You know this story,” mad-science sidekick Igor informs us more than once in voiceover. We do indeed… and Victor Frankenstein doesn’t have a lot new to offer us, so it’s sort of odd that the movie would go out of its way to remind us of that. We see everything here through the eyes of the hunchback Igor… who is, it transpires, neither a hunchback nor named Igor; and of course there was no hunchback nor an Igor nor even a lab assistant in Mary Shelley’s novel. This is more a riff on — or a frippery off — the Hollywood conventions of the story: visually it borrows much from James Whale’s classic 1931 movie mounting. But it also steals much from Guy Ritchie’s steampunk Sherlock Holmes (Shelley’s 1818 story obviously wasn’t set in Victorian London, either, though it’s tough to say what year this is set in). And it’s very much a product of today’s Hollywood: it’s plain that screenwriter Max Landis (American Ultra, Chronicle) imagined that the biggest updating Frankenstein demanded was the inclusion of a couple of action sequences, pulled off with rote exhaustion by director Paul McGuigan (Sherlock, Push).
Igor (Daniel Radcliffe: Trainwreck, The Woman in Black) is intellectually intrigued and challenged by his work but must confront increasing doubts about the wisdom of his employer’s quest to create life from dead meat; he is clearly meant to represent a moral middle ground between atheistic and materialistic Victor (James McAvoy: X-Men: Days of Future Past, Muppets Most Wanted) and the religiously infuriated cop, Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott: Spectre, Pride), determined to stop him because what he’s up to is “Satanic.” But the faster the film barrels toward its too-rushed conclusion — which barely even lets us glimpse the monster itself — the more muddled the morality play becomes, not least of which is because Igor is such a passive protagonist. It’s as if the movie doubts the value of its own nuanced perspective. If Igor is the something-new the movie is meant to be offering us, he needed more reason to actually be a part of the story than to merely voice the already obvious ethical debate at the heart of this story… which we also already know.
Still, Radcliffe and McAvoy are fun to watch in how committed they are to such absurd characters; McAvoy in particular finds a smart balance between humor, riveting intensity, and saliva-spewing raving mania that I wish the movie, which takes itself far too seriously, could have managed on the whole. (It could have gone for more gothic grotesqueries, too; the few that are here are especially disgusting but are indeed unique. Though that would likely have ruined the film’s teen-friendly rating.)
Never fear, though: Victor Frankenstein is not part of the Universal Monsters Cinematic Universe (this a Fox film), which means we can expect yet another Frankenstein movie in the next few years. Maybe someone will get a modern updating of this classic monster right then.