream. Even the opening credit sequence scores as the best tone-setting device in any movie since Seven. With the murky photography, suggestive noises, and cryptic situations of classic Gothic mystery, The Island of Dr. Moreau passes muster as a mere entertainment during its first hour, if only by signaling that the audience drops its guard at its own peril.
Toward that end, director John Frankenheimer pours all of his energies into conceiving of the island as a carnival of Darwinism set on its head, where the pitchfork-wielding devils and satyrs from Hieronymus Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights" are lorded over by a benevolently foolish scientist they all call--with no lack of irony--"Father." Unfortunately, unlike some low-budget independents (Brain Dead springs to mind), The Island of Dr. Moreau can't commit to its state of utter confused lunacy, and the bargain that could have been struck between filmmaker and audience falls apart. By insistently adhering to an identifiable but goofy plot, The Island of Dr. Moreau takes its only truly valuable attribute--its horrific madness--and sacrifices it on the altar of complacency.
Such a result might have been inevitable. The movie simply can't maintain, as it must, a constant parade of interesting side show freaks, because eventually none of the latex and computer-generated mutants can come close to competing with the spectacle of Brando himself. Brando is undeniably one of the most gifted film actors who ever lived, and in his youth he set his own standards playing the original bad boy--the rebel we knew was trouble but couldn't resist anyway. At the height of his command of the medium, in A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando's musky, carnal sexuality was blisteringly intense--enough, I admit, to make a man want to switch. Remembering that image of him makes this lampoon of a performance both shocking and fun. With his batik headbands and pasty white make-up, he's doing an impersonation of a prissy English dowager who's equal parts Emperor Nero and Colonel Kurtz. His performance is merely the most obvious example of the primal kookiness that gives The Island of Dr. Moreau its singular jolt of immediacy--in fact, his tongue-in-cheek parody is one of the film's few redeeming elements.
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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