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Remembering The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)




Remembering The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)


By Dan McDowell


Sometime in 1997, in a small North Texas town, I recall going into a mom and pop video store with my grandmother. We combed through the aisles perusing title after title before ultimately landing on what might well have been the strangest film I’d ever seen, the fated… the challenged… the unforgettable… The Island of Dr. Moreau— an adaptation of HG Wells’ classic novel released 100 years earlier. 


Now, before I go any further, I don’t recall hearing a lot of commentary or knowing about the film at the time, but the title and cover intrigued me and that was enough. I was eight, but if memory serves correctly, we got home, ate dinner, and popped the video cassette in. My grandparents quickly lost interest but I prevailed. To describe the genre of such a film, I don’t know that one could call it horror, science fiction, or even bad drama; it was certainly in its own niche. And though, I don’t think I’ve seen it since 1997, earlier this year, I obtained a Blu-ray release of the fabled Director’s cut.


Normally, I would move on to giving a synopsis of the film, but at this point, I think the word director might be a trigger word when it relates to this nightmarish fever dream of a production. Richard Stanley, a relatively unknown South African cult film horror director, developed the project’s screenplay and took it to New Line Cinema where he also landed his first major gig in the director’s chair. Stanley’s offbeat approach up to that point in the small-market horror genre garnered him some appeal, also positioning New Line to produce a top notch blockbuster and a big breakthrough release of what Stanley himself referenced as a passion project, of which he invested many funds upfront. Through a persuasive and intensive process that went as far as hiring a warlock, Stanley recruited eccentric veteran actor and legend, Marlon Brando to play Dr. Moreau, carrying the film’s process, development, and starpower to new heights. Even Bruce Willis and James Woods had come on board. The deck was set. One of 1996’s biggest movies was slated for production!


Brando. Willis. Woods. Movie monster expert Stan Winston. 40 million bucks. The Australian outback. What could go wrong?


Apparently... just about everything. And unfortunately when one screens this film after digesting the laundry list of failures, miscues, and blunders that happened along the way, an important lesson in clashing personalities, pride, and pretentiousness, takes center stage, on a roller coaster ride certainly ill-fated from its start.


The journey begins… and then… just before filming, Richard Stanley’s dream sets course for doomsday.


Where to begin… A hurricane hits the coastline destroying much of the set. The director’s mother’s home is struck by lightning... more than once. The warlock Stanley utilized contracts a degenerative bone disease. A poisonous spider bites a production assistant and she's hospitalized for weeks. The horror strikes early.


Then, the lead actor backs out. Rising star, Bruce Willis, was in the height of a divorce with actress, Demi Moore. With the emotions and complications that went along with that, he backed out of the project. Never to fear, the execs at New Line had a backup plan. Val Kilmer of Tombstone, and the 1995 comic book hit, Batman Forever, was brought in against the wishes of Stanley and Brando, and thus begins such an ugly list of buffooneries, one might best be suited to stop the review right now while they're still ahead. The handsome Kilmer would take the lead role vacated by Willis on the condition he only performed sixty percent of what was scripted for a higher price. James Woods was cut from the film to save cost. The studio opted to move Kilmer into the smaller role of Dr. Moreau’s lab assistant, Montgomery, and hire a more affordable choice.


Rob Morrow of the beloved 90s American TV hit, Northern Exposure, was recast as the story’s protagonist, but quickly backed out, begging his agent for an escape after discovering "many monstrosities" early in the shoot. (Between you and me, I’d like to see some of that footage from the cutting room floor.) On the back end of a clause in his contract, Morrow was granted release from the film and never returned. UK Actor, David Thewlis, was brought in to take over the part of the main character, Edward Douglas.


Further calamity ensued with the sudden death of Marlon Brando’s daughter early into filming. The actor disappeared from the set without notice and was largely absent on days when he was scheduled to film key scenes, until he later showed up with such a bizarre list of caveats, one could only think whatever slice of sanity the eccentric virtuoso had left departed with his tragic loss. He reportedly spent the bulk of his time on set in his trailer refusing to connect with cast and crew, eating pizzas by the dozen, failing to learn or rehearse his lines, and creating his own costumes and creative ad libs, one of which featured a metal ice bucket that he refused to remove from his head in order to stay cool. The extreme heat of the region, it’ll really get to you!


In the spirit of collecting more personal problems, Val Kilmer found out via TV interview that his wife had filed for divorce and this took its toll on everyone. Director and screenwriter, Richard Stanley was yanked from the project by New Line and fired by fax when they got word that the film was out of his league, the actors were ornery, and the set was out of control. It is said the tore all of his production notes to shreds, ran away from the set, and disappeared in the jungle, but later returned hiding in costume as an extra to oversee and participate in the film pro bono. Seasoned filmmaker, John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) was brought in to pick up the project bankrolling a three film deal from New Line. The company hoped Frankenheimer’s reputation of cleaning up failed productions through the years would prove useful here.


