The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) Review
Marlon Brando was a fucking god.
One could list all of his great performances, from Last Tango in Paris to Apocalypse Now, but there’s no need. There are already plenty of reviews of The Island of Dr. Moreau on the Internet that start off with such a list in an effort to contrast those great performances with his performance in this film. No, what there is a need for is an acknowledgment of the brilliance of Brando’s performance here. The Island of Dr. Moreau has often been treated as the nadir of Brando’s career. It is viewed as an embarrassing episode where the godlike actor was reduced to phoning it in and hamming it up for a paycheck. But few films, before or since, have been able to so perfectly capture an actor’s love of the art form of cinema. The Island of Dr. Moreau may be one of his greatest triumphs.
Brando wipes his ass with this film. It is beneath him, and he knows it. Many reviewers of this movie seem to mistakenly think that this ass-wiping involves them. This is due to their own narcissism and nothing more. No, Brando holds no ill will toward the audience here, and we emerge from our viewing of this film shit-free. Instead, we have been enlightened in ways that can scarcely be put into words. The English language fails us, for the wisdom that has been imparted is that of a god. Brando demonstrates that this bizarre cultural artifact is unworthy of calling itself a film. It is not a film; it simply… exists. Brando loved cinema too much to deliver any other performance, and every second of his screen-time is devoted to calling this thing the piece of shit that it truly is.
This film is not an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic novel. It is not trying to tell a cautionary tale about the ethics of mad scientific research, nor is it an examination of the nature of power or of human nature. It is a celebration of two words in the English language: “Fuck” and “You”. It is the story of how three masterful actors say “fuck you” to the director(s), to the studio, to the script, and to each other. A movie like this is not made by design, but by accident. For there are good actors, there are great actors, and there are godly actors, and The Island of Dr. Moreau is lucky enough to feature one of each.
Our great actor is none other than Val Kilmer, who appeared in this film after starring in both Batman Forever and Heat the year before. According to Internet lore, Val Kilmer insisted that people on set refer to him as “Mr. Kilmer” at all times. This allegedly caused Brando to tell him that he was “confusing [his] talents with the size of [his] paycheck.” Yes, this film involves a size-measuring contest between Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando. Kilmer obviously loses, but not for lack of trying. Yet, can we really judge him? Is it not better to attempt to stand with gods than to remain forever mortal?
(Note: Also found on the Internet was an explanation of this quote by Val Kilmer, who stated that he and Brando were talking about somebody else, and that the person who overheard their conversation was mistaken. I report, you decide.)
Kilmer does not give a single fuck throughout the entire movie. Really, though, who could? This movie was obviously a clusterfuck from the very beginning. Apparently, the original director spent four years trying to get this movie off the ground. Once shooting finally started, he was fired within four days and replaced by John Frankenheimer. The original actor who was going to play the protagonist bailed; Fairuza Balk tried to bail, but she was caught and sent back. The original script was thrown out and a new one was written on a day-by-day basis. Finally, since this movie wasn’t insane and retarded enough, the original director allegedly snuck back onto the set and had the makeup crew turn him into one of Moreau’s beasts. He did not reveal his presence on the set until the wrap party. I think the reason that I haven’t been able to write any jokes in this review is because the movie itself is the joke. I mean, Jesus Christ!
Rounding out the main cast is our good actor, David Thewlis. Intentionally or not, Thewlis delivers one of the most effective portrayals of a relatable protagonist ever captured on film. He spends the movie looking either bored or mortified at what is happening around him. He is obviously just teeming with anger and frustration at every aspect of this production. There is a hilarious moment when Thewlis’ character is at the dinner table with Brando’s Moreau, Kilmer’s Montgomery, the camerawoman Aissa, and Moreau’s midget companion. Thewlis is staring up at the ceiling with a look of boredom mixed with thinly veiled contempt. I feel your pain, David. We all do.
The Island of Dr. Moreau is a battle between these three actors and their conflicting viewpoints regarding the best way to call this movie a piece of shit. Brando shits all over it by delivering a performance that has hints of his usual brilliance, but always stops short of one of his classics. He toys with the movie like a cat toys with an injured bird, laughing inwardly at the fact that this movie thinks it deserves anything better. Kilmer screws around and plays himself. He is not as masterful as Brando, but he gives this movie the finger in his own way. He makes no attempt at playing Montgomery, and gives his performance the amount of effort that the movie deserves: absolutely none. Thewlis just starts openly reacting to all of the film’s bullshit onscreen. The quizzical look that he gives in response to the midget companion’s request for a handshake is the look of an actor not even trying to hide his contempt for the movie in which he is appearing. It’s absolutely priceless. Earlier in the film, he states, “Oh good Lord,” in response to Montgomery snapping a rabbit’s neck. It is delivered in the tone of a man who cannot believe that his life has come to this.
