This is a really weird movie, one whose weirdness is far and away its greatest virtue.
Max Landis’ script for Victor Frankenstein, Hollywood’s latest take on characters featured in Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus, is a lot like the title character’s hulking creation. It’s a monstrosity of multiple genres and themes, crudely formed and yet somehow beautiful in its own grotesque uniqueness. You could call it a miracle if it wasn’t so vulgar, so absurd and ultimately unnecessary. Perhaps it’s this very quality that Landis and director Paul McGuigan are chasing, a sort of hulking oddity whose mere existence is both impressive and offensive. The film’s dizzying shifts in tone and almost willful disregard for period detail—not to mention the source material—sometimes feels like the stuff of mad genius, an act of hubris on par with the unchecked ego and wild ambition seen on screen.
The film is told from the point of view of Igor (Daniel Radcliffe), a Universal Pictures creation who doesn’t appear in Shelley’s text. Igor normally functions as Frankenstein’s lowly assistant, but here, he’s a moral compass and a brilliant mind, a hero tasked with providing a beacon of light amid some morally gray circumstances. The original Frankenstein was purely a solo artist, but this Frankenstein, a genius med student played with stunning comic-book impudence by James McAvoy, is something of a codependent. After rescuing the deformed Igor from his tortured life as a circus sideshow, the young Frankenstein begins to value his intelligence and his companionship, so he makes him his partner, although Igor, feeling indebted to Victor, considers himself lesser by comparison, a discord that ensures some semblance of the classic character dynamics.
Victor Frankenstein, like all Frankenstein adaptations, is partially about ambition run amok, but here, this idea works its way into the film’s very aesthetics. The most interesting stretches focus on the interpersonal power struggle between its two lead characters, which are rendered in decidedly generic terms. This is where the film’s stylistic enthusiasm is most pronounced, and most beguiling. Sometimes, the film feels like a stately costume drama, where Victor and Igor’s divergent socioeconomic backgrounds foreground a larger survey of 18th century British social customs. In other instances, the film is a pulpy Gothic romp, the kind of thing a bigger-budgeted Roger Corman might have produced during his heyday; then there’s those moments the film feels like run-of-the-mill Hollywood horror fare, like when the infamous monster makes a ceremonious appearance during the clumsy final act. Most interesting, and least explored, are the times when Victor Frankenstein is a Sirkian melodrama, a highly passionate and even pseudo-romantic—there’s gay subtext throughout the film, an effective if somewhat cheap way of heightening the aforementioned master/slave dynamic—account of all things forbidden, including playing God, defying nature and, maybe, true love.
In other words, this is a really weird movie, one whose weirdness is far and away its greatest virtue. The moments of reckless abandon are pure fun, stupid in a way that touches bizarre genius, mostly because they’re enough to deconstruct Frankenstein as a concept without derailing the film’s self-perpetuating diegesis. (Some of the self-reflexive touches, including a line that openly acknowledges how people mislabel Frankenstein’s monster as “Frankenstein,” are totally on-the-nose but funny nonetheless). This quality doesn’t hold, however. The movie’s overall structure is akin to a superhero origin story, seen in Victor’s lightbulb realization that “with great power comes great responsibility,” plus an abhorrently silly coda that essentially assures more adventures for our dynamic duo, box office dollars pending. The Frankenstein concept has been deconstructed, but only in a way that sets it up as a future franchise. McGuigan and Landis’s revisionism doesn’t result in a Modern Hollywood Prometheus—something that might subvert or at least call attention to the industry’s increasing obsession with raising bygone properties in the form of ‘80s cartoons and Romantic British literature from the dead—so much as it maintains the Modern Hollywood Status Quo.