Now that the terribly wobbly stage is set, let’s get on with the actual film. An adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau was not impossible to execute. It had been done in 1933, and again in 1977. One would hope the power of technology, fast paced editing, and a modern sensibility to the story’s premise would lend a hand to a proper remake. Let's see where we go from here.


Synopsis


A remarkably hip introduction leads us in with a mysterious soundtrack and fast moving flashes— cutting edge DNA splicing, quick shots of moving sky, floating eyeballs, Twin Peaks-esque runs through the woods, and an amazing credit sequence, almost in line with television shows and movies of the 2020s era. The story begins in 2010, somewhere in the Java Sea. Our protagonist, Edward Douglas (Thewlis), is seen on a raft where he describes being a survivor of a plane crash in the Southern Pacific. Two others have also survived. After 6 or 7 days lost at sea, a sunkissed sort of madness and hunger leads the other men to their demise at the hands of infighting and a shark, leaving only Douglas to remain. Nearing his own breaking point, Douglas severs his ties with the men expiring in the bloody ocean, even resorting to push them under in their dying breaths. He collapses. Some time later, dehydrated and disoriented, a boat stumbles upon him and he’s rescued by Montgomery (Kilmer).


Douglas awakens somewhere in the heart of a mid-sized vessel, the Ombak Penari. His world seems off kilter as he witnesses Montgomery declaring that he’s the only survivor and that they’ll soon arrive to their destination. Douglas later states he was headed to Jakarta before his plane went down and was working on an assignment for the United Nations—more specifically a peace settlement. When he’s questioned about the bloody raft, he lies and says he was the only survivor—an interesting foreshadowing in the making. Montgomery tells Douglas he’ll have him taken by boat to a safe haven after he’s dropped off at his “little island,” and then starts injecting him in the arm to cure the pain with what he calls “a little Jimi Hendrix.” When Douglas asks if he’s a doctor, Montgomery describes himself more like a vet. Douglas drifts to sleep, and a nice aerial shot showcases Moreau’s island. As they arrive, Montgomery tells Douglas he’ll have to get off the boat and stay on the island while they radio in for more help.


Approaching the shoreline, Montgomery pushes a cart of caged rabbits. A mysterious comment is made about the islanders and the two men drive across the island in a jeep. Montgomery loves on the rabbit a moment and then snaps its neck as the rabbit goes limp. He mentions that meat-eating is not acceptable on the island but Dr. Moreau will make an exception for a special guest. The men enter a fenced in camp and civilization that appears a mixture of primitive and modern, appropriate for the locale. Douglas makes note of the advanced communication equipment, and Montgomery admits it’s broken and that he’s the only one that can repair it. As Montgomery takes Douglas into the main house, he dictates his expectations (it almost seems a jab at the fated production).


I’m gonna have to ask you to restrict your movements to the main house. The people who fund this project are afraid your gonna sprain an ankle and sue us.”


Both men smirk in such a way that one can only wonder what else had gone wrong behind the scenes.  To which, Douglas replies, “It’s a litigious world.”


The main house is an interesting place. The first room is full of all kinds of mementos that make you want to pause the film and study the elaborate and colorful details. We get intriguing glimpses and even discover that Doctor Moreau received a Nobel Prize for Genetic Manipulation in 1989.


Shortly thereafter, Douglas spots an attractive woman outside the window dancing and eerily makes his way out to watch while she continues a rather seductive number not realizing he’s there watching. Immediately embarrassed, the woman, later introduced as Aissa (Fairuza Balk) stops and Douglas reassures her he’s not a threat (just a creep). Her origin is established when she tells Douglas she’s native to the island and that her father is Dr. Moreau. The two continue to dialogue before they realize lab assistant, Montgomery, is eavesdropping on the conversation which appears to visibly trouble Aissa before she runs away, hinting at an odd dynamic between the two.


Montgomery and Douglas head upstairs where he’ll be staying on the island and further dialogue on Moreau reveals the doctor's mysterious disappearance and Douglas’ misconception that he’s dead, to which, Montgomery corrects, “he’s still working.” When questioned what Moreau won the Nobel prize for, Montgomery jokes that Moreau “invented Velcro” and has been on the island seventeen years, becoming obsessed with animal research— Animal rights activists having driven him away from the US.


