The lure of the remake is as obvious as the lure of the sequel – to take advantage of the recognition of the original – and so are the pitfalls – doing so while still providing the twists and turns any audience craves. The remake or reinvention has it easier in this regard in that it has a tried and true plot and major characters and doesn’t have to be bothered figuring what happens next. What it does have to do is figure out what of the original can be discarded or changed (and far it can be changed) before it loses whatever attracted viewers in the first place.
This is the task Victor Frankenstein has set for itself as it introduces us to a trapped and abused hunchback (Radcliffe) who’s life is transformed when a mad doctor (McAvoy) rescues him, gives him purpose and for the first time a name – Igor. As much Pygmalion as Frankenstein tale, this new iteration of the Victorian classic wants to look into the doctor’s penchant for creating things and throwing them away and why he does so, rather than tell just another monster story.
And if that’s the movie director Paul McGuigan (Sherlock) had made, it would be a lot better than what we actually get.
Igor himself is not just some random hunchback – as it turns out, he’s not even a hunchback – but a prodigy who has managed to teach himself high levels of medicine without any of the societal based morals and mores normally attached, making him a perfect partner once Frankenstein has fixed him up some.
The idea is to deconstruct and reconstruct Frankenstein as a character and a story but writer Max Landis (Chronicle) has decided to this through the viewpoint of Igor instead of Frankenstein himself which means significantly changing Igor as the archetypal henchman is not at all suited to carrying that sort of weight. [He’s so archetypal he doesn’t exist in the original book or even as Igor in the original James Whale film and yet he remains indivisible from the myth].
And that, as far as it goes, is not a bad idea; stretching the bounds of suspensionable disbelief certainly but a point of view character who slavers and says ‘Yes, Master’ all the time won’t do, either. It opens up the idea that Frankenstein’s fixation is actually a Pygmalion complex taken to ridiculous extremes rather than some (now well-worn) struggle in the fight between science and religion. An idea which is dropped as soon as Igor combs his hair for the first time and is never touched again.
The important thing to remember in a deconstruction is that it first requires a deep understanding of how and why the original version worked in the first place. There are certainly glimpses of this, particularly within Frankenstein himself. McAvoy is all in with the doctor’s bipolar mood swings, all but swinging from the rafters when explaining to all who will unfortunately listen that in the future children will be fertilized in buckets.
And he is just as effective in the quieter moments, taking in the brutal dissapointment of his father (Dance) or explaining the lasting psychic damage of his older brothers’ death. He also fits the best into Eve Stewart’s busy production design – the only area of the film to successfully integrate the dank Victorianism and grotesque science fantasy McGuigan is going for.
Unfortunately glimpses of a better movie is all Victor Frankenstein offers and few of those, particularly once the intuitive and super, super, super religious Inspector Turpin (Scott) appears to try and arrest the duo for twelve counts of breaking the laws of nature.
It’s at this point that it becomes clear the filmmakers aren’t sure what should be jettisoned and what should be emphasized as, after spending so much time taking its pieces apart, Frankenstein is put back together almost exactly the way it was before. While themes are left unchanged characterization is largely untouched, particularly for Igor who has had all of his foibles removed in order to turn him into a bland romantic lead as he balances creating a man from spare parts with enticing the trapeze artist (Brown Findlay) he’s always had a crush on.
It is exactly as generic as it sounds and worse introduces unneeded confusion into a plot already laden with it once Frankenstein leaves Igor and his lab behind when their mysterious benefactor (Fox) helps him flee from Turpin’s crusade. Because the story is focused entirely on the lead up to the fateful lightning strike rather than its outcome it does not have access to its normal protagonist/antagonist structure with the filmmakers randomly throwing new ideas at the wall to see which will stick.
It’s chaotic at best and a long period where Igor leaves Frankenstein behind to hole up with his acrobatic love interest and reconsider whether building a person out of flesh parts is a good idea or not offers none of the introspection it seems to want. Instead it only makes the film’s deficiencies more obvious – that when the underlying deconstruction doesn’t work not all the kings horses or men will be able to put it back together.
Yes, it would be easy to write off McGuigan and Landis’ work as an easy pitfall to avoid but the reality is figuring out how well you know a given story while taking it apart is supremely difficult. It’s a problem not helped by the fact that taking advantage of the security of a known property while creating something new and different out of it are opposing goals which are hard to reconcile.
When it goes wrong you get something like … well, you get something like Victor Frankenstein. Still, in their way these experiments have their use, creating a rare road sign for the next writer who attempts the same trek that this direction is not the road they want.
5 out of 10 stars
Starring James McAvoy, Daniel Radcliffe, Jessica Brown Findlay, Andrew Scott, Freddie Fox, Charles Dance, mark Gatiss and Callum Turner