Brando Plays God

WHEN MARLON BRANDO ENTERS any movie, your pulse quickens. You know that whatever he shows you it won't be ordinary, it won't be boring and it could be great. He makes quite an entrance as the title character in _B_The Island of Dr. Moreau_b_ (he's Moreau; no man is an island). Caked in bone-white makeup, draped in white muslin and carrying an electronic scepter, he's perched aloft in a parody of the Popemobile, an appropriate vehicle for this mad-scientist demigod who reigns over a tropical island populated by half-human animals he's created by genetic engineering. The whitest of white men (the pancake is to protect him from the sun), Brando's Moreau is a cracked idealist -- you can't help but think of his Kurtz in ""Apocalypse Now,'' gone balmy up Coppola's Vietnamese river. Dr. Moreau forbids violence (but uses it to subjugate his half-animal ""children''), doesn't eat meat (like Hitler, he's a vegetarian) and speaks with a plummy, overrefined English accent that seems taken from Robert Morley.

Brando's performance is enormous fun, but it's not just a joke. He's hilarious and gently mesmerizing at once, and director John Frankenheimer savvily adjusts the tone of his movie to fit Brando's daft brilliance. This update of H. G. Wells's 100-year-old novel is -- until it collapses in the last 30 minutes -- giddily entertaining, a tropical-horror potboiler with a wry sense of its own absurdity. Any movie that casts gnarly, intense David Thewlis as straight man is going to be pitched at a pretty baroque level. On this island there are only three bonafide human beings -- Thewlis, who gets stranded there after a shipwreck, Brando, who's trying to create the perfect human being, and his menacing, drug-dazed assistant, played by Val Kilmer with his own brand of quirky cunning. (While Brando is doing Morley, Kilmer does Brando.) All the other characters are mutant creatures, the actors unrecognizable under Stan Winston's creature effects. Some of these critters are on the tacky side, but at least one is inspired -- the tiny gnome Majai (Nelson de la Rosa), a doting attendant of Dr. Moreau's. Frankenheimer creates a marvelous Gothic moment when the two of them play a piano duet. There's another swell scene when Brando calmly enters a room full of murderous beasts in revolt, blithely offers them biscuits and attempts to tame them with Gershwin.

Fraught with production troubles (Frankenheimer was called in early on to replace the original director), ""The Island of Dr. Moreau'' won't erase anyone's memories of the 1933 Charles Laughton version, ""Island of Lost Souls.'' At 90 minutes, it has the spotty feel of a movie that's missing crucial sequences. Surely at one point more was made of Thewlis's attraction to Fairuza Balk's feline Aissa, whom he mistakenly thinks is fully human. And once Brando exits the story, all the wit goes out of the Richard Stanley-Ron Hutchinson screenplay: the movie descends into tired, flaming mayhem, capped by Frankenheimer's misguided attempt to spell out via newsreel footage Wells's big message about the horrors of human nature. Let's face it -- this is one nutty movie. It's not exactly ""good,'' but I sure had a good time.