Montgomery tells Douglas he’s been helping Moreau on the island the past ten years. As they make their way into the quarters assigned to Douglas, he asks Montgomery to let him know when the comms equipment is repaired so he can get on with his mission for the UN. Unresponsive to the query, Montgomery walks out and locks Douglas in the room. Rather quickly, Douglas frantically tries to get out and Montgomery pops a blind open telling him he’s locked the door “for your own good,” before abruptly walking away. It nearly feels comedic.


Walled in and locked up, Douglas becomes fixated with getting out and eventually jimmies his way through a lock. Coming down the stairs, Douglas hears classical Bach music playing loudly down the hallway and heads toward it. The darkened corridor adds to the mystery. He peeks around a corner and sees an older man from behind reacting and singing to the music, Dr. Moreau. Rather than an untimely introduction, an animal sounding scream in the distance gets Douglas’ attention and he moves closer to its origin. Aissa is shown spotting him. He traipses across to another building not in the main house and enters a room with silver walls and mysterious lightswitches. He spots animals in cages and then down the hall a room full of medical personnel performing a surgery. Bizarre looking animal/human hybrid babies are seen floating in jars as Douglas moves closer. Noting what first appears a woman giving birth, her features tell us she’s likely a hybrid type of creature, perhaps a success story of Dr. Moreau’s genetic research. He’s a Nobel prize winner after all!  As the baby is delivered, it’s apparent that it’s not human and Douglas is expectedly mortified. One of the doctors removes his mask. He's another half man, Neanderthal-like creature like the woman! Douglas runs from the facility and discovers additional hybrid creatures waiting outside that seem as startled by him as he is by them.


Aissa stumbles across Douglas offering to get him off the island if he promises not to do or say anything that will hurt her father.


Montgomery taunts from afar, “There’s a lot of unstable phenomenon out there.” 


Racing through the jungle and into the wee morning hours, Aissa and Douglas make their way toward a boat dock before they’re spotted by a jeep of Cro-Magnon Neanderthal hybrids racing toward them with primitive spear like objects. They race away as the creatures jump out and chase behind. Making their way to a pristine waterfall and river, Aissa and Douglas catch their breath until another bizarre apelike creature, Lo-Mai, spots them. They continue to run; discovering a dismembered rabbit and Aissa is disgusted. They run into the creature, Assassimon, in the woods and Douglas is introduced by Aissa as a “five finger man… like you.” Assassimon validates Douglas’ hands and seems accepting a moment before going into a momentary tirade. Aissa propositions that Assassimon take them to the Sayer of the Law. They go across the island stumbling across a World War II era military camp where more of the hybrid creatures similar to Assassimon live seemingly segregated away from Moreau's main house. Creatures surround Aissa and Douglas and while Douglas is disgusted, Aissa remains remarkably calm. A voice is overheard. They come down an elevator and discover a church like setting where a creature delivers a message from the pulpit.


“The punishment to those who break the law is terrible. None escaped. It is a hard way, being a man. Sooner or later, we all want a thing that is bad… to walk on all fours… to suck up drink from a stream… to jabber instead of saying the words… to go snuffling at the earth and claw the bark of trees… to eat flesh or fish… to make love to more than one… every which way. These are all bad things… These are not the things that men do. We are men, are we not? We are men, because our father has made us men.”


Aissa interrupts, and we determine the speaker is the Sayer of the Law. She describes Douglas as “another five man who’s come to know the law and wisdom.” The Sayer of the Law is intrigued as he examines Douglas. He wants to know if the Father sent him. Aissa admits that “the other five man,” Montgomery, is looking for them. A horn blows in the distance and the creatures surrounding begin to shriek, “The Father… the father!”


A peculiar close up of a pale sunblock covers Dr. Moreau (Brando) in sunglasses and a sun hat gives us our first gander before he’s shown riding in a jeep inside a mosquito screen, many of his hybrid minions accompanying him at either side and driving him around. The anticipation builds as Moreau does bizarre hand motions like a musical conductor. Montgomery rides along in the convoy. He pulls a gun on Douglas and he’s captured and presented to Moreau. Moreau orders Montgomery to release Douglas and strangely tells Montgomery to give the gun to the captured Douglas. Montgomery’s stunned. Douglas takes the gun and fires it in the air. The creatures that surround seem unfamiliar with the gun and are startled by its power. Douglas aims the gun at Moreau. Moreau daintily waves his hands, “No, no.” Aissa jumps in front of her father to calm Douglas. Moreau warns Douglas not to confuse the hybrids with the gun. In hopes of taking control of the ensuing chaos, Dr. Moreau pushes a button and zaps all the creatures into torture as they frantically shake on the ground. Moreau complains of the heat and the sun and what it’s doing to him and all life on earth.


