My Year Of Flops Case File #64: The Island Of Dr. Moreau (1996)
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Welcome to "Marlon Brando Gone Crazy" week here at My Year Of Flops. Join me as I journey upriver to explore two particularly loco joints from the tragicomic nadir of Brando's late-period career: 1996's ill-fated The Island Of Dr. Moreau and 1998's little-seen Free Money. At this point you might be wondering, "Haven't you covered several of Brando's films already?" Yes, yes I did, but oh Lord do I love me some Brando. To me, he epitomizes much of what this project is about: genius turned to madness, bad judgment and questionable choices on a historic scale, and the slippery line between triumph and catastrophe.
I have an ulterior motive as well. For in my entry on Missouri Breaks, I proposed what I call The Great Gazoo Theory: that sometime in the mid-'70s Brando began taking marching orders from the Great Gazoo, the tiny, effeminate green alien only Fred Flintstone could see. For example, Brando's behavior on the set of The Score is wholly understandable if you imagine The Great Gazoo hovering over Brando's ear and whispering "Hey dum-dum, if you really want to show that Frank Oz fool what's what, call him Miss Piggy and refuse to talk to him. That'll show him".
I like to think of the Great Gazoo theory as the Rosetta Stone that explains the totality of Brando's career from Missouri Breaks onward. I expected it to sweep film scholarship and the academic world. In my hubris, I predicted that it would be at least as influential as the Auteur Theory, if not more so on account of I proposed it and it prominently involved a minor yet beloved supporting character from the Flintstones universe. So it is with profound sadness that I must confess that the Great Gazoo Theory has thus far gained no traction in the academic or film world. I haven't been invited to expound on my theory at a single academic conference, so I'm obviously going to have to pimp it further before it catches on.
The Great Gazoo obviously worked overtime on the set of The Island Of Dr. Moreau. Surely no sane human being could have made Marlon Brando cover his face in white pancake make-up because he has "allergies to the sun" (a line that, due to Brando's slurred diction, sounds uncannily like "I have an alligator for a son"), use an ice bucket for a hat, speak in the high-flown, effete diction of a Masterpiece Theater host, travel everywhere with a tiny little sidekick who looks like a sentient fetus who just barely survived an abortion, and spend his last few moments alive tinkling the ivories whilst trying to explain the differences between Schoenberg and Gershwin to terrifying sub-human beasties.
A certain craziness seemed hard-wired into the film's DNA. It is, after all, a movie about a mad scientist and his even crazier assistant, but in the filming of Dr. Moreau, free-floating lunacy permeated every facet of this legendarily troubled production, especially the acting. In Moreau, Brando symbolically passes down the straightjacket of supreme craziness to Val Kilmer, whose alternately droll and deranged performance here suggests how Jim Morrison might have turned out if he'd turned to mad science instead of music.
David Thewlis sweatily inhabits the thankless lead role of an incredulous everyman who is rescued by Val Kilmer while adrift at sea and taken to a mysterious island where Nobel Prize winner Marlon Brando (who no doubt cleaned up in the oft-overlooked "Mad Science" category) is attempting to build a utopia and perfect humanity by transforming animals into hideous half-human/half-animal mutants and drugging and shocking them into submission. How could such a foolproof plan possibly go wrong?
Thewlis is appropriately horrified, though if you're stuck on an island with grotesque mutants, it's probably not a good idea to decry them as Satanic abominations, as Thewlis does here, especially when they can tear you to pieces with their claws and rip out your throat with their razor-sharp teeth. They're also capable of bruising egos with cutting remarks and withering sarcasm.
Brando and Kilmer preserve an artificial calm by keeping the creatures in line with electric shocks when they misbehave and doping them with morphine, methamphetamines, "shrooms and some other shit" to "mellow them out" and "keep them coming back for more." Brando, resplendent in flowing robes, behaves like a foppish doting dad, delivering bite-sized nuggets of civilization to his alternately worshipful and resentful minions in the form of bible verses and piano recitals where he performs alongside his very own mini-me (who, not coincidentally, is the inspiration for Verne Troyer's character in the Austin Powers movies).
Brando doesn't enter the film until a half hour in and (SPOILER ALERT) bites it a little over a half hour later, at which point the steadily escalating insanity of Kilmer's performance reaches an apex when he dons white pancake make-up and white robes and launches into an unspeakably cruel caricature of Brando that competes with, and at times even upstages, Brando's equally cruel exercise in gonzo self-parody.
In scenes like this, Kilmer doesn't seem to be playing a role so much as lampooning it. There are subversive air quotes around every smart-ass wisecrack. He seems to be doing his damnedest to out-crazy Brando and succeeds with surprising frequency. Though a tonal and thematic mess, Dr. Moreau is rife with indelible moments. Most of them belong to Kilmer, from the scene where he tenderly strokes a rabbit, holds it up to Thewlis so he can kiss it, then casually, briskly breaks its neck, to a death scene that hurls itself into the annals of camp history.
The film eventually coalesces into a blunt allegory about how the failures of society arise out of the innately flawed essence of human nature. Human nature, with its insatiable lust for power and propensity towards violence, proves the semi-human Islanders' undoing as much as their animal instincts. As Kilmer's space cadet might argue after a few joints, aren't we, like, the real animals and shit?
But by the time shit starts going kablooie and the manimals start firing automatic weapons at each other, any pretensions to sophisticated social satire or political allegory have been lost in a sea of empty spectacle. An indifferently filmed shootout is an indifferently filmed shootout whether the gun lovers involved are Steven Seagal or puny man-animals.
Watching Dr. Moreau a second time (the first time around, I was selling plasma during college, hardly ideal viewing conditions), I quite enjoyed the oddball humor and stoned rhythms of Kilmer's performance and the old-school artistry of the character design and make-up. I wish director John Frankenheimer had embraced the high camp of Kilmer and Brando's performances instead of trying to make some sort of muddled sociological statement.
I was never bored, even if the film ultimately amounts to little more than a very expensive freak show. Just before slurring one of the all-time great terrible last lines ("I want to go to dog heaven"), Kilmer utters, with sublime understatement, a line that doubles as the film's epitaph: "Well, that didn't work out."Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco