It's All in the Genes: Brando's Mad `Moreau'
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 23, 1996; Page D01
One hundred years after the initial publication of H.G. Wells's characteristically prescient work of fiction, "The Island of Dr. Moreau" yields its third film adaptation: a big-budget, big-name version directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Marlon Brando as the mad doctor.
Moreau may not be the role that Brando, coming to the end of a long, frequently distinguished career, will want to be remembered for. Looking resplendently massive in his self-designed and voluminous costumes, and speaking with a curiously off-kilter passion, Brando plays Moreau as nothing but mad.
While Wells's book addressed the eventhen-controversial issue of animal vivisection, the new film takes on gene splicing, today's biotech battleground. For many years, it seems, Moreau has been living on his uncharted island, fusing human and animal genes while trying to create a race free from evil impulses. In this ongoing battle between science and nature, between reason and instinct, Moreau has not been particularly successful: His failed experiments now populate the island, their blood thirst pacified by sedatives and remote-controlled shock implants.
Into this combustible environment stumbles airplane crash survivor Douglas (David Thewlis of "Naked"), While waiting to meet the mysterious Moreau, Douglas uncovers his schemes and tries to escape with the help of Moreau's "daughter," the exotic Aissa (Fairuza Balk). Smitten, Douglas tells Moreau's assistant Montgomery (a dazed and confused Val Kilmer), "She's beautiful," to which he responds with a Cheshire grin, "Yes, she's a pussy cat!" Me-OWW!
Soon after, a white-clad, flour-caked Moreau makes his entrance, rescuing Douglas from the wilder beasts. Over dinner, Moreau recounts his problems with animal rights activists ("It got so bad you couldn't cage a rat without reading him his rights") and tries to justify his experiments. The central drama rests on the possibility that Moreau's "children" are reverting to their animal nature despite the "law" against killing fellow creatures.
Reflecting Hollywood's lowly aspirations, "The Island of Dr. Moreau" turns out to be less about lofty ideas than about special effects, and here it's blessed by Stan Winston's evocative prosthetic makeup. Winston, a four-time Oscar winner ("Aliens," "The Terminator," "Jurassic Park"), is a master precisely because he knows how to both shock and engage an audience, and he conceives his creatures more lovingly than Moreau does.
While Ron Perlman is instantly recognizable as the Sayer of the Law, there are some other good actors aboard, albeit unidentifiable in Winston's makeup. They include martial arts star Mark Dacascos as the voracious Lo-Mai the Leopard Man, Temuera Morrison of "Once Were Warriors" as the menacing Azazello, and Marco Hofschneider of "Europa Europa" as the sensitive M'ling. The weirdest character: 22-inch-tall Nelson de la Rosa as Moreau's mini-soul-mate, Majai (their matching outfits and piano duet are . . . hilarious?).
While Brando brings a bit of Col. Kurtz to this new apocalypse, Kilmer seems to bring a lot of Jim Morrison ("There's something you don't understand? Why don't you smoke this and you'll start to"). Given both actors' volatile on-set reputations, Frankenheimer probably deserves a medal (he won't be getting an Oscar), particularly since he took over at the last minute when the film's producers fired the original director, and still co-writer, Richard Stanley ("Hardware," "Dust Devil").
The film world is a lot like nature in terms of survival of the fittest, and Stanley may well have written "The Island of Dr. Moreau's" epitaph. Like Moreau's experiments, something went wrong with the film, but the results are survivable and, in unintended ways, enjoyable.
The Island of Dr. Moreau, at area theaters, is rated PG-13.
© 1996 The Washington Post Company