Star Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Every once in a while a bad film comes along that has a behind-the-scenes story that is more interesting than the film itself. The most notable in recent memory would be 2015’s Fantastic Four, where it was rumored director Josh Trank was constantly at odds with the studio over the creative vision of the film. Another film with a production riddled with issue after issue is 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. The original director, Richard Stanley, spent years working on a version of the script that would be more faithful to H.G. Wells’ novel than previous adaptations would have been, and after three days of filming was fired from the film by New Line Cinema. John Frankenheimer was brought on to finish the film, and the result is a film so bad, it’s almost fun to watch just for the sheer eccentricity of it all.
The Island of Dr. Moreau stars David Thewlis, Marlon Brando, and Val Kilmer. With a great cast, its hard to imagine how the film could be so bad. As it turns out, the stars were one of the biggest problems with the entire shoot. David Thewlis was brought on to replace Rob Morrow, and was fairly indifferent to the entire project. Val Kilmer bullied his way through the entire production by ignoring much of Richard Stanley’s directions, and didn’t bother to learn any of his lines. Marlon Brando made several creative decisions for his character, the titular Dr. Moreau, without consulting anyone and he either refused to change his mind, or the crew was too intimidated to ask him to do otherwise. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. After filming for three days, and being unable to wrangle his cast together, Richard Stanley was fired from the project. When John Frankenheimer was brought on to finish the film, he threw out Stanley’s entire script and started from scratch, while still trying to use everything that had already been made for the production. Knowing all of this, I am surprised the film was even made at all. The Island of Dr. Moreau is a mess of a film that can’t decide if it wants to be a philosophical examination of scientific ethics or the nature of god and control, or an action film with monstrous human/animal hybrids.
David Thewlis plays Edward Douglas, a shipwrecked man who is picked up by Val Kilmer’s Montgomery. Montgomery takes Edward to an island where Dr. Moreau (Marlon Brando) has a compound where he performs experiments on animals and attempts to turn them into humans. Its at this point where the film completely devolves into a complete mess. It then seems like Dr. Moreau’s “children” (the hybrid things) want to be free from his control, but don’t realize Moreau is using science to control them. Then it seems like Montgomery wants to be the new Moreau, but that changes when Montgomery destroys the medical supplies that keep the children in their half-human state. Then it changes again, and it seems like the children want nothing to do with humans. The entire film lacks any focus and is a mess of pseudo-philosophical questions, explosions, shootouts, and Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando trying to out-act the other.
The Island of Dr. Moreau we got ended up looking and feeling a lot like a bad Sci-Fi channel film. David Thewlis, Marlon Brando, and Val Kilmer all bring good acting, but it’s obvious from their performances that they feel indifferent toward the project. Why wouldn’t they be? The writing is terrible. The whole film ends up feeling rushed. The sets are beautifully designed, and for 1996 the effects were decent too. Ron Perlman is barely recognizable as the Sayer of the Law, and all of the extras look good. There are elements of the script that sound like they would make for an interesting film too. There are bits and pieces of interesting philosophical matter, but it all falls flat when the film favors action which provides no real resolution to those discussions. On top of that, Brando’s decision to make Moreau a pope-like figure adds to the interesting philosophical matter, but even that makes little sense within the context of the film we got. Instead of looking like the Pope, he’s just some pasty white dude with an ice bucket on his head. On top of all of this, the film lacks a real antagonist. Is it Moreau? Is it Montgomery? Or, is it Hyena-Swine? Who knows, because the film tried to go in several directions all at the same time.
There’s a special place in my heart for films that are so bad that they become good when you get a group of friends together to throw jokes at the screen, like your own private Mystery Science Theater 3000. The Island of Dr. Moreau is one of those films. There is plenty to make fun of. This film easily belongs on a list of fun to watch bad films. Ultimately, the film is a bad film, and if you want to save yourself some time, I don’t blame you if you don’t want to watch it.
In 2014 a documentary was released called, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau. Directed by David Gregory, the documentary focuses on the filming of The Island of Dr. Moreau and Richard Stanley’s fall from grace as he was fired from the film, and snuck back on set as one of the mutant extras. The entire documentary is an interesting look at why the film that was produced was so bad. If you watch The Island of Dr. Moreau, I would consider this documentary necessary viewing (it is streaming on Netflix). It’s the kind of documentary you wish came with every film with bad production stories. This documentary follows in the footsteps of Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse which chronicles the production issues on the set of Apocalypse Now, and The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? which focuses on Tim Burton’s failed Superman film. There are probably plenty of films with horrible behind-the-scenes stories, and I wish they could make documentaries for all of them.