The production was notoriously difficult and the film was a box office bomb that received mostly negative reviews.
In 2010, United Nations negotiator Edward Douglas (David Thewlis) survives a plane crash in the Java Sea and is eventually rescued by a passing boat. Aboard, a man called Montgomery (Val Kilmer) tends to him. After telling him the boat has no radio, he promises Douglas the captain will take him to Timor after dropping him off. However, when they arrive at Montgomery's destination referred to as "Moreau's Island", he instead advises Douglas to stay with him, ostensibly so he can use the radio on the island.
Montgomery unloads a shipment of rabbits at a pen, and one runs away while he slaughters another for Douglas's meal. They then head on to the Main House where Douglas is warned not to wander. There, he meets a daughter of Dr. Moreau's called Aissa (Fairuza Balk), but Montgomery turns him away from her and leads him to his room. On the way, they discuss how Moreau vanished after becoming obsessed with his animal research. Montgomery locks Douglas in his room, but he manages to escape that night. He then comes across a laboratory where he witnesses the birth of a mutant baby, belonging to and delivered by human-animal hybrids. He is noticed, escapes, and runs into Aissa who leads him to the village of the mutants. On the way, they find the partially eaten corpse of a rabbit, not far from a leopard hybrid called Lo-Mai (Mark Dacascos). At the village, they find the Sayer of the Law (Ron Perlman) whose Law preaches "being human" in terms of restraint and discipline. Dr. Moreau (Marlon Brando), referred to as "The Father" by the mutants, appears. He controls the villagers by using a remote control that causes pain through an implant under the creatures' skin. Moreau forces the village to hand over Douglas only to peacefully take him to the House to discuss the situation.
Douglas, Montgomery and Moreau gather and he introduces his hybrid "children" and later dine. Then, he explains his creations: he introduced human DNA into animals in search of a higher being, incapable of harm. The existing Beast Folk are imperfect, but Moreau claims to be "closer than [Douglas] could possibly imagine" in his quest. Moreau's son Azazello (Temuera Morrison) comes in with the rabbit, to the disgust of Moreau who abhors killing. When he learns of the eaten rabbit, he promises that there will be a trial the next day. Douglas tries to escape by boat, but finds it overrun with rat-like creatures and gives up.
At the trial, Azazello unexpectedly shoots Lo-Mai. His body is burned and a mutant called Hyena-Swine (Daniel Rigney) comes, notices the pain implant among his remains, then removes his own. Montgomery reveals to Douglas that in addition to the pain, the animals are controlled through regular drugging to prevent them from "retrogressing". Hyena-Swine shows off the removed implant, and so Montgomery sets the other beasts after him. Meanwhile, Douglas tries to contact the outside world, but Montgomery sabotages the radio and Aissa reveals to Moreau that she is regressing as it shows her with cat-like eyes.
Hyena-Swine and his trackers (now on his side and also free of implants) break into the House and confront their Father. Angry over their hybrid nature and no longer under his control, they reject humanity and the Law and kill Moreau. His children grieve, except for Azazello who steals Montgomery's gun and goes to join the savages. Aissa informs Douglas that he can stop her regression with a serum from the lab. However, it turns out Montgomery has gone insane and destroyed it. Douglas also finds samples and a file with his name on them, and finds out that Moreau was planning to use his DNA to stop Aissa's regression permanently, completing his experiments. Meanwhile, Azazello leads the savages to the armory.
The savages have now taken over the island: Azazello shoots Montgomery at the village and Hyena-Swine's faction rampages around the island. Azazello hangs Aissa, but is shot dead by Hyena-Swine after bringing Douglas to him. Douglas manages to survive by telling Hyena-Swine to impose his leadership and be "God Number One" among the others of his faction. During the battle, Douglas escapes and Hyena-Swine is killed in the burning building.
The Sayer of the Law and Assassimon see off Douglas as he leaves. The Sayer of the Law tells Douglas that the hybrids want to return to their natural state of being. In closing narration, Douglas reflects on the savagery that also emerges in humans and claims that he leaves the island "in fear".Marlon Brando as Dr. Moreau, a mad scientist who created the Beast Folk.
Val Kilmer as Dr. Montgomery, a former neurosurgeon who is a vet on Dr. Moreau's island.
David Thewlis as Edward Douglas, a U.N. agent who gets left to die in the middle of the ocean and comes to the island.
Fairuza Balk as Aissa, a beautiful cat hybrid and Moreau's "daughter" who looks more human than the other hybrids.
Daniel Rigney as Hyena-Swine, a vicious hyena and pig hybrid.
Temuera Morrison as Azazello, a dog-like hybrid and Moreau's "son" who is assigned to find the hybrids.
