Plot: After the creative success of Hardware and Dust Devil, outsider filmmaker Richard Stanley pursued his dream project, a movie based on H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. This would seem like an impossible task, but thanks to Stanley’s creative genius and the help of a warlock, things fell into place and it looked like Stanley’s dark and unconventional vision would be realized. But what was intended to be a small scale, intimate production soon ballooned into a big budget affair, complete with big names like Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando. The pressures of such an epic shoot and New Line’s constant tinkering would begin to break down Stanley’s vision, then he had to contend with on set power struggles and doubts about his vision. He would eventually be replaced as the film’s director, but the story of how this all happened and what would follow makes the wild tale of Moreau seem tame by comparison.
Entertainment Value: If you have even a casual interest in movies, the creative process, or the struggle between creativity and commerce, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau is one you have to see. The troubled production was well known at the time, but this documentary pulls back the curtain and lets us see the complete process involved. The most interesting aspect of this piece to me was to learn about how Stanley fought for his creative vision, only to be ground into submission by those who just saw it as another movie to be made. The creative vs. commercial conflict is one that plagues many productions, so to get a candid, first hand account of this was quite interesting. The movie also makes Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau one of the greatest “what if” topics in cinema, as his vision was such a unique, inventive take on the material. His intense passion is powerful to see, even long after the project ended, but also heartbreaking, as we know his vision was crushed. But to see such passion for movie creation is inspiring, as we’re so used to assembly line, bottom line driven production in most cases. To see such potential snuffed out over money and egos is a sad experience.
The story of The Island of Dr. Moreau is unspooled here through in depth interviews with numerous cast and crew members, as well as executives involved in the film’s production. I appreciate that aside from some early interviews with film writers, these are all first hand accounts of what happened, though of course some folks refused to participate. I would have loved for Kilmer to provide his side of things here, but no such luck. Stanley walks us through his vision, showing us storyboards, concept sketches, and his personal ties to the material. So while that vision wasn’t realized, we can get a tiny glimpse at what might have been. And certainly enough to know that given how the movie turned out in other hands, Stanley’s version would have at least taken some risks and engaged audiences. Stanley is a sympathetic character here, but not everyone is as sold on his vision as I was. I like that the interviews present numerous perspectives, as when you piece together all of these varied viewpoints, you have a better, more informed outlook. Aside from Bob Shaye, who seems to think Stanley wouldn’t have been able to complete the movie regardless, the consensus is that while Stanley was in over his head, whatever his vision might have wound up as, it certainly couldn’t have been worse than the final product. This is one film fans need to see, as well as anyone who appreciates insight into the creative process and the conflicts art faces when it meets commercialism.