By Ken Tucker
September 06, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Everett Collection

Banking — quite literally — on the all-too-sensible belief that today’s moviegoers wouldn’t know H.G. Wells from H.R. Haldeman, New Line is promoting The Island of Dr. Moreau as ”The Science Fiction Event of the Summer!” (Independence Day — that musta come out last winter or somethin’, huh?) Wells’ 100-year-old novel tells the tale of a brilliant but mad scientist who fills an island in the Pacific Ocean with botched, horrifying genetic experiments, half-human, half-animal. In presenting Moreau as a man who would be God, the 29-year-old Wells managed to anticipate subsequent debates about evolution, gene splicing, and Oliver Stone.

Director John Frankenheimer’s new updating of Moreau is surprisingly peppy — the 66-year-old Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, The Burning Season), aided by another old pro, cinematographer William Fraker, maintains a zippy pace. But Frankenheimer’s film commits a crucial error in allowing the doctor to be a lot scarier than his monsters. It’s one thing to offer us bristling, salivating hyenas, boars, and tigers with unsettlingly human faces and musculature; it’s another thing entirely to offer us a Marlon Brando coated in white powder, as if he’d just been dipped in egg and rolled around in flour.

But I get ahead of myself. Brando doesn’t make his entrance until about a half hour into Moreau. Before that, we meet David Thewlis as Edward Douglas, a shipwreck survivor rescued by Montgomery, an island doctor played by Val Kilmer. Thewlis’ Douglas is the innocent through whose goggle eyes Moreau’s appalling experiments are revealed, and no sooner has he wrung out his saltwatery clothes than he witnesses two startling things: (1) the birth of a baby monster, overseen by Moreau’s ”beast-people,” and (2) Fairuza Balk belly dancing. Balk plays Moreau’s fetchingly feline daughter, Aissa; as she proved in her debut feature, Return to Oz (1985), Balk has a knack for floating above loopy film scenarios with sloe-eyed insouciance.

Thewlis, best known as the scabrous antihero of 1993’s Naked, replaced Northern Exposure‘s Rob Morrow early on in this troubled production. Thewlis is a more expressive actor than Morrow, but the latter has a blank quality that would have better conveyed jaw-dropping fear. Thewlis’ twisty mouth and slitted gaze always give his performances an air of Johnny Rotten, and Douglas ain’t supposed to be no Sex Pistol.

By contrast, Kilmer gives his most alluring performance to date, connecting with the lost-soul despair of his character in a way he never did as Batman. Montgomery knows Moreau is a nutcase, yet he’s drawn to Moreau’s lust for control. A doctor who is now, he says, ”more of a vet,” Montgomery smokes dope and helps Moreau dominate the creatures by narcotizing them with big-needle shots.

When the beast-people rebel and start a riot, Moreau turns into a screeching, frazzled botch, but not before Brando puts the finishing touches on his character. Speaking in a voice that mixes Robert Morley with Paul Lynde, this Moreau puts a metal ice bucket on his head to beat the heat and does a jaunty Bach piano duet with a tiny beast-man played with immense gravity by the 27-inch-tall actor Nelson de la Rosa. In all fairness it must also be said that Brando doesn’t deserve a bad rap for that white makeup; it’s not a crazy whim, but strict Method acting. In the novel, Wells describes Moreau as ”a white-faced, white-haired man, with calm eyes [and] the touch almost of beauty that resulted from his set tranquility.” Substitute ”glazed” for ”calm” and you’ve got our Marlon.

He’s become such an obvious parody of himself that Frankenheimer has permitted Kilmer to do a wicked mid-movie impersonation of Brando’s character; it’s funny, but it also gives The Island of Dr. Moreau an extra layer of camp it certainly didn’t need. C+

The Island of Dr. Moreau

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • John Frankenheimer