Douglas and Moreau return to the main house where the latter’s sunscreen is removed. Moreau presents his hybrid half-breed children, Waggoi, Azzazello, M’Ling, Aissa, and Majai. Majai, a very small hybrid, approaches Douglas and extends his hand. Douglas wigs out. Moreau reassures Douglas not to worry. That he can shake the small creature’s hand. They do so.


Douglas then goes ballistic. “This is the most outrageous spectacle I have ever witnessed! Look at yourself!”


Moreau furthers his position, stating he has an allergy to the sun and why he has to wear sunscreen which he describes as medication.


The clever writer’s had fun with the next line. Moreau declares, “I don’t have the intellectual ability to condense 17 years of study and experiment into 17 minutes of explanation. For the moment, it will have to suffice to say that the people you have witnessed before are animals that have been fused with human genes in the course of a series of scientific studies designed by myself.”


Douglas comes back, “Well, has it ever occurred to you that you might have totally lost your mind? I mean, this is just Satanic.”


Moreau… “Judge not, Mr. Douglas, that ye be not judged, for by these judgments shall ye also be judged and let he who hath not sinned cast the first stone.”


Douglas… “There is no peace saith the Lord unto the wicked.”


Moreau tries to flip the script on Douglas getting him to agree to convene for dinner at 8 o’clock when Mr. Douglas can get into a state of mind that is “slightly more receptive.”

 

Moreau plays a Chopin number on a piano with the miniature Majai in a matching costume. Douglas observes from outside and is caught by Aissa who seems shy in the moment.


As Moreau and his children sit down for dinner with Douglas, M’Ling reads a dramatic prose,


“20 centuries of stony sleep were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.”


Moreau toasts to health and questions Douglas if the devil is still pursuing him. The shot cuts away to reveal that Montgomery is also present at the dinner.


Moreau reflects, “The devil is that element in human nature that impels us to destroy and debase.”


He further states, he's "been working to refine the human species…" and that in the process of seventeen years of study, he has found the very essence of the devil… that he’s seen the devil in his microscope and chained him… that he’s metaphorically cut him to pieces… the devil is nothing more than a tiresome collection of genes… and most importantly, Lucifer, the son of morning, is no more…


Douglas retorts, “I don’t see how any of this specious nonsense justifies these monstrous disfigurements.”


Moreau… “They represent a stage in the process... the eradication of destructive elements found in the human psyche… I have almost achieved perfection… of a divine creature that is pure, harmonious, absolutely incapable of malice. If in my tinkering I have fallen short of the human form, by the odd snout or claw, it really is of no import. I am closer than you can possibly imagine, Sir.”


Azzazello delivers rabbit for dinner to Montgomery and Moreau and his children are disgusted. He goes into panic asking who is responsible. Mr. Montgomery is identified and Moreau dismisses all the children to go and wash their hands and to remove the meat, further stating that Mr. Montgomery’s amusement is inappropriate. It’s revealed that only Douglas saw Montgomery kill the rabbit. There's nothing to worry about. Aissa disagrees, informing Moreau that Lo-Mai has also killed a rabbit in the jungle. Moreau plans for a trial the next morning.


 In an interesting cinematic recycling of the intro segment, Douglas has an awful nightmare through Lo-Mai’s point of view in anticipation. Early the next morning, he runs down the dock, climbing onto a boat to try and escape. He falls down screaming as another creature stirs on the vessel. Before he can start the boat, he’s attacked. He lifts a cage and discovers another set of strange hybrid creatures on the boat that begin to attack. The scene ends fading to the next morning, the Sayer of the Law is chanting…


Not to kill for pleasure… not to kill for hatred… not to kill anything, anytime, that is the law… None shall escape… Evil is he who breaks the law.”


Lo-Mai is confronted and instead of accepting his responsibility he goes ballistic and attempts to kill Moreau before he is zapped by Moreau.


Moreau says, “I forgive you, my son…” and then turns to the other creatures as if to allow the planned execution to slide, letting the public humiliation be enough, “Lo Mai has broken the law, he killed a living thing.”


Moreau’s son, Azzazello, shoots Lo-Mai and kills him. In shock, Moreau and the Sayer of the Law are speechless asking about the origin of the gun. Douglas, the sudden resident expert chimes in, “The law is not to kill for any reason.”


Moreau maintains his dignity in the moment, and asks that Lo-Mai’s body is shown with respect. The creatures burn Lo Mai.


Douglas explores the island, working to fix the comms unit, going crazy and likely damaging it.


Azzazello begins to like the taste of killing, pitting him against the will of his father, Dr. Moreau.


