The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)

Marlon Brando (l) as Doctor Moreau and Ron Perlman (r) as the Lawgiver

Marlon Brando (l) as Doctor Moreau and Ron Perlman (r) as the Lawgiver

When the Marlon Brando / Val Kilmer version of The Island of Dr. Moreau was released in theaters in 1996 it was widely see as an embarrassing shitshow. It was a notoriously troubled production: its first director was fired during its initial week of principle photography, its sets were destroyed by natural disasters, its two above-the-title stars were both insane divas who worked overtime to undermine each other... It was such an infamous shitshow, in fact, that someone made a whole documentary about all of the twists and turns it took on its long way to becoming a big box office bomb. (That documentary was called the Island of Lost Souls and I wrote a bit about it here)

But here's the thing: the movie actually isn't that bad.

Oh, sure, it's not perfect. For starters, its plot is too predictable. The titular doctor used to be a respected surgeon, but seventeen years before the story starts he retreated to a private island so he could make a bunch of human-animal hybrids away from prying eyes. But that's just the tip of the mad scientist iceberg, because he also expects each of his half-human creations to act as human as possible: they have to walk on two legs, follow laws, and all of them (even the predators) have to eat a vegetarian diet. He even trained some of his favorites to act as butlers. (They wear tuxes and everything.)

Now, if you've ever encountered any science fiction story about a mad scientist who wants to play God you can probably guess where this going: of course his 'children' are ultimately going to give into their animal nature and kill their creator because how else would the audience ever learn to fear and distrust science? It's a variation on Chekhov's gun: if you introduce a lion-man in act one he has to eat his creator's face in act three.

However, while the script is pretty basic the rest of the movie is super ambitious in a way that I can't help but respect. Each of the manimal actors is wearing a full body prosthetic suit that looks both eye catching and realistic. (Well, I guess realistic is a stretch; they still look like human-animal hybrids, so I guess a better word to describe their look would be "plausible.") Combine the unique and overpowering costuming / make up work with a bunch of dedicated actors who are trying their hardest to move as if they were cheetahs/pigs/miscellaneous-members-of-Noah's-ark and you end up with a world that feels distinct and immersive.

Of course it's still an open question as to whether or not you'd want to be immersed in their world: most of the practical details on display here are (quite frankly) pretty gross. A lot of nature's creatures have udders, so naturally if a mad scientist created a pig-woman hybrid it would have multiple floppy breasts - and of course if you were Val Kilmer and you were trapped on an island with nothing but mutant ladies to look at you'd eventually start flirting with some of them. But while all of that makes sense on paper it doesn't change the fact that it's disturbing to watch a handsome Hollywood star kiss a bunch of boar-babes on the cheek while he's in the middle of giving them their daily hormones-and-meth-amphetamines shots.

Which brings me to the yin yang at the heart of the Island of Doctor Moreau: this movie makes a bunch of strong, strong choices, and if you can get on board with those choices you might love it... But if you can't then you are going to hate it. Either this movie's practical effects are going to seem like a highwater mark of pre-CGI technical craftsmanship or they are going to be unmentionable eyesores - but there isn't really much of a middle option between those extremes.

That dynamic doesn't just apply to the film's look - it also applies to its performances. Both Brando and Kilmer turn their quirks up to ten; Brando mostly 'speaks' in an ambivalent wheeze and Kilmer seems to be mocking the movie with every gesture and utterance. If you told me that you hated their performances I wouldn't argue with you, because they both seem like they are being weird for weirdnesses sake, and I get why that's annoying. However, their performances work for me because they are of a piece with the rest of the movie, which is also so goddamned weird.

More importantly, I think that the fact that the lead actors are giving such sarcastic performances actually helps keep the grossness of the creature effects from becoming too disturbing. If you take Moreau's experiments seriously for even a second they become horrifying: when I start to really imagine the sort of grossly invasive surgeries you'd need to perform on a pig to make it be able to walk on two legs my stomach starts hurting... But it's hard to take Dr. Moreau's surgeries seriously when the good doctor himself doesn't.

But that's enough talking; I don't think I can convince you to give this movie a try based on words alone. There are probably only two ways to get into the Island of Dr. Moreau: either you get a glimpse of its creature effects and get curious or else you get a sense of what a jaw droppingly nutso film it is and get morbidly curious. So to that end here are five screen captures that will do a better job of explaining just how amazing / terrible / (cough cough) unique this movie is than I would be able to do even if I rambled on for another 50,000 words.

I would be a lot more interested in tent revivals if the preachers were curing the crowd of their all-body hairiness and not just making the blind see again.

You see the skeptical face that chest-belts on the right is making? If you watch this movie you'll also end up making that face.

(Also: is he more of a sad-sack divorced dad version of Chewbacca or a mange-ridden emo version of the He-man villain Beastmaster? I honestly can't tell.)

If you think Kilmer or Brando are giving really over-the-top performances in this movie then you are REALLY not going to like the "Kilmer-plays-Brando-while-high-on-drugs" scene

Apparently the original concept for Jurassic Park 4 involved paramilitary commando dinosaurs who could shoot guns. Maybe they walked back on that a bit after someone remembered this movie and went "oh, yeah, that is going to be really bonkers and off-putting"

Finally: a film that answers the question "what would the Planet of the Apes equivalent of the Beastie Boys look like?"

Winner: Me

The Island of Dr. Moreau on IMDB