There I was, back in May 2002, alone with John Frankenheimer interviewing the man in his living room. It’s not necessary to say how nervous I was beforehand—this was, after all, the director of BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, SECONDS, GRAND PRIX, FRENCH CONNECTION II, BLACK SUNDAY, along with many others—but as much as I had prepared, as much as I had to ask him, there were a few topics that I wasn’t sure if I should even try bringing up. Since part of the interview was covering the role of politics in his career he didn’t hesitate to mention Bobby Kennedy, a friend who he had actually driven to the Ambassador on the night he was assassinated. But there was also a film he had made just a few years earlier that even then had achieved a certain kind of notoriety and I was hesitant to go there. As things turned out, I didn’t have much to worry about. Throughout our talk the man couldn’t have been more gracious with me and then there came a point late in the interview when he was talking about a wide, general range of topics having to do with the film industry, talking about how hard it is, how you have to persevere and then out of nowhere he stated (I’m writing this entirely from the vivid memory of the moment which has always stayed with me), “…and I honestly have to say that making THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU was the most horrendous experience of my life. Any time, anywhere. I felt lost. I felt totally, totally lost. There was a point in the middle of making that movie where we had no script. And we didn’t know what was going to happen. Who was going to take over the island or anything. But I brought a writer over to work on it and somehow I got through it. I may have ruined it, but I got through it.” At that point I removed my jaw from the floor, picked it up and muttered something like, “I would imagine that any questions about that movie you just wouldn’t want to get into.” To which he replied, “Well, you just couldn’t print it. But you want to come back up here again sometime, we’ll do it for the time capsule.” Frankenheimer died two months later. Damn it, I would have loved that interview. He seemed like an amazing man.
So fifteen years after its release on August 23, 1996 and several years now past the deaths of its director and most iconic star, what are we to make of this version of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU? On the one hand, it’s not an uninteresting piece of work with a uniquely bizarre tone, memorable Stan Winston makeup on the creatures, the hand of Frankenheimer’s gripping visual style continually in evidence and, of course, an expectedly odd (and by now somewhat infamous) Marlon Brando performance as the titular doctor. On the other hand…where can I really start except to say that the film feels like the work of someone who was, well, lost. Totally, totally lost. Whether it’s his worst film is arguable (few have probably ever seen THE EXTRAORDINARY SEAMAN which would be a contender, trust me) but regardless of where it ranks in his long career rarely has there been a film from a director of his stature that, however it managed to happen, has somehow come out as such a mess.
After surviving a plane crash somewhere in the southern Pacific U.N. negotiator Edward Douglas (David Thewlis) is picked up by a boat by a man who calls himself Montgomery (Val Kilmer) and taken to the island owned by the mysterious and legendary Dr. Moreau (Marlon Brando). Though initially intrigued by the beautiful Aissa (Fairuza Balk) Douglas is soon made suspicious by Montgomery’s odd behavior and strange surroundings. When he finally encounters Moreau, Douglas becomes fully aware of the reasons for the island’s secrecy, learning the horrific truth of the half-human, half-animal creations that the doctor has given life to through his experiments and now controls through a form of shock therapy causing them pain so they will remain subservient. As the weeks goes on and any attempt Douglas makes to escape is proven futile it soon becomes clear that Moreau, who tries to remind his children that his law ‘is necessary’, doesn’t have the control of them that he thinks he does leading to a complete breakdown of that law and a revelation of what may be in store for Douglas if he is unable to find a way off the island away from this madness.
As time goes on the full scope of John Frankenheimer’s career becomes even more fascinating, particularly as you move beyond the dramas and action films one might associate with him at first glance to certain unexpected titles that become all the more strange when they’re combined with the serious approach that always seemed to work best for him. There have been so many rumors and stories about the production of DR. MOREAU (the third official filming of the original H.G. Wells novel, following Earl C. Kenton’s ISLAND OF LOST SOULS in 1933 and Don Taylor’s THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU in 1977), which Frankenheimer took over from HARDWARE director Richard Stanley several days into shooting, that it becomes tough to address the film since it really does seem like a case of someone losing control of a production in ways that go beyond simply critiquing a directorial style. Whether you think it’s ‘bad’ or not just isn’t an adequate description. Even before Brando makes his delayed entrance things begin to go south as if the movie is losing its grip on where the focus should be and while it might be tempting to look at it as the madness of the production (apparently so chaotic that Stanley is rumored to have snuck on to the set in full makeup to observe things) representing the madness of the narrative it never comes off. As things progress it begins to fly off the rails in a sputtering kind of way as if it’s just trying to spin its wheels so certain necessary story beats can occur, actors can make their appearances and it can all wrap up when it’s gotten to feature length.