Hyena-Swine locates and sees that Lo Mai’s body was not treated with respect which greatly angers and disappoints him. This quickly changes when he locates the surviving implant chip that causes the creatures to be electrocuted by Moreau and it infuriates him.


Moreau’s in the lab studying a microscope. Montgomery, now described as a former, brilliant neurosurgeon has been reduced to the beast people’s jailer. The two men are reviewing something in the microscope. Moreau declares they’ll have to increase the dosage to be effective.


In an effort to perfect Moreau’s children or creatures or whatever they are, Montgomery inoculates each with a combination of endorphins and hormones to keep them from retrogressing. Douglas asks the million dollar question, what do they retrogress into?


Montgomery’s description… “It isn’t pretty.”


Douglas acknowledges the creatures being in a chipper mood, and that’s when Montgomery takes credit for that. “That’s my contribution… I added some methamphetamine, some morphine, some ‘shrooms, and some other stuff… keeps them mellow… and keeps them coming back for more.”


Hyena-Swine, with his new found perspective of Moreau’s double standard doesn’t want to be inoculated. Montgomery approaches. Montgomery orders him to “come,” treating him more like an animal than the equals that Moreau leads them to believe they are, and further hinting at Montgomery’s growing prejudice toward them. Hyena-Swine presents the implant chip Moreau uses to shock the creatures into submission, saying, “Pain no more!”


Montgomery grows concerned of the aftermath of an implantless creature.  The estranged Azzazello is sent on a hunt to retrieve Hyena-Swine. They chase him down the coastline but he isn’t captured.


The affable M’Ling works to communicate with the outside with Douglas but has no success. It’s revealed that Montgomery’s removed the comms modem and strangely has it attached to his head. He runs M’Ling off making an off color remark and then comes in to harass and taunts Douglas that he’s going nowhere. He later informs that Aissa is not like them (he and Douglas), and that she’s very delicate like the others and needs her shots too. If she leaves the island without them, she won’t be able to survive. Montgomery teases Douglas, “there’s so much you don’t understand…” then offering a drag of what can be assumed is a drug… “Here smoke this… maybe you’ll start.”


A dejected and emotionless Douglas takes a drag and Montgomery reminds… “There is no way off the island.” When Douglas questions why he was brought to the island, Montgomery changes the subject that he can’t find Hyena-Swine and they need to before it’s too late.


Aissa stumbles across her buckethead for a father, Dr. Moreau, which the crew graciously adorned with a wrap of some kind to make it look less buckety. Speaking of the island’s heat, he says, “I cannot bear it… the longer that I’m here the worse it gets.” Nice try, Brando. But actually you are the redeeming piece of this film, if for nothing else, the sheer entertainment in a scene like this one. Moreau declares his caloric converter is empty and prompts Aissa to refill it to which she pours a liquid in. Aissa then massages his shoulders until he alerts her that she is too strong and should stop. She tells Moreau she is changing and reveals her teeth to be getting sharper and her looks are changing. A close up of Brando’s hand shows a note about his “caloric converter” while he’s looking at her (I suppose this is a camera goof.). She says she feels hideous while Moreau reassures her she is “beautiful inside and beautiful outside… an extraordinary creature... The small things are a question of chemical imbalance.”


Aissa says, “I want to be like you!”


“I hope not!” he replies jovially. “I mean, how would you look if you were like me? Heh-heh.” In the scene, Brando’s obnoxious ice bucket getup resembles a beached whale which makes the moment all the more comical in what should have been a serious scene.


Hyena-Swine breaks into the main house with a few others. Spotting a number of hybrid creature skulls mounted liked taxidermy; he’s agitated with the display and further identifies the class system with which Moreau and Montgomery live. A harsh piano note gets his attention as others creatures encircle it. The lights come on and Moreau comes out eating a plate of cookies (biscuits). He tells the creatures their playing reminds him of Schoenberg. He sits down to play some “tone music” for the creatures and then Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” He sees blood dripping from Hyena-Swine but ignores it.


Hyena-Swine asks, “What am I?”

Moreau… “You are my children. You are all my children.”

He works to calm the creatures down and move them across the room.

Hyena-Swine asks, “Why you make the pain if we are your children?”

Moreau… “You are my children… but law is necessary.”

Hyena-Swine… “If there is no more pain… Then… is there no more law?”

“There is always law,” Moreau replies, pressing the button to shock the implant. Hyena-Swine doesn’t react, he’s lost his implant.


“Pain no more!” Hyena-Swine declares. The creatures circle around Moreau prepping to pounce.


“To walk on all fours that is the law… to slurp up our drink that is the law… we are not men. To eat flesh and fish anytime, that is the law! Now, I am the law.” He leaps down and the creatures all feast upon Moreau chomping him to bits. “None shall escape… that is the law!” Hyena-Swine yells.


