The Island of Dr. Moreau
directed by John Frankenheimer
(New Line Cinema, 1996)

John Frankenheimer has given us The Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in May and The Manchurian Candidate; Marlon Brando's given us On the Waterfront, Streetcar Named Desire and The Godfather. Last year they combined their considerable talents to bring us The Island of Dr. Moreau, for which they should both be spanked.

What went wrong with this, the third big-screen adaptation of H.G. Wells' slim sci-fi fantasy of manmade evolution, is almost too encyclopedic to catalogue, so let's start with what went right.

First, there's Wells' story, a brooding tale of a scientist hiding out on an uncharted island to perform experiments that would have made Bela Lugosi blush.

Next, there's the island, a lush tropical paradise to which Frankenheimer' crew has added a series of impressive sets: Moreau's house, Moreau's lab ("The House of Pain") and the deserted World War II base where Moreau's all-but deserted creations hang out.

Finally, there's the camera work, which captures the island and its unusual inhabitants from the best possible vantage points in the best possible light, even when what they're doing scarcely seems worth capturing.

Sadly, there's little more to Moreau than that.

The problems begin early, with a set of psychedelic titles designed more to obscure who made this film than to boast of it, and they continue as a U.N. rep named Douglas (David Thewlis) is rescued at sea by Moreau's assistant, Montgomery (Val Kilmer). Instead of allowing Douglas to discover, and thus reveal, the dreaded secret of the island one clue at a time, Frankenheimer has him walk into Moreau's lab well before the first popcorn break. The result: all the mystery is sucked out of the film, and Douglas is left with little to do besides look bug-eyed and drive around the island like a teen-ager in a James Dean movie, neither of which can sustain the plot for 73 more minutes.

Kilmer fares slightly better as Montgomery, the drug-addled assistant who wears too many watches and has his own notions of which way evolution should proceed. But Kilmer, too, has to wrestle with a script that provides little in the way of motivation and less in the way of memorable dialogue -- except for his early description of Moreau's "daughter" (Fairuza Balk) as "a pussy cat."

Neither does Brando help matters, playing Moreau as half-fop, half-Frankenstein, powdered white and wrapped in bleached gauze, making him look not unlike Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. And his performance with his half-crazed creations is more reminiscent of Peter Sellers on The Muppet Show than of Wells' sadistic servant of science.

As for the rest of the cast, animal-coiffed and blessed with hyphenated names like "Hyena-Swine," most look like they haven't worked since Planet of the Apes. And barring an unfortunate sequel, probably never will again.

If you enjoy the spectacle of animals behaving like people, you might like what Frankenheimer has done to The Island of Dr. Moreau. Personally, I'm glad there are two previous versions -- and a book that tops them all.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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