Nelson de la Rosa as Majai, a miniature version of Dr. Moreau who doesn't speak.
Peter Elliott as Assassimon, a baboon-like hybrid who is the only primate hybrid and Five Finger Man.
Mark Dacascos as Lo-Mai, a leopard hybrid who is accused of breaking the laws (suckling water from a stream, walking on all fours, and eating flesh).
Ron Perlman as Sayer of the Law, a blind goat-like hybrid who is the priest-like figure among the hybrids.
Marco Hofschneider as M'Ling
Miguel López as Waggdi
William Hootkins as Kiril
As recounted in David Gregory's 2014 documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau, the chaotic events of the making of the film quickly led to its becoming one of the most difficult and troubled productions in Hollywood history.
A film version of Dr Moreau had been a long-standing dream of original director Richard Stanley, who had first read the book as a child. He spent four years developing the project before getting the green-light from New Line Cinema. Although Stanley had envisaged Jürgen Prochnow in the lead role, New Line managed to secure Marlon Brando, but some time later, Stanley learned that New Line had gone behind his back and offered the movie to director Roman Polanski. Furious, Stanley demanded a meeting with Brando, who unexpectedly proved very sympathetic to Stanley's vision, not least because of Stanley's intimate understanding of the novel and its history - including its connections with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (the main inspiration for Apocalypse Now) - and because of Stanley's own family relation to legendary African explorer Henry Morton Stanley, one of the chief inspirations for Conrad's lead character, Kurtz.
With Brando supporting him, Stanley was confirmed as director, and he was also able to recruit two more major stars: Bruce Willis as Edward Prendick, a UN negotiator who washes up on Moreau's island after his plane crashes, and James Woods as Montgomery, Moreau's chief assistant. Buoyed by these developments, Stanley enthusiastically launched into pre-production, collaborating with special effects creator Stan Winston on the creation of makeup and costumes for Moreau's hybrid creatures, and preparing the location and sets. However, as the time for principal photography approached, problems began to multiply: Bruce Willis dropped out of the film (Stanley says in Lost Soul that the actor was divorcing his wife, Demi Moore, at the time, but the couple did not announce separation until the summer of 1998, and divorce made final two years later) and was replaced with Val Kilmer, who, to Stanley's dismay, demanded a 40% reduction in the number of days he was required on set. Stanley solved this problem when he had the idea to switch Kilmer from the protagonist to the supporting role of Montgomery, who had far less screen time. However this meant James Woods had to leave the production. New Line hurriedly recruited former Northern Exposure star Rob Morrow for the lead role. Another significant setback occurred not long before filming began, with the suicide of Brando's daughter Cheyenne - the devastated star retreated to his private island, leaving Stanley and his producers in limbo, not knowing when or even if he would show up.
The chosen location for the film was the rain forest outside Cairns in North Queensland, Australia. Tensions between Stanley and New Line had been growing during pre-production, partly because of Stanley's quirky, insular nature, and his marked unwillingness to attend studio meetings - but they reached crisis point within the first few days of filming. Stanley's vulnerability to studio pressure was exacerbated by the continuing absence of his main ally, Brando, but the biggest problem proved to be the notorious on-set behaviour of Kilmer, who reportedly arrived on set two days late.
Kilmer later attributed his obnoxious behaviour to the fact that, just as filming began, he learned from a television report that he was being sued for divorce by his wife of seven years Joanne Whalley but, whatever his reasons, many of the cast and crew have testified to Kilmer's bullying, and his consistently hostile and obstructive manner during the first days of shooting - he would not deliver the dialogue as scripted, and repeatedly criticised Stanley's ideas, and what little footage was shot was deemed unusable.
The studio mainly seems to have blamed the director for not getting Kilmer under control, but another significant factor was the sudden departure of co-star Rob Morrow on the second day of shooting. With the location being pounded by bad weather that had temporarily stopped filming, Morrow found himself unable to bear the tension and hostility on set any longer, so he telephoned New Line chairman Rob Shaye in Hollywood and tearfully begged to be let go. Shaye agreed.
After a third day of filming, following emergency consultations with its on-set executives, New Line abruptly fired Stanley - by fax. The beleaguered director reacted angrily, shredding documents in revenge, and then vanishing after being delivered to the airport for the return flight to Hollywood. The reasons for Stanley's dismissal were not made clear, and false rumours were spread about his allegedly erratic behaviour, but the main reasons appear to have been his perceived unwillingness to deal with studio executives, and especially his problems in dealing with Kilmer, whose already well-established reputation for being 'difficult' was soon to be enshrined in movie lore thanks to this film.