A bit later, Douglas shoots at the creatures and they run away while he observes the remnants of Moreau. He runs into Aissa and they burn Moreau’s body with his closest children nearby. Meanwhile, Montgomery channels his path to madness smoking and reminiscing on his experiences.


“Is there still law?” one of the children asks.


“How can there be law without the father?”


“He hasn’t left us. That is what we’ll tell the other. His spirt is watching over us. We must wait for a sign.”


Douglas stumbles his way to the site and encounters Aissa in a vulnerable moment. “Were it not for you… I would say your father had failed… terribly… but you’re not the same as them… nor are you the same as me. You are something far, far finer.”


As her appearance continues to animalize, her teeth growing sharper, and so on, she admits it’s a process and she’s changing. Asking for help, she states she needs a serum to stop the regression. In hopes of finding serum to help Aissa, Douglas goes in the main house finding it mostly ransacked.


It’s at this point of the film that much of whatever coherence it has built disappears. Montgomery begins impersonating Moreau in the intercom reading Scripture and mumbling and cackling rather incoherently. The camera pans to him and he’s dressed up with the sunscreen, Moreau’s white cloak, and with large pillow padding around him to mimic Moreau’s exceptional waistline.


Douglas tells Montgomery he’s had enough and needs the serum for Aissa. He goes ballistic as the two men get nose to nose in a laughably brief action sequence.

Montgomery jokes more philosophically than his stoned state should allow, “Who’s the animal? We can reason through this together.”


With a gun to Montgomery’s head, Douglas demands the serum. Montgomery again imitates Moreau, “I destroyed the serum… all of it,” and he walks away, his exaggerated pillow guts dropping to the floor.


Rather than drag out the cumbersome third act with description, I’ll say this, most of the film’s remaining  budget was clearly spent on the effects and a deus ex machina sort of ending that says set the island on fire and let the guns ablaze. The production crew must have abandoned ship and let the creatures take over under the influence. Moreau’s loyalists begin to clash with the defectors. Hyena-Swine begins zapping the ones that still have the chip as the new god (succeeding Moreau). In exchange for more fire that kills, Hyena-Swine offers to remove the defecting Azazello’s chip.


“We are not men… that is the law!” Hyena Swine declares.


Hyena-Swine removes Azazello’s implant aggressively instructing the creatures to burn the island.


Douglas is in the lab hunting for a solution the serum while the island burns, the dock is destroyed and a docked boat explodes.


“None shall escape,” Hyena Swine yells.


In perhaps the film’s strangest segment, Montgomery comes down the elevator on a throne of sorts trying to imitate Moreau while building rapport with the creatures and distributing drugs or medicine haphazardly. It’s very odd and jarring and does not well explain Montgomery’s intent, but perhaps, the idea was that he would succeed him as “god of the island.”


Douglas is in the lab and finds a vial marked with his own blood. He finds a file with his enzymic breakdowns and genetic protein readouts, and flips through it, discovering he’s been more tested upon than he realized.



A cutaway reveals Montgomery quoting a joke about a dog barking in Sherlock Holmes before laughing manically to the sky and the surrounding creatures. He shares a martini with a creature and kisses Azzazello. His historic final lines are slurred,


“Well, things didn’t work out. Moreau wanted to turn animals into humans, and humans into gods. But its instinct and reason. Instinct and reason. What’s instinct to a dog?”


Azzazello… “To hunt… to kill, master.


“I want to go to dog heaven,” Montgomery utters stupidly. Azzazello shoots him and Hyena Swine unloads all the pistol’s remaining shells into him.


“Now we are men!” Hyena Swine yells.


Aissa finds Douglas and they embrace a while. Douglas comments on his fate, deducing that his humanity was being tested upon to keep Aissa vital… “Closer to his goal than I could possibly imagine… I was led to believe he saved my life… when in fact, all the time, he intended to take it. He intended to uh… use me… use my DNA to stop your regression…” He admits to Aissa that Montgomery’s gone insane and destroyed all the serum.


I think it’s here that there’s a political message about the power of guns in the wrong hands which might be a Frankenheimer add to the film. It’s that stark contrast of the primitive spears the creatures once carried compared to the modern far more powerful technology of guns, further solidifying the island’s confusion between embracing the primitive and the advanced.


Aissa lets the imprisoned creatures out of the surgical room shown at the beginning of the film and Hyena-Swine drives around shooting at explosive canisters and setting fire to everything he can in a military jeep. His language gets less and less intelligible as the film moves toward its ending. Machine guns firing hundreds of rounds and destroying as much as possible.


