By Barbara VanDenburgh | Gannett News Service
“You know this story.” The first words spoken in “Victor Frankenstein” should have served as a warning to the filmmakers, who pretty up Mary Shelley’s well-trod tale of man’s ambition gone awry into a slick steampunk-accented fantasy-action flick.
This time the story is considered from laboratory assistant Igor’s perspective. He is not, as in films past, a hunched helper, no sniveling Dwight Frye or pop-eyed Marty Feldman. He is, instead, played by the decidedly prettier Daniel Radcliffe as a circus performer with an inconvenient and easily treated back cyst, and Victor Frankenstein is imagined as a rakish devil-may-care rogue who can turn action hero at the drop of a dime.
These changes, rather than inject new life in a story told innumerable times, underscore what it is that works so well in other, better iterations.
Igor begins the film a pathetic, hunchbacked circus sideshow freak and conveniently self-taught physician with aspirations of greatness and a crush on beautiful trapeze artist Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay). A chance encounter with the brilliant Frankenstein (James McAvoy) turns the two men into unlikely compatriots. Frankenstein handily dispenses of Igor’s disabling hump, and with a back brace, new set of clothes and a haircut, transforms the circus freak into a proper gentleman and his new lab partner.
Though McAvoy’s character leaves much to be desired, McAvoy’s gleefully power-mad and charismatic performance is a delight, and his alpha-scientist posturing plays well off Igor’s sensitive passivity. Together, the pair dive into the grotesque work of reviving dead matter, gathering and sewing together bits of deceased animals (mostly chimpanzees) and reanimating the whole with an abundance of electricity and a tool called the Lazarus Fork.
The animation of this pathetic, disturbing creature is the fork in the film’s road where it resolutely takes the path of least resistance, eschewing the deeper questions of life, death and humanity that are the book’s hallmark in favor of jump scares and poorly edited action sequences. The brainiest the film ever gets is with a suspicious inspector, whose meddling proves fodder for the sorts of facile God vs. science conversations best left behind in college dorm rooms.
It’s pointless to bemoan Hollywood’s never-ceasing flow of remakes, reboots and retreads – such is the 21st-century lot of public-domain properties. It’s better, instead, to hope for fresh perspective and respect for the source material or, at the very least, a firm grasp on what has made the source material a lingering pop-culture artifact.
“Victor Frankenstein” has grasped none of it. The least interesting aspect of Frankenstein’s monster is the imaginary mechanics that give him life, but it’s that fake science that gets so much of the spotlight. It takes the bulk of the movie to get to the monster, which here is so bulky a grunting homunculus you have expect to hear it say, “It’s clobberin’ time!”
When all the parts are sewn together, the end result proves as crude and slapdash as the monster itself.
Twentieth Century Fox presents a film directed by Paul McGuigan and written by Max Landis. Running time: 109 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for macabre images, violence and a sequence of destruction). Opens Wednesday at local theaters.