In honor of the release of Colour out of Space, the new Richard Stanley-Nicolas Cage-HP Lovecraft film (what a wonderfully demonic cinematic Cerberus that is!), I decided to look back at Stanley’s last film, a full 23 years ago. Let us hope that his new attempt at channeling the deranged spirit of century-old pulp literature and tearing open and excavating the most demented corners of the cinematic void don’t render him victim of that void, unable to find his way back, for nearly a quarter-century, like they did last time.
A travesty of Welles as well as Coppola, The Island of Dr. Moreau is as sure an example as any of that old maxim that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. It’s also one of the most beguilingly meta-textual would-be blockbusters ever released, one whose off-screen production ended up not only mimicking its textual themes but folding in several layers of mediating texts and prior films just to stir together enough post-modern cinematic madness to satiate audiences. It feels less like a unique product than a ghoulish aftershock, a horrible, mangled echo, of its seventeen-years forebear, Apocalypse Now.
Now, normally, production turmoil can distract from an analysis of what actually makes it on screen as much as it can enhance that analysis. But The Island of Dr. Moreau is a special enigma, the dream of a cinematic wunderkind so feverishly and immediately collapsing on-screen that it begs comparison not only to its most obvious cinematic predecessor (Apocalypse Now) but to another cinematic directorial hanging by another Welles, one more deranged than HG: Orson Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons. (And not only because Marlon Brando is on hand for Moreau, reminding us that only one actor can go toe to toe with Orson Welles for sheer insular late-period delirium).
Of course, unlike Ambersons, the mishaps of this 1996 film weren’t the result of after-production tampering dismembering a would-be masterpiece. No, The Island of Dr. Moreau seemed to swirl into cinematic vertigo sooner than original writer-director Richard Stanley could say “action”, or Brando could say “ice cream”. Dreamt up as a relatively introspective take on HG Wells’ famous novel, then underground wunderkind Stanley hoped to use it as his entry into the mainstream. But Stanley’s presence was almost instantly questioned by the producers when he refused to play ball.
In an excruciating irony, Stanley’s take was initially accepted only because star Marlon Brando sympathized with its obvious imaginative kinship with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (written around the same time as the original Island), the obvious inspiration for Brando’s most cherished (to himself at least) film character, Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. Which just so happens to be the other most famous Southeast Asia-set cinematic adaptation of Western hubris metastasized into insanity which famously became a template for the actual film production when its own hubris came home to roost. And, of course, a film where Brando would become famously uncooperative, much to the surprise of no one, except apparently Richard Stanley.
In place of Martin Sheen coked out of his mind, The Island of Dr. Moreau forces Brando to go toe to toe with a never-more-difficult Val Kilmer, who not only couldn’t get along with Brando but who both, along with ex-director Stanley, famously seemed more interested in sabotaging the production than in playing along. Brando was originally the only one standing between the skeptical producers and Stanley, doomed because of this misfire to miss his shot at becoming one of Hollywood’s hot young things. When original co-star Bruce Willis left the production, forcing it into an initial shut-down, after Demi Moore filed for divorce, Kilmer was eventually hired to replace him, only for Kilmer to ask for a significant reduction in the number of days he had to be present in Australia to film, which necessitated Stanley to switch Kilmer’s role from a lead to a side antagonist, which in turn meant recasting the lead again.
And this, mind you, is before Kilmer’s own wife filed divorce, which he says is what motivated his famously aggravating on and off-screen antics, and before Brando’s daughter committed suicide, perhaps catalyzing his cloistered, Charles Foster Kane-esque self-enclosure for long periods of time. While its connection to Apocalypse Now was instrumental in drumming up support for the film, The Island of Dr. Moreau, as if beset by some spectral ghost of the past, unable to escape the path already-predestined for it, was quickly copying the sins of the father. And all of this in a film nominally about creations mimicking and then ironizing their creator.
Eventually, none of the actors even remotely being reigned in, Stanley was fired, reduced to a conciliatory co-screenwriter credit, and the film continued on under John Frankenheimer’s very tenuous guidance, his more no-nonsense and apparently un-empathetic style, less passion-project and more unvarnished workaday spartanness, getting the production back on track, albeit at the expense of the sympathies of most of the cast and crew. But where does that leave us exactly?
For about half an hour of screen-time, in some inconclusive muddle, the film basically functioning, albeit not well, stranding us with little but our sense of faithful forbearance to keep trudging on. Then, suddenly and with little forewarning, the viewer is absolutely manhandled off a ledge by a film that seemingly has a death wish, a work whose inadequacies and contusions compound by the second for the last hour. (I can’t but suspect that this sudden tumble into atrociousness happens somewhere around the time we witness the camera positively swooning around the extremely obese Brando and his personally handpicked miniature assistant (Brando’s idea) performing a classical duet on piano, the tinier person and piano placed on top of the larger one, in a scene that was the direct inspiration for the Mini-Me character in Austin Powers).
Actually, I’ve miswritten: while the film doesn’t begin in an inconceivable muddle, insofar as the first half-hour is merely adequate, it does begin in an inconceivable muddle in a more literal sense. The film begins with a truly mystifyingly wrong-head introductory credits sequence during which the film achieves something like peak 1996 (it was done by then title-expert Kyle Cooper, here at his most pitilessly unconstrained).
