FILM (1996)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am


The Island of Dr Moreau
Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer, David Thewlis
Director: John Frankenheimer

Originally a novel by H.G. Wells published in 1896, The Island of Dr Moreau has been filmed several times: a French silent version in 1913, a talkie starring Bela Lugosi two decades later, and a Hollywood adaptation with Burt Lancaster and Michael York in 1977. Yet not even Wells' fevered imagination could have foreseen 1996's strange collaboration between director John Frankenheimer, writer Richard Stanley, and stars Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando.

This classic tale of a renegade scientist who injects human DNA into animals quickly descended into chaos when original director Stanley was fired after Kilmer demanded a reduction of his part: slated to play UN investigator Edward Douglas, he ended up as Moreau's assistant, Dr Montgomery. Kilmer's replacement, Rob Morrow, also dropped out and was replaced by David Thewlis.

The common factor in the disruption: Kilmer. 'There are two things I will never ever do in my life,' Frankenheimer is reported as saying. 'The first is that I will never climb Mount Everest. The second is that I will never work with Val Kilmer again.' Even Brando, no stranger to eccentric behaviour, was not amused: 'You're confusing your talents with the size of your pay cheque,' he allegedly said.

The film updates Wells' novel: set in 2010, the titular island is a place beyond the constraints of human law - legal, scientific, moral and ethical. Even before we meet Brando's batty scientist, we witness a stabbing at sea, a shark attack and some lunatic voiceover by Thewlis.

Yet all pales before Kilmer's bonkers dialogue. Injecting an understandably skittish Thewlis with a sedative, he explains: 'You'll like it. I like it. It's a little Jimi Hendrix.' He then howls like a wolf.

For once, Brando is simply out-weirded: he may mumble his way through one scene with an ice bucket on his head and portray Moreau as a sun-starved Jabba the Hut designing a Muppet-Roger Federer hybrid, but it is Kilmer who necks a rabbit before doing even worse. It is Kilmer who wears a sarong. And it is Kilmer's glazed look of stoned bafflement that makes his turn as Jim Morrison (in The Doors, 1991) seem matter-of-fact. Little wonder that Thewlis gazes on everything with shocked disbelief.

The Island of Dr Moreau's most enduring impact has been to inspire South Park's crazy gene splicer, Dr Alphonse Mephisto, who like Brando's Moreau has his own mini doppelganger, Kevin. (My favourite of many dire moments is Brando playing the piano accompanied by his distorted mini-twin. Thewlis' blank stupefaction is priceless.)

The film earned six Razzie nominations for worst movie, winning one for Brando's performance (Kilmer was robbed). One could argue that the critics and audiences failed to appreciate a film ahead of its time: the way it examined man's Promethean ambition via a misunderstood genius combining base animalistic fervour with human decency. Then again, one could say something similar of Val Kilmer himself.