‘Victor Frankenstein’ is a movie that tries to reinvent the old Mary Shelley tale, but the filmmakers don’t seem certain of how or why they want to do that. The flick announces that we know this story, then never gives viewers a reason why it’s being told again. The changes are primarily cosmetic, the narrative tangled and uncertain. It’s a big expensive mess of a movie and yet another missed opportunity with this property.
The most unfortunate aspect of this failure is that it’s been so long since we’ve seen a decent ‘Frankenstein’ movie that the time seems right to bring ol’ neck-bolts and the good doctor out of retirement. Sadly, this isn’t the movie to do it, and it’s such a ghastly expensive ball-drop that it might scare off anyone in Hollywood from trying again for the foreseeable future.
The story is told from the perspective of Igor, in this case played by Daniel Radcliffe as an abused circus performer rescued by Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy), when he notices that the sad hunchback clown has remarkable medical skills. Victor quickly fixes Igor’s back and grooms him into his pretty-boy partner. He then introduces Igor to his re-animation experiments and they soon bring a chimpanzee back to life one organ at a time.
Back story is fleshed out through tedious flashbacks to Victor’s past, which made him desperate to conquer death to make up for the unfortunate demise of his brother. From there, the boys manage to bring their monkey monster to life in a medical school, which gets them the attention of a benefactor (Freddie Fox) who wants them to continue their experiments on a human in his isolated Scottish castle, as well as the unwanted attention of a detective (Andrew Scott) whose religious background allows the themes of the story to be debated aloud. Plus, Igor has a trapeze artist love interest played by Jessica Brown Findlay. Why? Aside from filling in one more commercial quadrant for the studio, it’s hard to say.
There are times in the early going of ‘Victor Frankenstein’ when the movie seems promising. Max Landis’ script plays with the familiar Frankenstein beats and unexpected inversions to enliven an old tale. There’s something clever about treating Igor as the unlikely hero beside Dr. Frankenstein’s raging monster without a walking corpse marching around. Director Paul McGuigan (‘Lucky Number Slevin’) might pitch the tone of every scene at a gratingly screeching level, but the movie has a sense that this dusty old tome might turn out fresh again. Some of the Gothic designs provide modern twists on old-timey fare, and even though it’s distractingly produced in CGI, the simian test monster is a creepy idea.
As the movie trudges on, the stabs at reinvention essentially disappear and the filmmakers’ goal transforms into hitting all the iconic moments and lines from the story (“It’s alive,” “Yes, master,” etc.) like items on a grocery list. Anything that felt fresh about this take quickly devolves into cliché. The lumpy and tediously structured script seems to stretch on into at least five acts.
Worst of all, by the time the monster finally appears, the movie has worn out its welcome through so many unnecessary in-jokes and loud bangs that viewers will feel pummelled and wish for the movie to just come to a halt. This awkwardly constructed mess is neither a faithful adaptation nor a clever reinvention. The filmmakers didn’t seem to decide and delivered something that’s neither fish nor fowl. Given how awkwardly paced the movie feels, that could just as easily be the result of failed rewrites, reshoots, or even misconception from the start. It’s tough to say what went wrong, but it is easy to say that the movie completely spirals down the toilet.
The fuzzy conception of the movie isn’t helped in any way by McGuigan’s sledgehammer approach to storytelling. Every scene is played big and broad to the point of exhaustion. James McAvoy is allowed to spiral so far into overacting that the director might as well have just cast Nicolas Cage and made it all camp. The love story is pointless, the detective story without tension, and all the attempts to cram in themes about science vs. religion are imparted so loudly that even a fifth grader will beg for subtlety.
‘Victor Frankenstein’ is an absolute mess that completely squanders its use of a classic property and even its suggestion of a new take on an old tale. The best thing that can be said about the movie is that it feels like a failed experiment worthy of its title character, but unfortunately that’s not exactly a compliment.