No one else in the movie matters, really. Ron Perlman appears as this movie’s interpretation of the Sayer of the Law, but he is barely recognizable underneath the beast makeup. Perlman is the only actor who emerges from this film unscathed. He has a long history of appearing in terrible movies for a paycheck, and he manages to deliver the lone unironically good performance in this movie. The final scene of the film, which involves Perlman and Thewlis, is perhaps one of the few remotely decent scenes to be found anywhere in its 100 minutes. That may just be my mind playing tricks on me, though, as I anticipated the sweet release of the end credits throughout Perlman’s entire ending monologue.
Ron Perlman was, in fact, the reason I watched this movie for the second time in my life. I was browsing his filmography and realized that I had completely forgotten that he was in it. Granted, the first time I saw this film was during its theatrical release. I was in junior high and had done a book report on several of H.G. Wells’ novels. I didn’t know who Ron Perlman was then. Hell, I didn’t know who Marlon Brando was. That’s right, folks: to the best of my memory, The Island of Dr. Moreau is the first Brando performance I witnessed in my life. No wonder I have so many problems.
I still have some vague memories of watching this movie with my mom at the age of either 12 or 13. I can recall her disapproval of Fairuza Balk’s death by hanging; my memory of that was triggered during my viewing of that scene this second time. Mostly, though, I remember a sense of embarrassment and regret at having asked my mom to take me to see this movie. I just remember feeling ashamed. Now, I didn’t even start combing my hair until the 10th grade. I don’t mean that my mom still combed it; I mean that it was just uncombed. In junior high, I wore shorts that were a little too tight and gave a slight outline of my little dick and I was too oblivious to notice or care. That may be too much information, but whatever. Whatever. My point is that even though I didn’t care about any of that, The Island of Dr. Moreau actually made me feel embarrassed. Movies like this are a terrible thing to inflict on someone who is still growing up.
To put this all into a broader context, I feel compelled to admit that a year or so after my theatrical viewing of The Island of Dr. Moreau, I also saw the Harland Williams vehicle Rocketman in the theater with my mom. It was another instance where I felt ashamed and embarrassed at what was occurring on screen. Even at that age, I had outgrown the fart jokes, and I had difficulty looking her in the eye afterward. The only silver lining to the whole experience was that she hadn’t outgrown them, and she still cites Jeff Daniels’ bathroom scene in Dumb and Dumber as one of the funniest movie scenes of all time.
The point to all of this is that I felt more ashamed watching The Island of Dr. Moreau than I did watching Rocketman. In other words, The Island of Dr. Moreau is a more embarrassing film than Rocketman. How is that even possible? I have sat here for 20 minutes trying to figure this out. I am pushing 30 now and am beyond shame, yet I am unable to tell you how the creators of this movie managed that feat. Perhaps the human mind is not equipped to understand all the mysteries of this universe.
I could ramble on about all the inconsistencies between this adaptation and H.G. Wells’ original, but there’s no point. Even at 12 or 13, I thought this movie completely missed the mark. I read through half of the original novel last night after viewing this movie and it completely blows this piece of shit out of the water. You don’t watch The Island of Dr. Moreau for any reason other than to laugh at its retardedness. Even then, it isn’t that great, and the loss of both Brando and Kilmer as the movie lumbers toward its conclusion makes the explosion-ridden finale even more sleep-inducing than it already is.
Note that I am writing this review on a Sunday. That means that I spent my Saturday night watching The Island of Dr. Moreau and reading half of the original novel. This is my life, America. This is what watching movies like this at such a critical age does to you. God help me.
Did I mention that Kilmer starts impersonating Brando’s Moreau after Moreau is eaten by the rogue beast folk? Much like Icarus, he flies too close to the sun, and is shot with The Fire That Kills by a dogman. Prior to that, though, his appearance in the Sayer of the Law’s church becomes one of the few truly brilliant scenes in this movie. The movie attains perfection here, not as an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ original, not as an actual movie in any real sense, but as a representation of the insanity of its production. The artifice of the film dissolves and we see the entire inner workings of its creation before us. The curtain is pulled back, and we are no longer just the audience of a film, but of a clusterfuck of epic proportions.
Overall, I can’t say that I enjoyed watching this movie again. Kilmer putting the flower in his mouth had me laughing my ass off, and I actually found myself saying “What the fuck?” out loud. Really, everything Val Kilmer does in this movie is hilarious. Brando is amazing as always; when he says that he has cut Lucifer to pieces in his microscope, you almost believe him. If they had made this movie nothing more than Brando, Kilmer, and Thewlis sitting around a table for an hour and a half while Aissa hissed periodically, it could have been one of the most hilarious films ever made. I could listen to Brando pontificate about pseudo-scientific, pseudo-philosophical, pseudo-theological, and pseudo-intellectual bullshit all day.
They didn’t do that, though. They made this. So let’s all just gaze at the Kilmer Flower one last time, because really, this is what life is all about: