Pity poor H.G. Wells. After this summer's movie season is over, he may really be spinning in his grave.
First, "Independence Day" shamelessly swiped the storyline to his book "War of the Worlds" without even so much as a thank you. Now, his precognitive fable "The Island of Dr. Moreau" has been updated for the '90s by director John Frankenheimer.
Hollywood hasn't done very well by the 100-year-old book so far. Both 1933's "The Island of Lost Souls" and the 1977 version with Burt Lancaster glossed over the book's essential messages that it isn't nice to fool with Mother Nature and that man often finds it difficult to escape his animal nature. This time, the lessons are left for the very end, buried under layers of spectacular makeup and bloody violence.
Marlon Brando plays the title character, a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist who has received flak from animal-rights activists for his experiments on animal DNA. Moreau has relocated to a remote island, where he hopes to continue his work in peace.
U.N. peacekeeper Edward Douglas ("Dragonheart's" David Thewlis) is stranded at sea and rescued by Moreau's drug-addled assistant, Montgomery (Val Kilmer), who brings him to the island. There, Douglas slowly uncovers the scientist's secret: Moreau has been splicing human DNA into animal genes, creating half-man, half-animal hybrids.
These "manimals" have to receive injections to keep them from regressing into animals. Moreau also keeps them in line with pain-inducing implants and with the pseudo-religion taught by the half-man, half-goat "Sayer of the Law" (Ron Perlman).
But when Montgomery kills a rabbit (a no-no, according to the lawgiver), it sets off a chain of events that eventually destroys the island's precarious peace. The manimal Hyena-Swine (Daniel Rigby) leads a revolt of the man-beasts, who kill their master and swear vengeance on all humans.
Screenwriters Richard Stanley and Ron Hutchinson attempt to graft some cautions about genetic engineering onto the main story, as well as retrieve Wells' main warning, but their philosophizing is limited to such insights as "to go on two legs is very hard."
They're not exactly helped by Frankenheimer. The veteran director, who was brought in after another one dropped out of the project, shot much of the action in a quick-cut style that screams cheesy music video rather than big-screen movie.
Frankenheimer's not exactly a model of restraint here. The film features some pretty violent moments, as well as drug use and some graphic sex between the nude manimals.
The performers are as much to blame, though. Brando, Thewlis and Kilmer each try to top the others in a hammy duel of melodramatic readings and bulging eyes. Brando wins out, but only because it's so perversely fun to hear his lisped delivery and see the pasty actor clad in all white, looking like an albino pontiff.
In fact, only Perlman (under makeup straight out of his "Beauty and the Beast" TV series) and Fairuza Balk, playing Moreau's lovely manimal "daughter," fare very well.
Makeup artist Stan Winston ("Jurassic Park," "Batman Returns") is the real star. His manimal designs are dazzling, but they're not nearly enough to make the film worthwhile.