Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s most famous creation has withstood all manner of affronts to its dignity over the years, ranging from Abbott & Costello to nuclear pink cereal to Robert De Niro seemingly doing an impression of Curley from the Three Stooges. This one, though, boy, I dunno.
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Despite a lively titular performance from James McAvoy, Victor Frankenstein comes off as sloppily paced, overly knowing, and mostly inadvertently hilarious in its naked attempts to shape the source material to appeal to the kids these days, with their origin stories and shared cinematic universes and whatnot. This Dr. Frankenstein knows parkour.
The script by Max Landis (American Ultra) takes the point of view of wretched circus hunchback Igor (Daniel Radcliffe), whose self-taught knowledge of medical techniques attracts the attention of the good doctor. Following a bit of impromptu hump surgery, the two are soon down in the lab cranking away.
Radcliff, a fine actor, chooses to play it straight, turning in a performance that is measured, sensitive, and ultimately rather dull, which is not something you would normally say about a character who spends his time stitching together spleens. McAvoy, on the other hand, blessedly takes the opportunity to act, never missing a chance to roll his eyes or gibber to the cruel, unfeeling heavens. When he’s on point, Victor Frankenstein comes closest to working. Also, there is a pretty good bit with an undead, sparking monkey. Such things must never be discounted.
Director Paul McGuigan (Gangster No. 1) and his production team clearly know their old movies, and their efforts do pay off well on a purely visual level, particularly during those early moments of creation where the crackling machines fire up and McAvoy gleefully starts tampering in God’s domain. The closer Victor Frankenstein is allowed to hew to its source material, the more the primal thrum of Shelley’s story begins to stir.
By the third act, unfortunately, any lingering traces of respectful homage are all but plowed over by the narrative’s blatant desire to be of The Now, awkwardly shoehorning in slo-mo action sequences, self-aware insider references for the Comic-Con crowd, and hints at sequels to come. It spends so much time winking at the audience that it’s amazing the camera stayed in focus.