Looking over his filmography, one could argue John Frankenheimer stopped making significant films at some point in the late sixties or early seventies (I haven’t seen Black Sunday so I don’t know about that one). But by the eighties, he was already someone whose best work was clearly behind him. By the nineties… well, it’s hard to believe he got jobs. Especially on something like The Island of Dr. Moreau. Obviously, being quickly brought in after the studio fired the original director might have something to do with it. It’s not like Frankenheimer was busy and, if it did anything, all his experience did make him a guy who could get a movie finished.
Dr. Moreau, as I recall, wasn’t supposed to be a bomb or a piece of crap. It was supposed to have rising stars Val Kilmer (following Batman Forever) and Rob Morrow (who had left “Northern Exposure” to do movies). Morrow dropped out. It was also Marlon Brando, earning a buck. Brando’s incredible in the film, because there’s so little left. He’s so unconnected to it–you can see some of the talent in his gestures–but he’s delivering this dialogue, this terrible dialogue, and he’s just not connecting to any of it.
Kilmer’s a different story. He’s fantastic–the scenes were he’s imitating Brando are hilarious–and he manages to turn this underwritten mess of a character into someone who, well, is at least consistently amusing.
David Thewlis (who took over for Morrow) turns in a fine performance. His character is dreadfully underwritten, but Thewlis overcomes. He’s not a good guy, which is interesting, and it gives the film the air of complexity.
Who I realized I really missed, thanks to the film, is Fairuza Balk. She holds her own with Thewlis and when she does scenes with Brando, it’s too bad he isn’t delivering on her level.
The script doesn’t do anyone in the film any favors. Thewlis comes off as a twit and a jerk, one of the worst protagonists I can think of. Kilmer’s character sets off the film’s chain of events, but it’s never clear why, since it’s all so predictable. Brando… jeez. The less said about that disastrous character the better. Balk gets the shaft too, though her character really is just a love interest.
Stan Winston’s make-up is good and the scenes with the crazed animal people are a little creepy. But it’s a piece of garbage and it’s impossible to care what happens next because there’s no one in the film to really care about.
Gary Chang’s music is surprisingly decent.
Technically, Frankenheimer can fill a Panavision screen. With constantly interesting content, no, he cannot.
The best part of the movie is the beginning, when it’s Thewlis and Kilmer, because it gives Kilmer the chance to be really crazy.
Directed by John Frankenheimer; screenplay by Richard Stanley and Ron Hutchinson, based on the novel by H.G. Wells; director of photography, William A. Franker; edited by Paul Rubell and Adam P. Scott; music by Gary Chang; production designer, Graham ‘Grace’ Walker; produced by Edward R. Pressman; released by New Line Cinema.
Starring Marlon Brando (Dr. Moreau), Val Kilmer (Montgomery), David Thewlis (Edward Douglas), Fairuza Balk (Aissa), Ron Perlman (Sayer of the Law), Marco Hofschneider (M’Ling), Temuera Morrison (Azazello) and William Hootkins (Kiril).