Special Defects

I can't believe that with all the money they spent on casting (Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer don't come cheap), the geniuses who remade H.G. Wells's sci-fi classic The Island of Dr. Moreau couldn't spring for some semi-realistic man-beast effects. This is the third and least satisfying Hollywood retelling of Wells's horrific story about the mad scientist experimenting with gene splicing among animals and humans. Despite all the advances in computerized animation and special effects in recent years, the latest adaption doesn't even begin to approach the scariness of 1932's Island of Lost Souls with Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi. The creatures who inhabit this island look totally fake -- like a bunch of guys running around in cheap Halloween costumes -- and more cuddly than scary. They should have titled it Island of the Second-rate Wookies.

So many popular movies nowadays owe their success to special effects wizardry; Jurassic Park became the top-grossing film of all time not because of a compelling story line, snappy dialogue, or fully realized characters, but because its incredibly realistic dino-stars were an awesome spectacle to behold. This summer's biggest box-office hits -- Twister, Mission: Impossible, and Independence Day -- all wear their camera tricks on their sleeves. As a long-time fan and booster of more thoughtful, less technologically driven fare, I never thought the day would come when I'd wish a Hollywood movie lavished more money on its special effects. But the pathetic, fuzzy fauna frolicking amid the flora on Dr. Moreau's island look absolutely ludicrous. Imagine playing the cowardly lion from The Wizard of Oz for straight horror.

What a shame. And a waste; Brando's Dr. Moreau and David Thewlis's unsuspecting shipwreck survivor are inspired characterizations (after all, who better than Tahitian heavyweight Brando to play a nut running amok on an atoll in the South Pacific?). Brando seems totally at ease despite a British accent and some fake buck teeth that look like they were handed down from Jerry Lewis's Nutty Professor. I didn't know what to make of Val Kilmer as Moreau's trippy assistant Montgomery; I'm pretty sure Wells's Montgomery didn't drop acid or listen to Hendrix on a Walkman. At least Kilmer wasn't boring. And his Brando impersonation toward the end of the film is a hoot.

The movie could have been big fun -- alternately spooky and darkly humorous in an An American Werewolf in London meets Apocalypse Now kind of way -- if only the FX guys had held up their end of the bargain. But the critters here make the talking pseudo-simians from 1968's Planet of the Apes look sophisticated by comparison, and sink this Island despite the best efforts of its talented, eccentric cast to keep it afloat.

The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Written by Richard Stanley, Michael Herr, and Walon Green; directed by John Frankenheimer; with Marlon Brando, David Thewlis, and Val Kilmer.

 
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