There are glimmers of a decent story that is naturally inherent in the material and there is intrigue early on when Douglas first encounters Montgomery on the way to the island. Whatever Kilmer’s reasons for deciding to take the supporting role (some reports have him wanting a smaller part after being served with divorce papers), at first it comes off as the more intriguing choice since he’s not just straitjacketed playing the good guy and I particularly like an early moment where the character just drifts off while giving his backstory, as if even he’s forgotten what led him to this insanity. But these tantalizing hints never build to anything and when Brando finally appears it really just seems to become about this actor hijacking the film more than an examination of an island where madness has begun to reign. It’s as if the rewrites that happened after Frankenheimer came on (final screenplay credit goes to Stanley and Ron Hutchinson) bled so many things out that there wasn’t much of a story left beyond Thewlis expressing anguish at the twisted horror he witnesses and the plot mechanics of the creatures figuring out how to take over. It’s never boring—a film with all these elements tossed in really couldn’t be and if somebody likes it as just an insane, creature-filled darkly comic nightmare I’m not sure I’d try to say that they’re wrong. But very little about it works, becoming a mishmash of weird actor choices like Kilmer’s prevalent blue material wrapped around his arm or the ice bucket Brando wears in one scene combined with Stan Winston creature makeup that seem to belong in a movie with an entirely different tone.
With Brando in the title role it’s tempting to draw a twisted APOCALYPSE NOW parallel to all this or even read it as some kind of satirical take of things we might have imagined were happening on whatever island he was on for all those years but those possibilities probably aren’t what Frankenheimer, never someone you go to for broad satire, would be interested in. Brando, with his bizarre buck teeth and maybe playing things in a slight Charles Laughton-like manner with his British accent plays what should be a man who believes he has become God in a light comic fashion, unconnected to much of what anyone else is saying or doing. There is something to be said for little bits where he’s demonstrating to some of his ‘children’ what atonal music is, but for the most part he seems determined to detach himself from any sort of expectations that people would have from him in this role in favor of this stuff and it comes off like he’s making a jokey ‘special appearance’ in what’s supposed to be his movie. Ultimately, this promising collaboration between a director and star who conceivably might have worked together thirty years earlier (Imagine--Brando in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE! Frankenheimer directing REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE!) just becomes not much of anything, a big missed opportunity with maybe the director deciding at a certain point that it wasn’t worth the trouble to try to get the lead actor to behave otherwise.
It’s also necessary to mention the character of Moreau’s silent, diminutive double (Nelson de la Rosa, certified by Guinness as the smallest man on Earth), who remains by his side and at one point is playing piano alongside the doctor, a dynamic which of course later reappeared as the much more famous Mini Me as played by Verne Troyer in the AUSTIN POWERS movies (also released by New Line, interestingly). It can’t really be fairly said that Mini Me is a spoof of this since it’s not as if the concept is played all that straight in MOREAU anyway but as much as Brando does seem engaged by de la Rosa, who is an intriguing presence whenever he gets a close-up, it still feels like one of many things just tossed in by actor, director or script to somehow find a hook, some kind of through line which never really happens and as a result a number of potentially interesting elements come off as flat in spite of all the bizarreness, so it feels like any given scene has been put on film in spite of itself, that they had all these actors had spent so much time getting into the heavy creature makeup so something had to be shot. There’s very little sense of pacing or a narrative building into anything—the story is framed by an opening and closing narration by Thewlis to drive certain points home but there’s also a chunk of out of nowhere voiceover at the halfway mark as if it was trying to bridge scenes that were never even shot.
