The world of Victor Frankenstein — red brick and gray skies, clanking gears and straining pulleys, exploding dials and jury-rigged gizmos — is utterly steampunk. But the latest resurrection of Mary Shelley's horror classic has a tech-era vibe that adds to its modest appeal.
Rather than Swiss, this Victor (exuberant James McAvoy) is a Briton who lives in 19th-century London, where then-modern technology threatens Victorian morals. For reasons that will eventually be revealed, Victor is obsessed with bringing cold flesh to life. Think of his undertaking as the ultimate startup.
Despite the movie's title, the protagonist is actually Igor, an update of the lumbering hunchback created not by Shelley but by B-movies. Misshapen Igor (earnest Daniel Radcliffe) suffers as a circus clown, abused by everyone save his airborne crush, acrobat Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay in a barely written part). He's rescued from this Elephant Man scenario by Victor, who happens to be scouting the big top for animal carcasses.
The perhaps-mad scientist adopts the ragged clown not out of compassion, but of self-interest. This Igor is a home-schooled physician (and not actually a humpback) whose insight into anatomy could help animate the body parts stored in Victor's vast, dramatically lighted basement. "You know you're brilliant, don't you?" the delighted young Dr. Frankenstein asks his new assistant.
The old Dr. Frankenstein (Charles Dance) is Victor's dad, a stuffy sort who wants to end his son's experiments. So does Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott), a police officer whose Sherlock Holmes-like powers of deduction soon yield to his insistence on upholding the laws of Britain, nature and his Lord. "God has no authority here," responds Victor, who's given several occasions to expound on his atheism. He also has a neat card trick.
In contemporary terms, the innovative Igor might be seen as Steve Wozniak and the flamboyant Victor as Steve Jobs. That's until the real Steve Jobs figure enters: Finnegan (rhymes with "begin again") supports Victor's work even after Igor begins to have doubts. The wealthy aristocrat (played by Freddie Fox) intends to be the one to bring Victor's reanimation process to market. (Who would want to buy it is unclear.) Finnegan even has a spooky castle in Scotland that the scientist can use after things get too hot for him in London.
The movie was written by Max Landis, and is often rather clever. But like another 2015 Landis script, American Ultra, it doesn't have much of an ending. Despite Victor Frankenstein's conspicuous Britishness, the loud and lazy climax is pure Hollywood.
Before that, director Paul McGuigan (whose credits include several episodes of the BBC's Sherlock) offers much that's stylish and diverting. The film neatly juxtaposes the absurd and the everyday, contrasting the promise of Victor's crazy experiments with the hopelessness of Victorian-era medicine. The CGI effects include occasional X-ray views of bones, muscles and internal organs, a gambit that recalls both comic books and such visually layered Peter Greenaway films as Prospero's Books.
Medical-textbook flourishes aren't enough to revolutionize Mary Shelley's novel, of course. But Victor Frankenstein is a livelier ransacking of musty British pop lit than, say, Spectre. The movie's pleasures even suggest that more twists on the much-told tale wouldn't be such a bad thing. Victor/Victoria Frankenstein, anyone?