“Victor Frankenstein” starts with the mad doctor’s assistant, Igor (Daniel Radcliffe), telling us, “You know this story.” Well, then what are we doing here, Igor? Are you deliberately wasting our time?
As it turns out, yes, he is wasting our time, but not because we already know the story. We actually don’t know the story, since “Victor Frankenstein” changes nearly everything about it. Written by Max Landis (“American Ultra”) and directed by Paul McGuigan (“Lucky Number Slevin”), this silly, glib reinvention of Mary Shelley’s horror classic falls into the same trap as almost every other reinvention of recent years: it doesn’t seem to want to be taken seriously (it’s too ironic and self-aware), but it doesn’t offer any thrills, horror, or ingenuity, either.
So again I ask: are you deliberately wasting our time?
In this version, set in London in the late 1800s, Igor is a humpbacked circus clown, practically a slave. He’s constantly abused, yet owing to his knowledge of anatomy, he is also permitted to serve as the circus’ unofficial doctor. You’d think he would leverage that skill to maybe get himself a room instead of a filthy cage to live in, but that’s just because you don’t understand the hierarchy of 19th-century British circuses.
Anyway, medical student Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) sees the humpback attend to an injured acrobat and is dazzled by his prowess. He rescues the lad from captivity, siphons the pus out of his hump — turns out it was just an abscess, not a proper hunch — and makes him his assistant. Their first project involves electrifying a monkey corpse.
Pus-siphoning? Electrified monkey corpses? I’m making the movie sound better than it is. In truth, it’s stuffed with subplots and contrivances that range from the merely distracting (an investor in Frankenstein’s work might just want to steal his research) to the aggressively unnecessary (Igor’s tentative romance with the injured acrobat, played by “Downton Abbey’s” Jessica Brown Findlay). There’s a police inspector (Andrew Scott) whose harassment of Frankenstein, an avowed atheist, is fueled by his own religious fervor. Considering the objection to Frankenstein has always been that he’s “playing God,” it’s interesting to bring religion into it so directly. But of course the movie doesn’t do anything with it beyond a couple of brief, shallow arguments.
The same goes for Frankenstein’s relationship with his father (Charles Dance), a respected doctor, who appears in one scene to berate his son and to let us know that Victor used to have a brother, for whose death Victor feels guilty. Yes, if you’ve been waiting for a retelling of “Frankenstein” that would provide the mad scientist with a MOTIVE for wanting to revive the dead, it has at last arrived.
McAvoy does his best to make the grinning, vivacious Frankenstein come to life as an entertaining character, but he doesn’t have much to work with. Meanwhile, the prim, dainty Radcliffe is simply miscast as slovenly Igor, a character who serves no real function in the story anyway (he’s not in Shelley’s book, you know). Victor and Igor’s relationship is intended as the focal point here — that’s what’s different about this “Frankenstein” — so when even that part of it fails, there’s not much left. Cart this one back to the cemetery, boys.
D+ (1 hr., 49 min.; )