Aissa and Douglas find their way to what’s left of Montgomery and Azzazello enters the room with a gun. He calls Aissa, “Little Kitten,” ordering other creatures hiding in the room to “fetch”. Aissa turns into a cat hybrid fighting until her ultimate demise.

With the remaining areas in flames, Hyena-Swine declares, “I am the law,” gunning down Azzazello and instructing Douglas to tell them he is god while he zaps the others with the implant chips. Meanwhile, another creature goes on a tirade with a machine gun.


Douglas confronts Hyena-Swine with the question, “Who is the new father? Who is god number one? Who should they obey? You see, there must be a god number one. Right?”


Hyena-Swine contemplates a moment but seems fixed on getting what he wants. Eventually relenting, Douglas calls Hyena-Swine a god against the request of the other Moreau supporting creatures but refuses to call him “the Father.” More gunshots are fired and another major explosion blows up the main house and surrounding areas. With a machine gun aimed at Hyena-Swine, the Moreau loyalists beat Hyena-Swine to a pulp as he lets flames engulf him yelling out with a sort of Savior complex, “Father, why? Why?!”


As daylight encroaches, Douglas preps to leave the simmering island and the surviving creatures beg him to stay. He promises to come back saying there must be doctors or scientists who might understand what Moreau was trying to do… to reverse their regression.


The Sayer of the Law says, “No more scientists. No more serum. Laboratories. No more experiments. I thought you’d be able to understand that. We have to be what we are. Not what the Father tried to make us.” The creatures look at him sadly, “To go on two legs is very hard. Perhaps four is better anyway.”


There’s a tender moment here as Douglas drifts away on a makeshift raft narrating about his own kind, cutting to chilling newscast footage of turmoil and civil unrest in another of Frankenheimer’s outspoken political statements. The idea that mankind is not so dissimilar to Moreau’s beast people, that the animal surges up within and we’re neither wholly animal, nor wholly man, but instead a combination of both, and as unstable as anything Moreau created.


“I go in fear,” Douglas declares as the film fades to black.


Further Analysis and Commentary


I suppose there is a point in time where such an analysis may not prove useful to many, but for me, it’s an exercise in discipline. A hope to peel back misunderstood or mispresented layers of a long lost creative vision addled with curses that could not be broken. Let’s rehash what worked, what didn’t, and why.


The movie gets kudos on style. For the mid-90s, much of the appeal, the set design and detail, and the ways it piqued my interest as they explored the mysterious island left me wanting to understand more of what I was seeing and why. There were moments of exposition in the film discussing the island’s history through the years, and I suppose that helped to close a few gaps, but there were also buildings and areas that remained unexplored or underexplored and considering the elaborate details in the ones that were, I’d like to see what else didn’t make the final cut.


The isolation of the island adds an ominous layer of horror which the director explores at numerous times in parallel with its source material. The reality that one be stranded on an island with madmen and genetically modified half-ape, half-human hybrids is troubling, leaving one to ponder how quickly they’d go down their own path to madness under the same circumstances.


The many themes explored and the distinctive fine line between right and wrong are often on the nose, and I think that it actually works at times in this type of movie. I just think the bloat and explosive finish to the film overshadowed the real potential it might have been, and this perhaps is where the project most derailed from a storytelling perspective.

Another critique, and I’m no stranger to this, I found a number of times that reactions to situations were bizarre (even considering my appreciation for the offbeat), but I’m willing to allow that considering the confines of such an outrageous plot.


Walking a mile in the shoes of the cast and crew, work must have been confusing, overwhelming, and aggravating. I also hear that it was miserably hot and that the top billed actors (namely Kilmer and Brando) would leave the rest of the cast and crew waiting for hours before they showed up to do scenes with virtually no rehearsal.


Stan Winston’s creature effects are impressive and often seem ahead of their time, but there were a few moments where the CGI looked a bit corny (not uncommon for the time). In particular, the segment in the latter middle of the film when Douglas tries to sneak off in the boat and bizarre half-breed creatures nip at his heels. The soon to be better known, Ron Perlman, plays the Sayer of the Law creature, and I wish he’d gotten more screen time. All in all, onscreen it’s a smart, sophisticated spin somewhat reminiscent to The Planet of the Apes.


Another complaint, because there are so many odd creatures, it was hard to keep track of who was who, what their names were, and why they were significant. When I think of creature features that worked better, it’s because there weren’t so many to overshadow one another. Then again, Dr. Moreau’s got dozens of failed experiments running around the island and to be true to the book, this might not have been an option in Winston or Frankenheimer’s minds.


