Some of this debate is owed necessarily to the reality that no two people tend to have the exact same working definition of what truly makes a story legitimate Science Fiction as opposed to Fantasy. (If we can’t agree upon what it even is, then how can we conclude just where and when it began?) For example, book retailers over the years have struggled with housing the works of Kurt Vonnegut in the Science Fiction section largely because most college-level educators consider it – ahem – serious fiction (and they wouldn’t subject their students to something as spurious as SciFi). Still, others take the easy way out of the argument by suggesting any tale prominently involving aliens or spaceships or lasers must most certainly be Science Fiction. Well, that would mean George Lucas’ popular Star Wars is Science Fiction … but even its most ardent fans consider it Space Fantasy.
I don’t wish to wander too deeply into the weeds here, but it matters when talking about a work as seminal as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: that’s because many literature experts cite the book as the first working example of Science Fiction … while the rest of mankind likely considers it Horror.
See what I mean?
This is why I usually avoid debates … even though I’m fully aware that my take on the 1994 filmed adaptation is likely going to inspire arguments. It’s good – not great, far from it in my eyes – and it likely bears as many scars as its central monster. And much like the beast, it was made that way.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
“At the turn of the 19th century, visionary scientist Victor Frankenstein embarks on an obsessive quest to conquer the mysteries of human mortality. But his hubristic bid to create life out of death goes hideously wrong and succeeds only in begetting a deformed monster. Horrified by what he has wrought, the scientist attempts to destroy his creation, but fails. Rejected by his creator and shunned by the world of man, the tormented creature swears vengeance against Frankenstein and his family. As the monster begins to enact his murderous revenge, Victor must face a terrible reckoning with the tragic consequences of attempting to play God.”
No matter the shape or size, I’m no fan of melodrama. Were I so inclined, I could come up with a litany of reasons to support my disdain for it, but – reaching for as much brevity as I can – I’ll sum it up, simply, this way: it’s forced emotionally storytelling … and I’d much rather come to whatever conclusions I can freely on my own, unencumbered by the insistence of the narrative. You tell a story; I’ll decide how to feel about it.
Branagh’s take on the Shelley novel is to embrace all of its trappings, a myriad of supporting characters, chock them into the bubbling mix, and stir it all up with the heat turned up to full. As a consequence, I’m expected to sit through an awful lot of personal drama – some of it relating directly to where Victor’s motivation stems for vanquishing death (not so much as creating new life) while other moments serve to flesh out what perhaps the director feared might come across as a two-dimensional main character. In fairness, some of that literary stuff is what makes a good novel come to life. By comparison, some of it feels more like elaborate window dressing here … and aren’t there an awful lot of windows to dress?
In doing so, Branagh has created his very own monster.
I just wish this one was more alive.
Because this interpretation involves Victor (played by Branagh), his father (Ian Holm), his beloved Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), his mentor (John Cleese), his schoolmate Henry (Tom Hulce), and his inevitable Monster (Robert De Niro), there’s a wealth of material to cover in ways big and small. Folks who showed up anticipating a contemporary updating of the classic Frankenstein story are likely to be bored silly (up until a point) as this behemoth is a fairly well-spoken do-gooder for much of the film, even adopting a struggling rural family to kinda/sorta call his very own. Alas, it isn’t until very late in the picture that the creator and his ‘created’ find themselves truly at odds, thus robbing an otherwise marquee creature of its most revered trait: his menace.
But the melodrama never relents.
It begins as a tale of love tarnished by one man’s obsession, and it ends the same way. Had those bookends been the only dalliance with the required tugging on my heartstrings, then I might’ve enjoyed my time with Frank and friends more than I did. Instead, every single character trapped within the opening and closing credits of this motion picture is given his or her own personal tragedy to endure, and I have to hear about it. When you expect me to deal with all of that unnecessary baggage, that makes you the real monster.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) was produced by TriStar Pictures (along with a few others). DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by the super-reliable Arrow Video. As for the technical specifications? This Ultra 4K Blu-ray looks and sounds remarkable, though I wonder about the coloring of a few scenes which I found a bit overly dark. As for the special features? As I said, this is Arrow Video, and they rarely (if ever) disappoint! This collection includes an audio commentary; a handful of interviews and critical examinations; trailers; image galleries; and a collector’s booklet with cast information and a brief essay. Are you not entertained?
Mildly Recommended. Though I suspect fans of this particular adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein will flock to support this version along with this release, I’m less inclined if for no other reason than I just find its pacing to be way off the mark. While director Branagh definitely gives in to some lush period detail along with some incredible visual flourishes with the camera, the film still has moments that crawl along much too slowly for my tastes. It’s a faithful reworking – perhaps too faithful – that twists and winds through the main plot along with several supporting ones, and I just didn’t find that all of these secondary yarns added much to the story, pulling attention away from the man and his monster. It’s alive, true, but I didn’t need to feel every single second of it.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arrow Video Films provided me with an Ultra 4K Blu-ray of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.