Stanley had been offered his full fee on condition that he left the production quietly and did not speak about his sacking, so his disappearance caused consternation at New Line, who feared he might try to sabotage the filming. His removal also predictably sent shock waves through the cast and crew. Outraged female lead Fairuza Balk stormed off the set after a heated exchange with the New Line executives, and then had a production assistant drive her all the way from Cairns to Sydney - a distance of some 2,500 km - in a rented limousine. However, by her own account, Balk's agent then warned her in blunt terms that the studio would ruin her, and that she would never work in films again if she broke her contract, so she was soon forced to return to the set.
With a budget now approaching US$70 million, and potential disaster looming, New Line brought in director John Frankenheimer. He came on board in part because - like virtually every member of the cast and crew - he wanted the opportunity to work with the legendary Brando, but he also used the studio's desperation to his advantage, successfully demanding a hefty fee and a three-picture deal in exchange for his services. Well known as one of the last of the "old style" Hollywood directors, Frankenheimer's gruff, dictatorial approach was radically different from Stanley's and he soon alienated many of the cast and crew. He and Brando decided to have the then-current script by Richard Stanley, Michael Herr and Walon Green rewritten by Frankenheimer's previous collaborator Ron Hutchinson. Frankenheimer also needed to find a new lead actor to replace Rob Morrow and brought in David Thewlis to play Douglas. The whole production was shut down for a week and a half while these changes were implemented.
Once shooting resumed, however, the problems continued, and escalated. Brando routinely spent hours in his air-conditioned trailer when he was supposed to be on camera, while actors and extras sweltered in the tropical heat in full make-up and heavy costumes. The antipathy between Brando and Kilmer rapidly escalated into open hostility, and on one occasion, as recounted in Lost Soul, this resulted in the cast and crew being kept waiting for hours, with each actor refusing to come out of his respective trailer before the other. New pages were turned in only a few days before they were shot. Frankenheimer and Kilmer had an argument on-set, which reportedly got so heated, Frankenheimer stated afterwards, "I don't like Val Kilmer, I don't like his work ethic, and I don't want to be associated with him ever again".
According to Thewlis, "we all had different ideas of where it should go. I even ended up improvising some of the main scenes with Marlon". Thewlis went on to rewrite his character personally. The constant rewrites also got on Brando's nerves, and as on many previous productions, he refused to learn lines, so he was equipped with a small radio receiver, so that his assistant could feed his lines to him as he performed - a technique he had used on earlier films. Thewlis recollects: "[Marlon would] be in the middle of a scene and suddenly he'd be picking up police messages and would repeat, 'There's a robbery at Woolworth's'". Meanwhile, friction between him and Kilmer elicited the former's quip: "Your problem is you confuse the size of your paycheck with the size of your talent". Upon completion of Kilmer's final scene, Frankenheimer is reported to have said to the crew, "Now get that bastard off my set".
Stanley had reportedly jokingly told the film's production designer to burn the set down, but when Stanley disappeared after his sacking, security was tightened in case he was actually trying to sabotage the project. Stanley himself later revealed that he had in fact stayed in Australia - suffering a total emotional breakdown, he had retreated to a remote area in the Cairns region to recover. There he had a chance meeting with some of the film's former production staff, who had been rehired as extras and were camping in the area. It was confirmed by these same production staff in the 'Lost Souls' documentary that with their help Stanley secretly came back to the set over several days, disguised in full costume as one of the dog-men, and performed as an extra on the film he had originally been hired to direct . It has also been reported that he showed up at the film's wrap party, where he ran into Kilmer, who was said to have apologized profusely for Stanley's removal from the film.
Due to the many problems with the production, and the evident ongoing attempts by both Brando and Kilmer to sabotage it, the location shooting eventually stretched from a scheduled six weeks to almost six months, and the atmosphere on the production became almost a mirror of the plot of the movie, with the long-suffering cast and crew becoming more and more alienated by and hostile towards its wayward co-stars and their authoritarian director.
Eventually, a director's cut was released on DVD, extending the 96-minute film to 100 minutes.
The film was met with negative reviews; Rotten Tomatoes currently rates the film with a 23% "Rotten", based on 31 reviews. The film grossed only $49 million worldwide on a $40 million budget, which, with marketing and other expenses, lost money for the studio. In an article written upon Brando's death in 2004, critic Roger Ebert described The Island of Dr. Moreau as "perhaps [Brando's] worst film".
The Island of Dr. Moreau later received six nominations for the Razzie Awards including Worst Picture and Worst Director, winning Worst Supporting Actor for Marlon Brando (Val Kilmer was also a nominee in this category). The film also got nominations for two Saturn Awards: Best Make-Up and Science Fiction Film.