Max Landis, the writer of Victor Frankenstein, seems a little confused about Greek mythology. He seems unnervingly convinced that it makes any kind of sense for Victor Frankenstein to refer to his monster as Prometheus. The thing is “The Modern Prometheus” subtitle in Mary Shelley’s classic work refers to Victor. Prometheus stole something from the gods, like Victor Frankenstein stole the gift of life from the gods. That makes the monster Prometheus’ fire, not Prometheus. It’s a small thing, but it wonderfully demonstrates the complete misunderstanding of the source material at play in Victor Frankenstein.
The upsetting thing is that this complete bastardization of the novel isn’t even the worst part of the film. The movie is almost hypnotically badly put together. It follows the story of Igor, which alone is a bad idea. It also tries to turn Frankenstein into an action movie, throwing in a chase scene before the fifteen-minute mark. This clumsy and unnecessary chase scene gets Igor together with mad student Victor Frankenstein. Victor is easily the best part of the film; James McAvoy could’ve made an excellent Frankenstein in a substantially better movie. It then tries to be a buddy film, action movie, horror movie, and a prequel to the events of the novel.
When Igor and Frankenstein get back to Frankenstein’s house they have one of the strangest interactions in the whole film. The scene plays as a metaphor for possibly non-consensual gay sex. It’s incredibly hard to tell whether or not this was intentional. If it was intentional, then God alone could figure out what this movie is trying to say. If it’s unintentional, which seems more likely, it sheds some interesting light on Max Landis’ psychology. Frankenstein maniacally mutters something about “slipping into something more comfortable.” He reappears after putting on a mechanical contraption. He then aggressively grabs the fearful Igor, pins him against a pillar from behind (the make-up department made sure everyone was as sweaty as possible, of course), and proceeds to do something we can’t see behind Igor. Then the moment concludes with milky white fluid filling a bucket. On a literal level it’s meant to be Victor fixing Igor’s hunchback, but on a subtextual level it’s hard to interpret this scene in any non-sexual way.
It has to be the unflinching urge to fill this movie with action that most hurts the quality. It’s obviously not a real attempt to adapt Mary Shelley’s source material, but it still seems horribly out of place in a movie about two scientists trying to create something. The action, at least initially, is also terrible. It riffs on the exact same idea present in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock movies, with Frankenstein using his super smarts to know how to beat someone up effectively. This is presented as overplayed images of hand drawn skeletons and anatomical details, which is a piece of stylization that absolutely fails to be of use, or even feel like a cohesive part of a single film. The action is strange and goofy in conception and execution too. One scene sees Igor chasing an undead chimpanzee through a school. The chimp, made of rotting flesh and metal, keeps accidentally shooting lightning from its body, like some four-legged Tesla Coil. It feels like an utterly incongruent excuse for some special effects.
Utterly incongruent is definitely the name of the game in Victor Frankenstein however. Further evidence of this is the romantic subplot between Igor and a trapeze artist he knew from his days at the circus. It’s the definition of a cursory romantic subplot, thrown in only to give the main character a happy ending. It’s more a plot device than any kind of actual character work. Instead the movie spends a strange amount of time with the highly Christian police officer trying to catch Victor and Igor. The character gets a lot of screen time for someone so broadly sketched. Especially when you consider that his chief narrative function is to incite action scenes in his crusade against Victor creating life.
The most blasphemous takes on Shelley’s novel might come with the monster. For one thing, the creature’s design is simultaneously incredibly bland and groan-worthy. In a drunken brainstorming session, Frankenstein and Igor decide to give their creation two sets of each organ, making him much larger than a normal human. This is presented as some brilliant breakthrough, for some reason. This is also the scene in which Frankenstein announces the creature will have a flat head, because he “likes” the idea. So the monster is just a tall grey guy with a slightly flat head and small bolts in his neck. It’s both weirdly unmemorable and a goofy reference to the look Boris Karloff sported in the 1931 film.
Then there’s Victor Frankenstein’s motivation for creating his monster. Anyone with a passing interest in the novel will tell you that Mary Shelley’s book is a cautionary tale about absentee fathers. She herself had many children and a perpetually disappearing husband. The Victor Frankenstein in the novel is an artist who enacts this primal act of creation than completely fails to take responsibilities for his actions. In the movie there’s a sentimental third act reveal about Victor Frankenstein’s motivation. Of course, in this take on Shelley’s novel the monster isn’t around for any length of time, which rather prohibits any faithful thematic statements. Instead there’s a clumsy pass at basing Victor’s motivation around guilt. He accidentally killed his brother as a kid and wants to bring him back. It’s a puerile approach to both the novel and the art of character writing.
Ultimately Victor Frankenstein is a whole lot of noise, lightning, and explosions amounting to nothing. It’s irredeemably clumsy and poorly written and presented on just about every level. The characters’ motivations are jokes, the design is ridiculous, the action is forced and generic, and the thematics are somewhere on the spectrum between clumsy and non-existent. It’s essentially a travesty of a film, completely undeserving of the Frankenstein moniker.