(director: John Frankenheimer; screenwriters: from the novel by H.G. Wells/Richard Stanley/Ron Hutchinson; cinematographer: William A. Fraker; editor: Paul Rubell; music: Gary Chang; cast: Marlon Brando (Dr. Moreau), Val Kilmer (Montgomery), David Thewlis (Edward Douglas), Fairuza Balk (Aissa), Ron Pearlman (Sayer of the Law), Marco Hofschneider (M’Ling), Peter Elliott (Assassimon), Temuera Morrison (Azazello); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Edward R. Pressman; New Line Cinema; 1996)

“Muddled effort.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

After one day of filming director-writer Richard Stanley was canned and John Frankenheimer replaced him as director, while Ron Hutchinson reworked the screenplay. This is the third version of H.G. Wells’ 1896 sci-fi horror novel (Charles Laughton in Island of Lost Souls -1933 and Burt Lancaster in The Island of Dr. Moreau -1977). It’s destroyed by the patchwork script, unworthy over-the-top performances from Marlon Brando (ruining any serious attempt made by playing his mad scientist role strictly for laughs) and Val Kilmer (in a lazy wannabe Brando-like eccentric performance), and an incoherent and clunky narrative constructed around an ineffective voiceover by David Thewlis (cast as the film’s innocent hero survivor, who records his eyewitness report on the mad scientist’s experimental island). Too many failed scenes overwhelm the few good scenes. Makeup maven Stan Winston’s designed mutant creatures (half-human, half-animal) look ludicrous, as if they were competing for the Freak of the Year award with the silly scene stealing leads.

After a plane crash-lands over the Java Sea, sole survivor Edward Douglas (David Thewlis), a U.N. negotiator, is rescued by the demented neuro-surgeon Montgomery (Val Kilmer), an assistant to former Nobel Prize-winning scientist Dr. Moreau (Marlon Brando). Montgomery takes Douglas to the remote South Pacific tropical island where Moreau for the last 17 years has secretly worked on experiments fusing the genes of animals with humans. When the astonished Douglas gets a look at the strange mutant creatures, he’s aghast and morally outraged. The imprisoned castaway befriends Moreau’s gentle feline daughter Aissa (Fairuza Balk), and gets an audience with the great scientist who has gone ape in this freaky setting. In the film’s most chilling and inspired moment, Brando emoting like he was a queen, with his face covered in a protective cream while sporting an absurdly loud colored bandana, delivers a speech explaining to his bewildered visitor about the Devil: “I have seen the Devil in my microscope, and I chained and cut him.” In another odd scene, calling attention to Brando’s benevolent dictator scientist character, he wears what seems like a bucket attached to his head. The central plot involves a rebellion by these failed experimental human-animal beasts, whose leader removes his implant and overpowers the compound with help from the other creatures.

It’s played as a mixture of campy silliness and a spirited attempt to get at what Wells had in mind when he wrote this visionary tale. That it succeeds in neither aim doesn’t mean that the film didn’t have some saving graces, but overall it’s a muddled effort done in by too much nonsense.

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)