Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, is a tale as old as time. The titular scientist created a humanoid while dealing with the loss of his mother. The creature tried to live on his own, but his hideous appearance turned him into a villain. He thought that his creator owed him a favor, and hence, he asked Frankenstein to make him a wife. When he refused to do that, the creature proceeded to upend Frankenstein’s life. This story about creation, death, and what can happen when humans try to play God is evidently still relevant. It was adapted as a feature film for the first time in 1910. Boris Karloff became the most famous iteration of the creature. Since then, Shelley’s creation has popped up in over 100 films, and you’d think that there is no way to take another fresh swing at the novel. Well, Birth/Rebirth is here to prove you wrong.
Laura Moss’ Birth/Rebirth, which she has co-written with Brendan J. O’Brien, follows Celie, who is a nurse and works in the maternity department of the local hospital. She is a single mother, and her five-year-old daughter’s name is Lila. They love each other, and they ensure that they’re spending the most amount of time with each other because Celie’s life is consumed by her work. But, in a sudden turn of events, Lila falls sick. It seems like the usual flu or fever. So Celie tells her neighbor, Pauline, to look after Lila for the day. By the time she returns home, Lila is declared dead due to bacterial meningitis. Even though Celie is unable to process Lila’s death, she proceeds with the post-death rituals. That’s when she is informed that Lila’s body is nowhere to be found. Celie knows that Dr. Rose heads the pathology department, and she is the last person to see Lila. Celie tries to approach Rose politely. However, when Rose refuses to cooperate, Celie simply barges into Rose’s house and finds out that she is conducting some kind of resurrection experiment on Lila.
I know the resurrection aspect of the synopsis of Birth/Rebirth can seem like a spoiler, but it happens pretty early on in the film. Yes, it’s a major reveal. But the fact that Lila has been resurrected isn’t the main focus of the story. There’s a lot of fictional science to justify Lila’s state, and even that isn’t the main focus of the story. It’s actually the ethical boundaries and the physical toll that Celie and Rose are prepared to face that form the crux of the narrative. In the original text of Frankenstein, the creator and the creator’s assistant are men. And even though men are plagued with the complexity of creation, and they’ll claim that their concerns are greater than those of women, it’s actually women who end up doing the heavy lifting and bearing the physical and mental repercussions of childbirth. So, by making this simple yet important alteration, writers Moss and O’Brien make the movie quite believable and relatable. You start to look past the fictional scientific jargon and begin to understand the plight of the two women as they try to figure out ways to reverse the death of a child.
There’s a catch, though. As soon as you start to empathize with Rose and Celie, Birth/Rebirth tests your ability to actually root for them. You are supposed to be happy because Lila is alive, but the longer you stay with her, the more you understand that she is suffering immensely. You understand how important her survival is for Celie’s soul and for Rose’s scientific research. But then you begin to wonder if it’s okay to essentially puppeteer a little child in the name of science and love. Therefore, the film becomes a commentary on parenting and how it’s difficult to move forward as a mother who has to come to terms with the premature death of their child. Rose’s arc is a little more convoluted—hence, mysterious—because she seems to be searching for a way to fill the void inside her with something that is scientifically unachievable. She doesn’t want the simple pleasures of life because she thinks they are too basic. She wants to do something that changes the very fabric of nature, even if it comes at the cost of her health. So, yes, the film is a one-two punch of tragedy with little bouts of dark humor.
The one issue that Birth/Rebirth suffers from is that it kind of gets stuck after a certain point. Moss manages to relay her point really well, but I feel she could’ve gone a little further in terms of the obstacles that are placed in front of Rose and Celie. The third act reveal is disturbing and surprising (in a villainous way), but I think the film spends a lot of the second act just waiting for the third act to happen instead of doing anything. One can argue that that’s the point, but then the stagnation could’ve been handled better by digging deeper into the moralities of the characters. Moss starts doing it, but she leaves it halfway in an attempt to preserve the ambiguity of the characters, I suppose. Other than that, everything about the film is good. The dour and depressing imagery is on point. The droning music really gets to you. There are a lot of practical effects on display. Every time a cadaver appears, and Rose starts to dig into it, I begin to imagine what it must’ve taken to set and reset those shots. Apparently, the cartoon that Lila watches was exclusively created for the movie because the creators of the cartoon that Moss originally wanted to feature in the film didn’t allow her to do so. So, major props to the animation and art departments for that.
Coming to the performances, I think A.J. Lister’s work runs the chance of being ignored because she isn’t as imposing as the original creature or as iconic as Boris Karloff. But the way she portrays her character’s soulless physicality and the little bit of personality peeking through her eyes, I think she can rival some of the greatest actors working right now. It’s tough to extract such a performance from a child. So, Moss and Lister’s collaboration is nothing short of impressive. Everything about Judy Reyes simply breaks my heart. Even when Reyes shows Celie’s resilience, she laces it with just the right amount of sadness to make you emotional. She really makes you feel her desperation that’s coming out of pure love and the levels of moral dilemma that she’s tackling. That said, Marin Ireland is the show-stealer or show-stopper. From the first frame to the last, there’s something haunting about her presence. There are several moments where she doesn’t even feel like a real human being. The make-up, the costume design, and Ireland’s acting chops come together in a way that I’ll never forget. I know there are a lot of movies based on Frankenstein, and I’ve yet to watch a lot of them. However, for now, I am dubbing Marin Ireland’s Rose the best iteration of Victor Frankenstein. Also, a big shoutout to Anjali Lakshmi Srinivasan who has played Muriel the Pig. Yes, that’s her name! Isn’t that awesome?!
In conclusion, Birth/Rebirth is a great adaptation of Frankenstein and a great horror movie that tackles motherhood and tries to analyze how our ideas about life and death have changed over the years. By the way, it’s not the kind of horror movie that will scare you every other second. There are moments of shock. But, for the most part, Laura Moss aims to haunt you and plant existential questions in your mind so that you wake up thinking about your loved ones and what you’re going to do if they’re suddenly taken away from you. In addition to that, it’s a discomforting watch. So, if you can handle blood, gore, and the abandonment of ethical boundaries, give it a go. If you can’t, then you’ve been warned. Feel free to watch Birth/Rebirth on Shudder, form your own opinion, and share it with us once you have dealt with your existential crisis.