From there, Frankenheimer’s more muscular, dictatorial take on Shelby’s more sensitive screenplay is apparent almost immediately when the film offers an impressionistic slurry of an introduction, rushing through in a flurry of cuts and seconds what was obviously supposed to be teased out over time. David Thewlis’ Dr. Montgomery lost in the Java sea. His two compatriots fight for food. They throw each other overboard. They are eaten by sharks. The film immediately lets us know how it could – and intermittently does – offer a kind of American, Hemingway-ian gloss on more commonly European themes of existential madness and human “civility” revealed as a monomaniacal mask for domination and masculine authoritarianism. Although not what Stanley intended, this first post-credits sequence is perhaps the only genuinely effective moment in the film, Frankenheimer’s disinterest in the material (and desire to hurtle through it) abstracting the dementia of loneliness into a kind of brutal, pummeling impasto of shots that seem to have been thrown on the screen.
The rest of the film is too overwrought to justify the Hemingway comparison, although its exemplary brevity – the film runs little more than 96 minutes – initially suggests it might have learned well from Hemingway’s expediency. Until we learn – about twenty minutes in – that the film has not learned anything from Hemingway’s (or Welles’, or Joseph Conrad’s, or anyone’s) ability to link together scenes in anything resembling a coherent manner. Within this infamously embattled clash of scenes and in the midst of this infamously combustible clash of competing egos, Thewlis’ Edwards is rescued by Dr. Montgomery (Kilmer), assistant to the venerable but seemingly lost Dr. Moreau, who we soon learn has spent the past 17 years experimenting on combining animal and human DNA, the byproduct of which is a race of hybridized animal men that double as the film’s metaphor for the egomania of playing God with science. Or, and I really hope this isn’t the case, a metaphor for colonialism, which historically links to the other metaphor but, in light of what the film does with the hybrid beings in the back half, makes me need a shower.
En route to reducing the film’s stated themes into a lurid PG-13 horror film with animal-human slashers, the film forces us through barely intelligible travesty after travesty, salvaged in fits and starts only by the creeping sensation that this is all some Lynchian shadow-story cracked-mirror take on blockbuster cinema, a grotesque satire of Hollywood overindulgence. That’s obviously wishful thinking, a form of Stockholm-like optimism designed to salvage the viewers’ soul when no rescue is likely to come. But, I have to admit, Brando being carried like some antediluvian worship idol while literally caking him make-up that signifies his white god status takes the film right up to the line of gleeful, parodic absurdity and then some.
Past that point, it’s just a bunch of pultaceous, half-digested nonsense, with only Thewlis’ consummately great work (although even Thewlis isn’t saved from the screenplay’s atrociously teasing foreshadowing dialogue) keeping the film anywhere North of sanity, and Kilmer’s ludicrously self-lacerating performance taking it right back under. (Stanley’s own performance is somewhere on screen too, if you can discern it. Famously, he became the first witness to the film’s fall when he infamously asked production crew members to sneak him back onto the set dressed in make-up as an extra, a perverse form of cinematic Stockholm Syndrome if ever there was one).
It really is quite breathtaking how off-the-rails this film goes, and with how much gusto. Admittedly, for a (very) little while, the film’s heavily freighted production seems to be sitting back, not immediately visible, content to be a private amusement for those who had either been following or are now aware of the film’s Frankensteinian creation story (to rope in another literary classic, and make it embarrassed to be involved in either the film or this review). The haphazard production isn’t content to be a series of ghosts behind the canvas doomed to be whispered about by film snobs for years to come though; all of the stray fragments of this most strange and estranging production soon enough stage a hostile takeover of the film, demanding to be seen by anyone with eyes. They force their way onto the screen, thoroughly and unabashedly corporealizing and laying to rest any hope that the film might leave the specters of its production, or the poetic comparisons to Apocalypse Now, haunting it in the grave.
The only problem, for my tastes, is that while The Island of Dr. Moreau is an unmitigated trainwreck of a film, the maddening production is only ever ultimately content to destabilize the film, not to double-back around so that it achieves true delirium. The production conspires against the film’s aspirations toward coherence, but it never achieves the kind of fringe-dwelling joie de vivre of a truly disturbed, Wisseauvian production, the kind that can’t transition from scene to scene without the cut actually tearing us to tatters. Unlike any of the truly infamous disasters of the cinema, the film only ever hovers at chaos, never taking off into the realm of sheer derangement that would be required to make it a masterpiece of cinematic wreckage.
But it is chaotic, to an absurd degree. Thoroughly unhappy with simply referencing past artistic examples of the Western ego collapsing under its own attempts to play cinematic dictator-God, the film’s excesses march right up onto the screen, ensuring that The Island of Dr. Moreau can’t be mistaken for mere hackwork, nor for a garden variety example of bad filmmaking. Its concerns about personal sovereignty both subtended and destabilized by artistic authoritarianism and the myopia of individual mastery become not only the film’s theme but its being, not only its content but its form. The half-starts, false-beginnings, and wandering pathways of this production soon blossom from mere background ephemera for the viewer to take or leave at their discretion and into a kind of crazed blockbuster stew, cannibalizing so many influences and failing to digest any of them in its hazy fog of consciousness that it simply has to be reckoned with on-screen.