Thursday, 3 January 2008

The Island of Dr Moreau (1977)

The 1977 version of The Island of Dr Moreau doesn’t have an especially high reputation, but it’s one of those movies that I found myself pleasantly surprised by her. Although made in the same year as Star War it’s very much representative of the pre-blockbuster type of science fiction film. It’s not trying to be a cinematic landmark and it’s not trying to include as many explosions and as much mindless action as possible. It’s a small-scale rather unimposing sort of film, relying more on the strength of its ideas than on special effects. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it is Burt Lancaster’s performance as Dr Moreau – he doesn’t play him as a crazed mad scientist, or as a monster or a vicious sadist. His Moreau is calm and rational. He may inflict suffering, but it’s not his intention to do so. It’s just in the nature of the things he does. He’s in the business of creating life, and life brings pain – you can’t have life without it. He doesn’t rule his miniature world by fear so much as by awe, and by sheer force of personality. His creatures obey him because he is, after all, their god. As the Sayer of the Law reminds them, his is the hand that makes and heals as well as the hand that hurts. His intentions are noble, and he genuinely wants his artificial humans, created from animals by manipulation of the very basis of life itself, to achieve lives of dignity and purpose. All too often he fails, and his failures entail suffering, but he regrets this. It’s a fascinating and rather powerful performance. Michael York as Braddick, the sailor marooned on Moreau’s island, adopts the opposite approach. Instead of playing Braddick as a calm, noble and brave hero he plays him as a person who always seems likely to topple over the edge of hysteria and madness. This works better than you might expect, and when he becomes one of the victims of Moreau’s experiments it makes his struggle to maintain his hold on his personality more interesting. And it’s entertaining! Nigel Davenport as Moreau’s bodyguard and Richard Basehart as the Sayer of the Law give good support. Barbara Carrera is there mainly as eye candy, and to provide a love interest, but her performance is at least competent. Her main problem is that her part is underwritten and her struggle with her own nature (which isn’t explicitly stated but is obvious enough) isn’t given enough stress. The makeup is fairly effective, and the lack of modern CGI effects does the movie no harm at all. Although it takes considerable liberties with the plot it captures the spirit of the original novel by H. G. Wells fairly well, which of course is far more important than a rigid adherence to the details of the book. It’s not a great movie by any means, but if you approach it with realistic expectations it provides decent enough entertainment without insulting the viewer’s intelligence, which is more than can be said for many of the big-budget science fiction films of more recent years.

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