He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.
The last line of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein leaves the fate of her famous monster, mourning the loss of his creator, to the shadows of the imagination. While time and popularity have regularly resurrected the great brute over the last century or so, Stuart Beattie’s I, Frankenstein may be the first film to begin right where the novel itself leaves off. If the poor creature could have anticipated this movie – a misshapen patchwork of cold, lifeless parts running on borrowed energy – it might have kept its distance in the darkness.
Based off a graphic novel by Kevin Grevioux, I, Frankenstein takes Shelley’s gothic exploration of human morality and reduces it to a pulpy high-fantasy exercise where the forces of good and evil are fighting it out over the creature. Often mistakenly referenced as Frankenstein in popular culture, the monster is called Adam here (a name Shelley sometimes used when referring to him) and he’s played by Aaron Eckhart, not as a shambling, monosyllabic beast or a confused aberration, but as a guy with awesome abs and minor facial scars. Harvey Dent wants to give you a coin, buddy, so you can call someone with real problems.
Shortly after burying his creator—for whom he only has contempt—Adam runs into an army of demons who want Frankenstein’s journal, and promptly batters them into ruined blobs of red cgi dust. This skirmish has aroused the attention of the gargoyles, a battalion of fallen angels hiding in secret on the tops of an old cathedral. These winged warriors, led by the ethereal Leonore (Miranda Otto), are apparently the good guys, fighting to save humanity from the evil intent of the demons. Leonore tries to recruit Adam in their supernatural war, mostly so she can sign him before the enemy does. Bitter, angry and believing himself to be soulless, Adam strikes out on his own, despite the fact demon king Naberius (Bill Nighy) wants the secret of his reanimation so that he might build an army of human zombies occupied by demon souls. Eventually the two sides clash, and Eckhart’s stoic monster is caught in the crossfire, forced to take sides.
To call the plot ungainly is being kind, to call it completely and irrevocably insane is still an understatement. Yes, the story seems like something dreamed up by a nine-year old in the 1980’s, but there’s potential for a schlocky good time in the silly premise, provided the creators don’t take it too seriously. Unfortunately, that’s I, Frankenstein’s biggest sin; it’s all grim solemnity and portentous, high-minded dialogue, aiming to play Adam as a tragic hero when he mostly seems like a video-game berserker, slugging his way to the end boss while stopping for the occasional pout.
There are also no real rules to this universe, and while gargoyles and demons seem like random sparring partners for the sci-fi based Frankenstein’s monster, the movie isn’t concerned with convincing us they belong. Although one shouldn’t bother to hold this kind of fantasy up to close inspection, it’s not asking too much for basic world-building details. What’s the difference, exactly, between the gargoyles and the demons at a spiritual level? I was under the impression both are fallen angels, but their war is based around arbitrary concepts of good and evil, instead of territory or ideological differences or anything other than simply “protect or destroy the humans.” As for those humans, I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. Aside from pretty scientist Terra Ward (Yvonne Strahovski) and one poor bystander, the streets of this unnamed gothic city seem completely devoid of anything other than gargoyles and demons. It’s hard to muster much concern for humanity when there’s so little of it in the movie.
I guess that’s where Eckhart’s Adam is supposed to come in, intended to be the (non)beating heart of the story and a character with an arc we care about. Except, he isn’t. Far from it. None of these characters or the actors portraying them elicit anything remotely resembling emotion or interest, and even Nighy—snarling with contempt that seems aimed at the movie itself—can’t tease out any juicy entertainment. Eckhart never develops a through-line for Adam’s transformation, and if a half-hearted narration weren’t informing us of his thoughts, we’d perceive no noticeable change at all. To make matters worse, there’s nothing here visually or dramatically that makes him seem anything at all like either the Shelley version of the creature or something closer to Karloff’s classic take. If Beattie had something interesting for him to do, or a fresh vision for the material, then moving away from tradition might work. Instead, if you missed the title of the film and the first five minutes, you might be forgiven if you never realized that Eckhart was even playing the monster.
The movie bangs on in the same bewildering flat tone for its entire running time, never slowing down for any sense of nuance or atmosphere and the result is a hectic, bland whirl that feels like you’re watching someone else play a second-rate video game. The design of the world and the visual effects remind of other graphic novel contraptions like Underworld or the Blade films, but with less style and coherence. Several of the creatures look like they were thieved from old Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes and the gargoyles seem to have flown in from a SyFy movie-of-the-week. Genre fans looking to be thrilled, moved or provoked won’t find any of that here, unless that movement or provocation is towards the theater exit.
It’s rather a shame that Beattie's film hasn’t anything new or fresh to offer the iconic character, but that never looked to be in the cards to begin with. At the end of the day, I, Frankenstein reflects a slick attempt to cash-in on the Underworld franchise, and this is like the alternate universe version of those films, if you replaced sexy Seline with a dour dude who’s still weepy about the staples in his face. I think Bill Nighy even twitches the same eyebrow in both movies.
I, Frankenstein is now playing in wide release.
Rotten Tomatoes Score for I, Frankenstein: 0%