Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)

Year 8, Day 296 - 10/22/16 - Movie #2,474

BEFORE: I'm shuffling things around a bit, moving this one up a few days in the schedule so I can keep the whole mad scientist theme going.  Sometimes I don't see these thematic connections until I'm deep into the chain - but since we had unscrupulous doctors in "The Body Snatcher", preceded by Dr. Jekyll, and then one Dr. Frankenstein after another, it makes sense to add Dr. Moreau to that list.

Linking from "House of Frankenstein", John Carradine was also in "The Trouble With Girls" with Frank Welker, who did some uncredited work here, presumably on the animal noises.  I did a whole Frank Welker chain a month or two ago, where he voiced Curious George, a parrot and Gargamel's cat, so sometimes it pays to keep an eye on the filmographies of voice actors, because they do a lot of work, which makes my linking easier.  (If that seems like a cheat, then John Carradine was also in "The Ice Pirates" with Ron Perlman, but that's a movie that I think I'd rather forget...)

THE PLOT:  After being rescued and brought to an island, a man discovers that its inhabitants are experimental animals being turned into strange-looking humans, all of it the work of a visionary doctor.

AFTER: This is based on a novel by H.G. Wells, but it's one I never read.  (At the end of the year, I'll have to total up how many movies I watched this year based on classic books, I have a feeling it's a high number.)  But like the later "Frankenstein" films, someone made an attempt to update the story, since there are references to things like the United Nations and velcro.  This sort of raises the question about when the story is intended to take place, but as we've seen, a great story can be set any time, and should be able to withstand a few added topical references.

This is a story that should have gained more respect over time, because Wells apparently wrote about genetically modified animals long before science gained knowledge of DNA or gene splicing.  The hybrid creatures on the titular island were once animals, but with human DNA introduced into their bodies, they've become something in-between animals and humans.  And Dr. Moreau calls all of the creatures his "children", though it's a bit unclear if he's being literal or figurative.  Either way, some funky stuff has been going down on this island.  

We see this all through the eyes of Edward Douglas, our everyman who gets rescued from a life-raft, only to find himself in a world of Moreau's making, without any rational explanation at first for what the hybrids are, or how this strange society works.  Or, ultimately, fails to.  It's kind of like "Animal Farm" meets "Lord of the Flies" - the only thing that keeps the beasts in check is a system of laws and punishments, but when the law breaks down, their true natures are revealed, and all bets are off.

Dr. Moreau's got a Nobel prize on the wall (big deal, they're even giving them out to rock stars these days...) but seems to have been drummed out of society for his experiments on animals.  The goal appears to have been to make animals into men, and therefore men into gods.  There may be a flaw in that logic somewhere, or perhaps this is all some allegory that I can't quite grasp.  I'll read up on the original Wells novel, Wiki-Cliff Notes style, and see what it's all supposed to mean.

My best guess would be that this highlights what a thin difference there is between man and beasts, and the hybrids highlight the fact that it wouldn't take much to turn men into animals (and vice versa, apparently).  Moreau's control over the beast-men is somewhat illusory, as granting them the ability to reason also gave them the power to think of a way to subvert his control.  There's a "garden of Eden" metaphor in there somewhere.  It seems that Wells wrote the original novel to speak out against animal experimentation, and also explore the new theories of evolution, but I think he accidentally landed on something that's even more relevant today.

This version of the story, even though updated, was regarded as a box-office bomb, and was parodied several times in "South Park", with the characters of Man-bear-pig and Dr. Mephesto, along with his weird miniature clone, obviously based on Brando's portrayal of Moreau.  The "Austin Powers" films also clearly drew inspiration for Dr. Evil's "Mini-Me".  One can also draw a connection between Moreau and Brando's Col. Kurtz from "Apocalypse Now", as they were both mad men living apart from society, acting as benevolent dictators and wearing funky hats.

But it's hard to tell what the point of all this is.  What's the message, what's the take-away?  Don't mess around with animal genes?  It's tempting to draw an analogy to the current election, since it seems that each new leader of the tribe that gets a chance to hold the talking stick is just as bad as the last.  Perhaps I'm projecting, because I'm more inclined to believe that the filmmakers forgot to include a moral or meaning.  It feels more cobbled together than anything else.

Also starring Marlon Brando (last seen in "The Chase"), Val Kilmer (last seen in "Masked and Anonymous"), David Thewlis (last seen in "The Theory of Everything"), Fairuza Balk (last seen in "American History X"), Temuera Morrison (last seen in "Six Days Seven Nights"), Ron Perlman (last seen in "Enemy at the Gates"), Mark Dacascos, Daniel Rigney, Peter Elliott, Nelson de la Rosa, William Hootkins (last seen in "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace").  

RATING: 4 out of 10 dead rabbits

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