The Island of Doctor Moreau, Director’s Cut, (John Frankenheimer, USA, 1996)

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A legendarily troubled production, which would make a good case study of the excesses of 1990s cinema. Bruce Willis was supposed to play Edward Pendrick, the UN negotiator who survived a plane crash, is rescued by Dr. Montgomery (originally meant for James Woods) and lands in a land of animal experiments where Doctor Moreau (Marlon Brando) plays God with his new creations. But he had to bow out because Demi Moore was divorcing him. He was replaced by Val Kilmer, who was then served with divorce papers by Joanne Walley, which rendered him unavailable to shoot all the scenes necessary for Pendrick and thus he switched roles to Doctor Montgomery. Brando only shot 40 percent of the scenes he was meant to and refused to learn his lines, which had to be fed to him via an earpiece, which also caught the police radio call outs and which according to David Thelwis often resulted in Brando saying lines like ‘Shootout at Woolworths! ‘All this and more after the original director Richard Stanley was replaced by John Frankenheimer. In other words, it’s a mess.

That said, its themes, individual will and responsibility, the existence of God, nature versus nurture, the value of life, and all the other themes H.G. Wells initially dramatised are still evident in the film, in however messy a manner, and mostly intriguingly filmed. David Thewlis, who ended up playing Pendrick is excellent, as is Fairuza Balk as Aissa, the cat-hybrid who is in the process of regressing to her original nature (and who deserved a better end from the filmmakers: it’s almost like her character, and what she represents, is thrown away near the end).

Marlon Brando only makes his entrance 30 minutes into the film, in a type of Pope-mobile, looking not unlike Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, encased in a series of increasingly loud kaftans that cannot hide his mountainous baulk, and camping it up outrageously. Later in the film Kilmer will do a pale imitation that will not erase one iota of the joy of the original. A very messy film, structurally skewed, and thematically inconsistent that none the less looks and moves engagingly. I liked it very much and it’s worth seeing for Brando alone.

 

José Arroyo

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