Today’s flick is the disastrous 1996 adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau, starring Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando.
The Island of Doctor Moreau is based on a famous work by H.G. Wells, which has been adapted a number of times to the screen, dating all the way back to 1932’s Island of Lost Souls. The screenplay for this particular incarnation was written by Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil) and Ron Hutchinson (The Josephine Baker Story).
The screenplay co-writer Richard Stanley was initially brought on board to direct, but was ultimately fired and replaced by John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Reindeer Games, Ronin). However, rumor has it that Stanley snuck back on to the production as an extra, specifically made up as one of the background creatures so that he could eavesdrop on the progress of the movie.
The cinematographer for The Island of Dr. Moreau was William A. Fraker, who also shot such films as Vegas Vacation, Tombstone, Street Fighter, SpaceCamp, WarGames, The Exorcist II, Rosemary’s Baby, 1941, and Bullitt, and was nominated for a total of 6 different Academy Awards over his career.
The Island of Doctor Moreau featured two primary editors: Adam P. Scott, who has worked on films like Any Given Sunday, The Insider, Blade, and Matchstick Men, and Paul Rubell, who cut The Cell, Thor, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Collateral, and Battleship. A third editor, Thom Noble (Red Dawn, Thelma & Louise, Alex Cross, Fahrenheit 451), worked without credit on the film.
The makeup and special effects for The Island of Doctor Moreau were provided by the prestigious Stan Winston Studios, led by none other than Stan Winston himself, a four time Academy Award winner. The makeup and special effects teams included common elements with movies like The Thing, The Cell, John Dies At The End, Tremors, Congo, Jurassic Park, Lake Placid, Small Soldiers, The Bat People, Predator 2, Avatar, Iron Man, Hollow Man, Class of 1999, Pacific Rim, Aliens, Leviathan, Dollman, and Dead Heat.
The three producers on the film were Claire Rudnick Polstein (Austin Powers, Wag The Dog), Tim Zinnemann (Street Fighter, The Running Man) and Edward R. Pressman (Street Fighter, Judge Dredd, Masters of the Universe, The Hand).
The cast for The Island of Dr. Moreau included David Thewlis (The Big Lebowski, DragonHeart), Val Kilmer (Heat, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Top Gun), Marlon Brando (On The Watefront, The Godfather, A Streetcar Named Desire, Apocalypse Now), Ron Perlman (Pacific Rim, Hellboy), Mark Dacascos (American Samurai, Only The Strong, Double Dragon, Scorcher), Peter Elliott (Congo), Temuera Morrison (Speed 2), and Fairuza Balk (The Waterboy).
The plot of The Island of Dr. Moreau follows a shipwrecked man who is rescued and brought to an isolated island. However, the island is inhabited by a reclusive and eccentric doctor, who has been performing experiments splicing genes from humans with animals, and has created a population of hybrid abominations. As the story progresses, the hybrids become increasingly unruly and savage, and ultimately revolt against their creator.
As he did with many of his later movies, Marlon Brando was affixed with a radio receiver in his ear so that someone off-screen could feed his lines to him. However, during The Island of Doctor Moreau, the device received a good deal of interference from local radio frequencies, and lore has it that Brando would frequently read off messages from police scanners instead of his lines, without realizing his mistake.
One particularly infamous sequence from The Island of Doctor Moreau, in which Brando plays a piano duet with his small companion (who he insisted on having as part of the production), was famously lampooned in the second Austin Powers movie. The sequence went so far as to even include the stacked miniature piano setup used in Moreau.
In 2014, a documentary was released detailing the troubled production behind The Island of Doctor Moreau, titled Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau.
Val Kilmer tried to get out of the movie before filming began, but was contractually forced to participate. He openly disliked the direction of the film, and was reportedly actively disruptive during the production. Rewrites reassigned many of his lines to Ron Perlman’s character so that his screentime could be further limited, and the director reported said “Cut. Now get that bastard off my set” after the last take with Kilmer wrapped.
Rob Morrow was originally cast as the lead, but left after Stanley was fired from the production. This led to Thewlis being brought in on short notice to take over the role.
Because of numerous rewrites and changes in direction, the screenplay for The Island of Doctor Moreau went through no less than four distinct incarnations over the course of the production.
The Island of Doctor Moreau wound up with six Golden Raspberry nominations, which are given out to the worst films and performances of the year. Outside of Marlon Brando winning for worst supporting actor, however, it wound up getting beat out in the major categories by the Demi Moore movie Striptease.
The popular reception to The Island of Doctor Moreau was quite poor, though it did wind up making its money back at the box office (a gross of $49 million on a budget of $40 million). It currently holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 23% (critics) and 20% (audience), along with a 4.4 rating on IMDb.
The Stan Winston designed creature effects are pretty impressive, and are probably the biggest reason that this movie is remembered in any kind of positive light. Some of the creatures certainly look more realistic than others, but the sheer amount of makeup work that had to be done to transform so many actors must have been daunting, and it isn’t too outlandish to say that the movie probably wouldn’t have happened at all without Winston’s involvement.
Where the movie really falls apart is with the screenplay, which, as I mentioned earlier, went through a number of rewrites. This was clearly an ambitious project, but it comes off on screen as trying to do far too much, and it lacks an even tone or style thanks to all of the edits and rewrites. Apparently, apart from the full screenplay rewrites, some of the actors also rewrote their own lines, which contributes even more to the bizarre inconsistencies throughout the film.
The one-two acting punch of Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, which should have been a knock-out combo on paper, proved to be an absolute disaster for this production. Not only did both men already have reputations for being troublesome on sets, but both were in particularly bad personal situations during the filming of Moreau: Kilmer was suddenly embroiled in an unexpected divorce, and Brando was mourning the recent suicide of his daughter. Adding to the powder keg, appropriately enough, was an atomic test that was performed near a property owned by Brando, went sent him even further into a dark psychological state. The mixture of all of these elements created two lead actors who wanted nothing more than to be off the production, and gave respective performances that could accurately be described as sabotage.
Overall, this a legendarily terrible movie, but is another one of those productions that feels like it had some honest potential behind it. The behind the scenes antics are fascinating to read into, and make the movie worth a watch if you ask me. Kilmer and Brando are also hypnotically awful in their performances, despite how little screen time they get.
I first saw this movie when I was pretty young, when it got a lot of airplay on the Sci-Fi Channel, and it made a significant impression on me. I remember being particularly baffled by Kilmer’s drug-fueled Brando impression in particular, which might be the highlight of the whole film. If you happen to come across this one, it is worth picking up, particularly if you are a fan of movie trivia. I also recommend giving a watch to the documentary about it, Lost Soul.