Retro Review | The Island of Doctor Moreau (1996)

Retro Review | The Island of Doctor Moreau (1996)


A flawed adaptation of a classic H.G. Wells novel has a more entertaining “making of” documentary than the film itself!

The Island of Doctor Moreau (1996)

Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Doctor Moreau (2014)

Background

Recently I came upon a copy of Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Doctor Moreau. This 2014 documentary chronicles the behind the scenes story of supposedly one of the worst films of all time, the 1996 adaptation of the book, The Island of Doctor Moreau.

I knew the film was supposedly bad and that it starred Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando. I also vaguely remembered something about the original director being thrown off set very early on, so I didn’t think it fair to watch a documentary without seeing the source material first.

Synopsis

After being rescued and brought to an island, a man discovers that its inhabitants are experimental animals being turned into strange-looking humans, all of it the work of a visionary doctor.

My Thoughts

Well, that was…interesting.

The Island of Doctor Moreau has been adapted from the original story written by H.G. Wells and published in 1896. The story of a man performing bizarre vivisection experiments on animals, trying to make them into a more human form.

The film, from what I have researched, follows the book fairly closer but obviously updating the settings to a modern time. Although released in 1996, the film is set in 2010 and relocates the film’s original setting of London to a remote tropical island.

The plot of the film is actually rather interesting and is enhanced by some great special effects work that I shall discuss later. What really let this film down are the cast and their performances.

Let us start with the positives, not everyone is terrible. Despite being covered by layers of creature makeup, you should be able to recognize the voice of Ron Perlman (Hellboy,Hand of God, Sons of Anarchy) as the Sayer of the Law. He’s not in the film for very long, but when he’s onscreen you can’t miss him.

Speaking of actors being covered in makeup, there are a couple of creatures in this film played by actors I knew of but would never have known had I not read the cast list. I spotted the name Mark Dacascos as Lo-Mai, one of the most important creatures of the story. He is best known for the French film Brotherhood of the Wolf and more recently he’s appeared in season three of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Another name to crop up was Temuera Morrison, he was a relative unknown then but several years later he would appear as the ill-fated Jango Fett in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.

But what of the big names?

Let’s start with the narrator of the film and the character who along with the audience experiences the events that unfold during the course of the film. He is United Nations negotiator, Edward Douglas as played by actor David Thewlis.

Straight off the bat, I’m going to say that David, in my opinion, seemed very out of place in this movie with some of his reactions to events in the film coming off as quite strange. Maybe it was his strong British accent amongst a cast of Americans which makes him stand out even more than normal. I just can’t put my finger on it.

A lot of the negativity is aimed at Marlon Brando and I’m not sure why. I thought he was actually quite good and suited the role of Doctor Moreau rather well. Admittedly there are some rather strange quirks such as the character covering himself completely in sunblock when he goes outside, due to his allergy to the sun.

This is the image most people probably remember from this film. A large man on a huge dais, dressed in cheesecloth and seemingly covered in white with bright red lips. Or how about later on in the film when he’s wearing an ice bucket on his head because of the tropical heat!

The real star of the film, probably all the wrong reasons, is Val Kilmer. Playing the role of Montgomery, Doctor Moreau’s assistant, he is strange for all the wrong reasons. The way he acts, the things he does, especially towards the end of the film when for some bizarre unexplained reason he dresses up and impersonates Dr. Moreau.

For example, Edward is trying to turn on and use the only communications equipment on the island to contact the outside world for a rescue. Montgomery shows up and remarks that he won’t be able to use the equipment and takes off his baseball cap to reveal a circuit board on his head which he then tosses outside into the jungle! One of many of the stranger Val Kilmer moments.

One of the most redeeming factors though were the beast creatures of the island. The late Stan Winston, who created the Terminator and the dinosaurs for Jurassic Park, as well as many other famous practical creature effects, worked with his crew on this film.

You’ll see many creatures that have been mutated into a human form such as a dog man, a leopard and even pig women with six breasts. The strangest of the lot is probably the scene with the cow woman giving birth!

These practical creature effects were one of the few reasons I decided to stick with the film till the end. Unfortunately, it’s not a film I’ll be recommending to anybody anytime soon.

However, the documentary I watched straight after was the complete opposite. Entitled, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Doctor Moreau, this retrospective documentary gives us a candid view of the film’s troubled production history via interviews with many of those involved.

The film was originally going to be directed by Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil). He had read the original book as a child and loved it. Richard spent four years working on his version for a film adaptation before New Line Cinema gave him the green light to make it a reality.

Richard approached Jürgen Prochnow for the lead role but New Line Cinema went behind his back and cast Marlon Brando and offered the job of directing to Roman Polanksi.

Furious with this decision, Richard spoke with Marlon personally who after hearing his vision for the film, became sympathetic to his cause. Marlon, in turn, spoke with New Line and refused to move ahead without Richard at the helm. The directing job was Richard’s once again.

Bruce Willis was originally cast but then had to leave due to his upcoming divorce with Demi Moore. Val Kilmer was brought in to replace him but he immediately demanded forty percent fewer days on set.

To make matters worse, Marlon Brando’s daughter committed suicide and he retreated to his private island and no one knew if he was ever going to return to the production.

This is just the tip of the iceberg and it all occurred even before the cameras had started rolling. I don’t want to spill any more beans as this documentary has some great stories to tell. I didn’t even mention the part about witch doctors!

The documentary is fair in telling both sides of the story as it starts out as a director versus studio battle. There’s tales from director Richard Stanley who is very open and has a lot to say. The other side of the story is heard from Robert Shaye who is the CEO and founder of New Line Cinema.

The interviews reach all the way down through the production ranks with stories and eye witness accounts from extras and production runners.

Unfortunately, David Thewlis and Ron Perlman were asked to be a part of this documentary but declined and Val Kilmer is nowhere to be seen. Whilst their absence is felt at times, it doesn’t detract from the great stories.

In a completely opposite opinion to the film it’s about, I highly recommend Lost Souls.



John Abbitt

About the author | John Abbitt

@UKFilmNerd | John loves the movies and he used to write for his own website, The Tydirium Hangar Bay, in the late 1990's. Whilst the web page idea became lost in the passages of time, John's love of film did not. Now he's back, writing for The Unheard Nerd.

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