The acting… David Thewlis. Admittedly, I don’t know this man’s work, and it’s aggravating that despite being cast as the lead actor, his name is not even billed on the film’s front cover.  I don’t ever recall a man that looked as tense for such extended amounts of time as he did on this film. Perhaps, this was what he was going for. The actor’s visible anxiety and constant state of pain and frustration for virtually the entire film left me wondering if he was carrying guilt from his failure to act more mercifully with his fellow survivors on the raft at the film’s start, if he was traumatized by his present reality, or if he was mentally overpowered by the other actors idiosyncrasies. Perhaps, he was in fact, just playing a dramatized version of himself and struggled to hide his feelings for the film’s inevitable drift to total chaos and madness. I found his acting and delivery to be appropriate-- just not common. And perhaps, it’s more along the lines that he’s just the unlikely and unlikeable protagonist. These were tough shoes to fill and I don’t see them fitting Rob Morrow or Bruce Willis. It must have felt strange to carry the bulk of the weight in such a film with Brando and Kilmer approaching things more lazily, spur of the moment, and making far more. You can feel the frustration and emotion through the screen in his every scene. And I suppose, this gets a positive mark from my vantage point, all things considered.


Fairuza Balk played an interesting character in Dr. Moreau’s prized daughter, Aissa. I think perhaps her character arc asks some important philosophical questions that might include a father’s approval, favoritism, the ethics of his choices, her need for serum to remain beautiful by human standards, and the recurring themes of law and pain explored throughout the film to which no one religiously adheres despite their frequent lip service. It seemed like there was a thread to pull on between Douglas and Aissa’s budding partnership to get Douglas off the island and to obtain the serum Aissa needed to save her regression from human to beast, but the muddled middle of the film just lost its way as the editors and director worked to shoehorn and piecemeal it together to the best of their abilities. 


Let’s talk about the big names. Unfortunately, despite the potential, the likes of the persnickety Marlon Brando or Val Kilmer left little opportunity for the other characters to shine their brightest and that’s where the morality of this tale goes awry. It shouldn’t be about who you are, but rather, the quality with which you do it, and I can’t say their efforts embraced that. I suppose this is a common conundrum in films when actors with such a gravitas are partnered with lesser known stars. I’ll say this much, considering the mystery and allure of Dr. Moreau, I found the scenes that Brando were in demanded every ounce of my attention, and somehow, though he’s many years dead and gone through the screen, he still knows it. His lines and peculiar delivery were carried in such a way that only Brando could and though word on the street is that he used an earpiece to get his lines delivered, his presence in this film further adds to making this movie an obscure sort of gem to the refined open mind.


I think at some point between the first and second act of the film, Val Kilmer’s Montgomery character becomes a farce of itself, and Val Kilmer just plays Val Kilmer, creatively ad-libbing while under the influence of God knows what. His final lines, “Well, things didn’t work out…” and “I want to go to dog heaven…” are a bit of a tell, perhaps, of his own personal struggles, his collapsing marriage, and an overall dissatisfaction with the film’s rocky trajectory.


There were a number of times in the film where Thewlis and Kilmer in particular seemed to almost break character when the absurdity was at its highest. The high water mark for Kilmer in the film was his playfully misplaced impersonation of Dr. Moreau, giving Brando a good run for his money albeit comedically.


In closing, The Island of Dr. Moreau was perhaps so grand an idea for executives and the potential cashgrab associated with the names on the top billing that they were sold more on a premise than a completed, fleshed out project. I don’t know what Richard Stanley’s vision for the film was, but I’d love to see it. In our current era where YouTube celebrities get paid to blow stuff up for the fun of it while we mindlessly consume their brainless content like happy meals, consider this forty million dollar dumpster fire a more sophisticated way to burn your brain cells. If nothing else, the effort to reimagine HG Wells’ literary classic can be commended. I can’t help but see a parallel to Richard Stanley’s original vision for his passion project in these words from Dr. Moreau,


 “I have almost achieved perfection… of a divine creature that is pure, harmonious, absolutely incapable of malice. If in my tinkering I have fallen short of the human form, by the odd snout or claw, it really is of no import. I am closer than you can possibly imagine, Sir.”


I’ve got news for you, Doc, the “almost perfect” recipe is not enough in Hollywood, nor is it enough on your island. Will the fate of this movie forever curse future efforts to create it onscreen again? Time will tell. All in all, I enjoyed myself… it’s a guilty pleasure that I’ll probably watch again and again, just not with Montgomery and the other dogs in dog heaven.



The Island of Dr. Moreau

New Line Cinema

3.0/5.0 Stars

Rated PG-13 for Violence and Creature Gore

Directed by: John Frankenheimer

Written by: Richard Stanley and Ron Hutchinson

 


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