A film review by Craig J. Koban December 14, 2015

VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN jj
½

2015, PG-13, 109 mins.

 

James McAvoy as Victor Von Frankenstein  /  Daniel Radcliffe as Igor  /  Jessica Brown Findlay as Lorelei  /  Andrew Scott as Inspector Turpin  /  Freddie Fox as Finnegan  /  Mark Gatiss as Dettweiler  /  Callum Turner as Alistair  /  Daniel Mays as Barnaby  /  Spencer Wilding as Nathaniel

Directed by Paul McGuigan  /  Written by Max Landis, based on the novel by Mary Shelley

I’m frankly tired of films based on – either faithfully or not so much – Mary Shelley’s 19th Century FRANKENSTEIN novel.  I’ve seen so many countless permutations over the years in varying degrees of quality that I'm just exhausted at the sheer thought of screening another cinematic iteration of this iconic literary series.  Last year’s monumentally dreadful I, FRANKENSTEIN was perhaps the final nail in my acceptance coffin in terms of my willingness to see yet another film adaptation and/or reboot.  Haven’t all of the core ideas and themes that Shelly wrote about in 1818 already been explored to death on the silver screen? 

My initial frustration with seeing VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN – the latest attempt to infuse some invigorating freshness into an already long standing series of Frankenstein films – slowly and miraculously gave way to modest curiosity and even fascination at times.  Director Paul McGuigan (LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN and PUSH) and screenwriter Max Landis (CHRONICLE and this year’s AMERICAN UILTRA) deserve some credit for reworking and retooling Shelley's novel with some ambitious new concepts and narrative threads while remaining faithful to the overall arc of her work.  Landis’ script takes great pains to segregate itself from past movie Frankenstein films of old (the opening voiceover narration even provides some sly meta commentary on audience familiarity with the Frankenstein film cannon).  However, for as relatively rich and teaming with novel ideas as Landis is with his treatment of the infamous mad scientist and his creative flights of fancy, VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN’s screenplay, as a whole, regrettably feels like first draft material that struggles – especially in its third act – to find a manner of pulling it all successfully together. 

 

 

Even though the character of Igor (Frankenstein’s loyal friend and lab assistant) is compellingly front and center here as a main character of interest in VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN, he was never a part of Shelley’s original novel (even the classic 1931 film made no mention to an assistant by the same name).  Nevertheless, this new film is told ostensibly via his perception of Frankenstein.  It's ultimately through his eyes that we bare witness to the emergence of Frankenstein from a man of relatively humble beginnings and into the fanatical scientist that we're all familiar with today.  We meet Igor (the somewhat distractingly cast Daniel Radcliffe, who more fluidly submerges himself into the role as time passes) in Victorian-era London as a circus sideshow freak.  Unlike previous portrayals of Igor, though, this deformed man here is a rather brilliant scientific mind that hides his keen intellect from others. 

Predictably, Igor yearns for a life outside of the borderline slave-like conditions of working for the circus, and in swoops Victor Frankenstein (a gonzo bonkers James McAvoy) to rescue him, especially after he witnesses first hand Igor’s particular understanding of medicine and human anatomy.  Victor takes it upon himself to liberate Igor from the circus’ vile clutches, somewhat because he pities the poor soul, but mostly because he sees him as a potentially crucial partner in his scientific plans to come.  After fixing Igor’s hunchback affliction (in a nifty, but somewhat disgusting scene), Victor reveals to him of his plans to reanimate dead creatures, essentially creating life.  Early experiments with animal subjects bare fruitful – but highly dangerous – results, but Victor remains steadfast and strong in his convictions that he can re-animate dead human tissue with electricity.  His experiments catch the unwanted attention of Inspector Turpin (a steely eyed Andrew Scott) that sees Victor’s work as an abomination and affront to God’s natural order.  While Victor tries to unleash his ultimate scientific endgame while eluding capture, Igor becomes smitten with an old circus pal in Lorelei (the luminous Jessica Brown Findley) and begins to realize that he truly wants a life of normalcy apart from Victor’s ever-increasing lunacy. 

VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN looks quite sensational throughout in its evocation of London of yesteryear.  The film also boasts some wonderful and practical production values amidst some of its obvious CG artifice, in particular during the early aforementioned sequence showcasing Victor and Igor trying to bring their stitched up animal monstrosity alive (it essentially looks like a chimp cannibalized from other animal parts).  Scenes like this have a tangible and nauseating creepiness to them that many modern digital effects heavy pictures utterly lack.  Part of the perverse pleasure of watching VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN is witnessing Victor and Igor desperately trying to curb favor with colleagues from their scientific community that, rather vehemently, see them both as dangerous crackpots.  As a pure creature feature, the film is a reasonable success from a technical standpoint and keeps your attention.  

The film is also bolstered by the unusual pairing of McAvoy and Radcliffe, two actors of polar opposite extremes that manage to smoothly compliment one another as the film progresses from one beat to the next.  McAvoy is, for all intents and purposes, as nutty as a fruitcake in the film, but his enthusiastic and ridiculously unhinged flamboyance gives VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN a much needed jolt of unpredictable energy.  Radcliffe acclimatizes himself rather well to Igor’s story arc, giving a relatively low key and nuanced performance that serves as an effective foil to McAvoy’s grandiose theatricality.  The only weak element of the casting here is Findley, an actress of astonishing beauty and poise whose talents are somewhat wasted because the script mournfully delegates her to damsel in distress mode. 

Perhaps the love story between Igor and Lorelei is the most distracting element of VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN, mostly because it’s somewhat half-baked and underdeveloped (not to mention that it could have become a more compellingly odd love triangle between the pair and Victor).  Then there is the unsatisfying manner that Landis fails to evoke any level of commentary on the whole science of creation and whether or not Victor is truly justified in what he does.  Clearly, there’s a deeply scientific and spiritual aspect that permeated Shelly’s source material that questioned the motives and purity of Victor’s actions, but VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN seems less and less interested in tackling such weighty queries as the film lurches towards a climax.  Landis sort of writes himself into a corner with a noisy and perfunctory conclusion that’s more about mindless man versus monster action and chaos than it is about thoughtfully dealing with the existentialist questions.  

VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN is not the complete qualitative trainwreck that I was expecting.  The film’s world is lovingly crafted, the screenplay has a willingness (at least in the early stages) to tell the tale of Frankenstein’s origin story via a new lens, and McAvoy and Radcliffe are so good together that they collectively assist the film from achieving a superfluous level of wasted disposability.  Yet, VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN feels like a film – much like the monster that the title character creates himself – that’s not fully formed and properly executed.  The fact that it manages to stand somewhat apart from previous FRANKENSTEIN film incarnations is noteworthy, but VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN comes off like a series of well-developed concepts in desperate need of a substantially realized screenplay to harness all of these parts.  

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