Some of the effort does come through like the impressive production design filmed down in Australia and if there is chaos at least it’s a believable chaos even if it hasn’t been organized right and there are striking touches like how Balk seems made up to deliberately resemble the famous “Afghan Girl” cover of National Geographic. But there’s nothing really there beyond the madness, the weirdness and timeworn thematics of what someone, whether human or beast, will do to survive, so the way certain characters are ultimately dispatched it’s as if the rewrites caused them to be unable to figure out what to do with them or if whichever actor in question was nearing the end of their commitment. Putting aside the makeup there’s some pretty bad early CGI sprinkled in there to aid with creature movement, an energetically propulsive score by Gary Chang who worked with the director several other times and there’s no doubt that Frankenheimer’s compositional sense is as visceral as always—few others have even been able to frame two individuals, one standing behind the other’s shoulder, quite so well.
THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU never really becomes a chore—frankly, it doesn’t go on long enough for that to ever happen (the Director’s Cut on DVD which restores some brutality and gore runs 100 minutes, compared to 95 minutes for the theatrical cut) and I can appreciate how it offers a certain kind of visceral feel at times with a crass, yet hard-edged feel of violence and gore reminiscent of some of Frankenheimer’s earlier work possibly combined with a hint of the madness he himself may have witnessed at points back during the end of the sixties. But all of the screaming and madness as it tries to determine if these creatures are animals or men just leads to a bummer dead end. Ultimately there’s no one to focus on, no one to care about and as much as some of it does manage to be strangely entertaining I can’t think of very much about the film that I actually like or enjoy.
Brando and Kilmer are very much in their own world, as if they weren’t even acting opposite a few of the people they share the screen with. Brando, as fascinating as it may be to watch whatever he does however bizarre his appearance is throughout, is just too out of synch with things and Kilmer (who many of the accounts seem to blame for a lot of the unpleasantness that went on) ultimately has so little presence for a long stretch of time that when he attempts to take things over later on it just doesn’t have any impact and though it seems interesting to have him playing a sort of successor to Brando (complete with him even doing an impression) it all just has a ‘so what’ feel. Thewlis, who replaced Rob Morrow when Stanley left and has said some pretty nasty things about Frankenheimer in interviews, emotes with all the anguish he can muster and seems intent on putting some kind of character into the tiniest of gestures but maybe the actor just doesn’t seem the right leading man for this particular film. Many of the actors buried in makeup, like Ron Perlman as the Sayer of the Law, are pretty much stranded with nothing to play. Surprisingly, it’s Fairuza Balk, who is kind of wasted as the mysterious Aissa and by some accounts tried to flee when Morrow did, who seems to be trying the most to do something that’s actually part of what this film is becoming. It’s a valiant attempt and is probably ultimately in vain but at least it’s something.
By now the film is probably just an odd footnote in the careers of the principles but it also seems notable for how several of those involved are now no longer with us—not just the director and star but also Stan Winston and cinematographer William A. Fraker (he does an excellent job here, particularly in shooting the creatures) who even then were still very active. Time goes by fast, that’s for sure. As for Frankenheimer, it’s nice to imagine that this experience lit a fire deep down making him determined that this wasn’t going to be his final film and two years later he was back with the Robert De Niro action film RONIN, which as far as I’m concerned is flat out awesome—of course, he was also doing some excellent work in cable TV around this time as well. Among the many things I took away from the man that day with him in his living room was how truly, unexpectedly human he came off in that moment where he spoke of his experience on this production. I’ll never know the particular side of the story he hinted at or how that would have lined up with whatever Richard Stanley’s side of things might be but as much as DR. MOREAU falls apart it never feels like the work of someone just going through the motions. If he failed, if he made it into something it shouldn’t have been, well, at least he was striving for something. When I think of that it always makes me want to defend the film a little even more, as foolhardy as it might be to try. It’s difficult to say much of anything about THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, let alone things that are good, partly because for me that next interview that never happened will always be kind of hanging there. Ultimately a pretty big mess, the film is unsatisfying like much of life is unsatisfying. But we somehow still have to get through it. We may ruin it, but we get through it.