From the opening credits where the type dances to Gary Chang's
music with a heavy percussion beat, director John Frankenheimer's THE
ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU boldly announces that it is a movie not to be
ignored. Not since SEVEN have I seen such impressive opening credits.
That the movie turned out to be as much a religious allegory as an
H. G. Wells science fiction story, I would have never guessed. I asked
several of the other critics after the press screening if they knew if
the book had the religious aspects in it, but having not read the book
in years, none of them had any idea. Personally, I have no problem
enjoying stories that are very loose adaptations of books, but still I
wondered. I love Wells, and this is the first book of his to be made
into a movie in twenty years, the last being EMPIRE OF THE ANTS.
At any rate, as soon as the credits subside, William Fraker's
cinematography makes a dramatic zoom to reveal a boat adrift in a vast
ocean. The narrator, David Thewlis playing Edward Douglas, tells us
that his plane crashed, and he has been drifting in the South Pacific
in the lifeboat for six days. You may remember British actor Thewlis
from his many recent roles including DRAGONHEART, RESTORATION, and
BLACK BEAUTY, which is still his best.
Douglas, half dead, is picked up and treated by the strange
Montgomery (Val Kilmer). When Douglas comes to, he asks Montgomery,
"Are you a doctor?" Montgomery shrugs and tells him, "Well, I more of
a vet." These turn out to be quite prophetic words.
Montgomery takes Douglas to an island where Montgomery wears a
sarong and has a flower behind his ear. He is one handsome guy in this
getup, but I still do not know why Norma Moriceau chose this costume
for Kilmer. Even stranger, but somewhat more appropriate is the all
white outfit and gloves along with the white pancake makeup that Marlon
Brando wears as Dr. Moreau.
When Douglas comes upon a birth operation on a beast that is part
human and part animal, he realizes that all of the "doctors" are also
human and animal hybrids. He begins to see animals of every type on
the island that are part human and humans on the island that are part
beast, depending on your point of view.
Douglas is confronted by Montgomery who explains to him the reason
Dr. Moreau has moved here to conduct his experiments. It seems that
"Animal rights activists drove him out of the States. Got so bad you
couldn't cut a rat without reading him his rights."
Douglas finds Dr. Moreau's daughter Aissa (Fairuza Balk)
attractive. She wants to help him escape so she takes him to an animal
conclave where the lead animal is standing on a rock serving as his
pulpit and preaching to his congregation, "We are all men, are we not
because the father has made us?" Yes, Dr. Moreau is indeed their
father and their god. By the end of the show the word father is
beginning to be replaced by the god reference.
The doctor tries to reassure Douglas that, "I have seen the devil
in my microscope, and I have changed him." He explains the ultimate
purpose of his experiments to Douglas, whose sole purpose is to ignore
the doctor and get off the island as quickly as possible. Montgomery
scoffs at Douglas when he tries to use their radio equipment. He
taunts Douglas with, "What are you going to say, 'Mayday. Mayday. I'm
being held by a pig lady.'"
I vacillated between being absolutely fascinated by this story and
wanting the animals to eat Brando and Kilmer because their acting is so
bad. Given all of the drugs used and give the look of the cast,
another title for the film could have been PLANET OF THE APES GETS
Notice too that the doctor is clearly playing the role of the
pope. The carriage he rides in, his robes, and his staff are all
straight out of the Vatican's closet. He has an electronic way to
control his wayward flock, however, that the popes have never had. As
the animals put it, "if there is no pain, there is no law."
The makeup and creature effects by Stan Winston (both TERMNATORs,
JURASSIC PARK, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, and ALIENS among many others) will
certainly win him an Academy Award nomination. They are unique and
imaginative. The creatures carry the story. The script by Walon
Green, Michael Herr, Ron Hutchinson, and Richard Stanley is quite
involving. If you like, or at least can ignore, the heavy religious
overtones, the script is quite good. It drags some in the middle but
it starts and ends strong. Director Frankenheimer and editor Paul
Rubell know how to craft a high energy presentation that most of the
time keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Without Brando THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU would have been much
better, but I liked it, flaws and all. The tacked on epilogue message
is a lame attempt to justify the religious aspects of the film. They
need no justification. You can like them or not, but the epilogue adds
nothing and is trite.
THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU runs a little over an hour and a half.
They did not have a information package available at the screening so I
am at a lost for some of the details. The film is rated PG-13. There
is no sex or nudity. The language is mild and the deaths are not very
graphic. It would be fine for most kids over say eight. I recommend
the picture to you and give ***.
Copyright © 1996 Steve Rhodes