“You know this story,” begins Victor Frankenstein, the umpteenth revival of perhaps science fiction’s most enduring creation. The 20th Century Fox picture – not to be confused with last year’s I, Frankenstein, or next year’s FOX procedural, The Frankenstein Code – opens with a roll call of the expected trappings: bolts of lightning, a body hovering above a decrepit keep, dark intonations about the nature of men and monsters. Such iconography and ideas are hardwired into the cultural consciousness, so the above hypothesis is indeed correct for assuming we already know Frankenstein’s story. But what Victor Frankenstein actually presupposes, in its ramshackle, miserable manner, is that…maybe we don’t?
Speaking on behalf of those who haven’t cracked the spine on Mary Shelley’s classic since middle school, it’s possible that Victor Frankenstein is shrewder in its allusions and references to the source material than I’m giving it credit. Perhaps Shelley’s passages dedicated to electricity-spewing zombie chimps, carnival parkour, and biomechanical Bobbies simply haven’t made it from page to screen until Victor Frankenstein. Let’s go out on a hunch, though, and assume that Paul McGuigan’s film is looking to be more of a loose fan fiction than a slavish adaptation.
Told from the perspective of Igor (a likeable Daniel Radcliffe), the film chronicles the events leading up to the birth of literature’s most popular living corpse, starting with Radcliffe’s misshapen outcast being rescued from the life of a circus freak. His savior: Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy), a brash and arrogant med student impressed by the hunchback’s autodidactic knowledge of anatomy.
“Who are you?” an awed Igor asks when Frankenstein first makes an exit, moments before the pair make their pyrotechnic escape from a London big top. The film freeze-frames on McAvoy wheeling about mid-stride, answering the question for the viewer with a title card, then unfreezing so that Frankenstein can turn around once more to leave, having said nothing. It’s not the first, nor nearly the last awkward and nonsensical moment Victor Frankenstein has to offer over a 110-minute runtime.
Restless flourishes, like X-ray vision of bodies in motion and a far too liberal use of slow-mo, are benignly uninspired attempts to make dusty ol’ England look hip. It’s the brain of Victor Frankenstein that feels more afflicted by modern attention deficiency. Half video game design doc built around stages and monsters, half comic book prequel that’s missing the words “Secret Origins” from the title, the script for Victor Frankenstein is precisely the sort of literary reworking one would expect from screenwriter Max Landis. A tenuous thread of logic or poetry guides the story as it rushes from scene to scene. Hyped-up setpieces, droning deposits of monologued backstory, and screwball repartee that’s all speed, no finesse, are the order of the day.
Landis’ fidgety genre remixing worked well enough for American Ultra earlier this year, but the same approach makes for a chopped, screwed, and sutured mess of an origin story in Victor Frankenstein. When it’s time for gross-out spectacle, McGuigan has a little fun with the slimier, puss-filled aspects of Victor and Igor’s work. But all the rampaging, lightning-charged monkeys in the world (here, providing a mid-movie mini-boss) can’t jolt the action to life.
You’ll be quickly inured to Victor Frankenstein -this breed of CG-heavy gothic schlock is common enough to be more tedious than punishing by now. When that happens, you can instead focus on the one unique thing happening on screen: that this is a mid-budget, effects-driven Holiday release one is invited to interpret through a queer lens. At first, it seems like the film might just want to employ the same sniggering, “these guys sure are close bros, huh?” humor of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, itself the byproduct of once platonic pop culture relationships now requiring a sexy new chemistry to go along with the sexy new everything else. Sure, this is the story of two men living in close quarters so that they can create life together, but hasn’t it often been?
Yet many of McGuigan and Landis’ choices make Victor Frankenstein a surprisingly dedicated, if still completely muddled example of stealth sexual revisionism. Of the 99% male cast (which, admittedly, isn’t an oddity), only Charles Dance, as the father who disapproves of Victor’s college experimentations, projects traditional, rough-hewn masculinity.
Freddie Fox, as the film’s effete villain, bristles when Victor expresses appreciation of Igor, just as Victor detests Igor wasting his time on a love interest from the circus (Jessica Brown Findlay, who shares a love scene – rather, a love shot- with Radcliffe where she’s dressed and he isn’t). Replace Victor’s use of the word “science” with “progress,” and it’s easier to understand why the religious inspector hounding him (Andrew Scott) views Victor’s collaboration with Igor as “sinful.” And though Victor makes a point of often referring to Igor as his friend, the dramatic beat the film really wants you to take note of is when Victor first calls him “partner.”
Viewing Victor Frankenstein in such a manner doesn’t make the message it arrives at any more understandable (the life you create with your partner will be a flawed monster you’ll have to stab to death?), as the whole of the film is as messily packaged as any of the flesh golems. A pessimist will watch McAvoy rant about the obsolescence of women to reproduction as just poorly written and staged humor, but an optimist might be charitable in looking for something beneath the noxious surface.
A potential vein of revisionist sex politics isn’t nearly enough to warrant sitting through the drearily animated efforts of Victor Frankenstein.