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Frankenstein Unbound (1990)

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Promotional Poster for Frankenstein Unbound. Image courtesy of horrornews.net

Frankenstein Unbound is a 1990 horror film directed by Roger Corman. Screenplay was written by Corman and F.X. Feeney, and is based on the novel by Brian Aldiss.

Synopsis Edit

The film opens in the year 2031 where Dr. Buchanan and his team of researchers are working on a weapon of mass destruction that. During testing, the weapon causes several curious side effects such as abnormal weather patterns, “time-slips,” and inexplicable disappearances. On the other side of the portal, the doctor finds himself in Geneva in 1816. It is here that Dr. Buchanan meets Victor Frankenstein, Victor’s creation, and Mary Shelley.

Major Themes Edit

Science and Responsibility Edit

Perhaps the most obvious element of Shelley’s original text is its engagement with science and, even though she intentionally leaves out any detailed description of scientific procedures, has often been praised as anticipatory of the Science-Fiction genre. With Frankenstein Unbound, Roger Corman seems to be interested in taking Shelley’s caution and stretching it into the twenty-first century and beyond. The first line of the film is Dr. Buchanan’s narration, saying “After the first atomic bomb, Einstein said, ‘If I had known where this would lead, I’d have been a watchmaker.’ So here I am, either at the end of a world, or the beginning.” This initial line helps to set up one of the major themes within Frankenstein Unbound. Corman is explicitly suggesting that today’s military science is our modern equivalent to Frankenstein’s creation.

Although Buchanan tries to stop Victor from continuing his work, he is unable to foresee the “monster” that he himself creates through his time-traveling technology. He implores Victor to come clean about the creature, which he will not do. When Victor states that he fears what the public will think of him, Buchanan responds that “Scientists have made far greater monsters than yours, Victor”,  implying once again that the fears about the futurity of Shelley’s novel has been realized in the sphere of modern science.

Environment and Sustainability Edit

If the repercussions of Victor Frankenstein’s transgressions result in the deaths of his loved ones, then the repercussion of Dr. Buchanan’s transgression is the death of the planet, which turns out to be a frozen wasteland that viewers assume is a result of the climate change associated with his experimental weapon. However, the ending isn’t the only part of the film that contains this message. In many, often obvious and forced instances, Corman finds a way to engage the environmental impact of modern society. For example, When Buchanan is still in 2031, a voice over the car radio informs him “in other news,” that “a tribute will be held tomorrow for the last remaining parts of the Brazilian rain forest.” In another part of the film, just after Buchanan finds himself in Geneva in 1816, his car’s artificial intelligence is able to tell that they are in the past because its analysis found “no pollution” and a “maximum ozone shield,” implying that by the near future, there will be no places on earth that fit that description.

Reception Edit

Despite its star-powered cast and moral aspirations, Frankenstein Unbound was considered a disappointment, both critically and by the general public. It was Roger Corman’s first directorial effort since the late sixties, and his style seemed to be stuck in that decade. Critics felt that the film wasted a lot of time in scenes that were designed to simply bring Mary, Percy, and Byron into the story, but did little to move the plot along. Fan’s of Aldiss’ novel were disappointed by the film’s wide departure, and horror fans were simply underwhelmed by the apparent lack of scary scenes and convincing effects. What appears to be the problem is that Roger Corman aimed to make a film that was both fun and violent, as well as moral and thought provoking. However, by landing somewhere in the middle, he achieved neither.

Significance of Adaptation Edit

When situated within the long tradition of Frankenstein adaptations or appropriations, several interesting distinctions emerge from Frankenstein Unbound. Firstly, while the theme of Nature is quite common in this tradition, beginning with the original, here we see a marked shift from the usual awe and reverence to a kind of desperate anxiety about the fragility of the natural environment. This element is no doubt playing to emerging concerns about pollution and global warming in the late eighties and early nineties. Secondly, the film inserts (somewhat clumsily) the character of Mary Shelley into the narrative as a passive observer and recorder of a true story rather than the creator of an enduring masterpiece. Finally, the relationship between Victor and his creature takes a backseat to the time traveling adventure of Dr. Buchanan. They certainly move the plot forward. However, Victor never seems very tormented by his conscience or the creature, and the creature, though powerful, is not very revolutionary. At the climax of the film, the two characters are actually working together, with the creature acting as the bungling assistant who quite readily follows Victor's commands. Their final conflict, however, is certainly the most interesting part of the narrative, in which the newly created Elizabeth is the object of both Victor’s and the creature’s affection. Seeing herself as monstrous, she first identifies with the creature, drawing near to him and comparing her deformed hands to his. But when Victor begins to call to her, she seems to remember who she was and that conflict causes her to take a bullet that was meant for the creature. Though not quite center-stage, the complicated and emotional nature of this element does seem to fit well within the tradition of interpretations.

Resources Edit

Clayton, Jay. "Frankenstein's Futurity: Replicants and Robots." The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley(2003): n. pag. Print.

Frankenstein Unbound. Dir. Roger Cormen. Prod. Jay Cassidy. Perf. John Hurt, Bridget Fonda, Raul Julia. 20th Century Fox, 1990. DVD.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Harlow: Longman, 1999. Print.

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