Written by: Stuart Beattie (screenplay), Kevin Grievoux (graphic novel)
Directed by: Stuart Beattie
Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Miranda Otto, and Bill Nighy
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďGod will surely damn you."
"He already has."
"He already has."
Life has imitated art when it comes to Frankenstein. When Mary Shelley birthed her creature in 1818, she couldnít have guessed that would grow beyond her control over the next two centuries, as other artists twisted and distorted her Monster to suit their whims. Somewhat appropriately, her novel has become a crazy quilt of ideas and notions in popular culture, many of which barely resemble the authorís intentions. The latest such monstrosity is I, Frankenstein, and, even though it reconfigures the familiar tale into a flavorless supernatural action vehicle, it can hardly be considered a nadir for the Frankenstein mythos.* Instead, itís just another flavorless supernatural action vehicle from the Underworld troupe, who must have decided to get some of the band back together because January just wouldnít be the same without them.
Everyone knows that Frankenstein concludes with the tortured Monster vowing to throw himself upon his own funeral pyre to end his miserable existence, but I, Frankenstein supposes that heís interrupted by a horde of demons before he can drift off to death. When gargoyles intercede on behalf of the Monster, christen him with the name Adam, and ask him to join their side of the ancient war between Heaven and Hell thatís been raging for centuries, he spurns them like a hormonal teenager that just wants be left alone (but not before he takes some wicked tonfa sticks for demon bashing). After wandering in the wilderness for two hundred years, Adam decides to re-emerge just as the demon horde (led by their prince, Bill Nighy) are on the verge of reanimating corpses to build a massive army for an invasion.
The world surrounding Adam should be familiar to anyone whoís ventured to the Underworld mythos: itís a vaguely apocalyptic hellscape where even moonlight is shrouded by the giant garbage bag thatís threatening the swallow the world, and the predominant architectural style is ďGothic shithole.Ē Oblivious humans wander this bleakness, somehow completely unaware that mystical creatures have been vying for control of the earth, even when theyíre battling in plain sight and sending each other up in flames (the only sort of bloodletting allowed in this PG-13 realm). I, Frankenstein plays like a film where the sandbox has already been established, and itís only switched up the action figures that get flung at each other.
You could do worse than a mash-up of demons, ogres, and Frankensteinís monster; for example, you could subject it to the most turgid take possible. Rather than realize this monster mash with the glee and abandonment of a child, itís done with the ponderous, self-seriousness of a brooding teenager (Adam even wears a goddamn hoodie!). Thereís maybe one scene in the entire movie that lends itself to a genuine laugh, and even it bungles the punchline, perhaps because this is Serious Business. Everyone speaks with an air of unearned solemnity and in vague, highfalutin accents in a failed attempt to add some credibility to the nonsense everyoneís forced to spout. As it continues to unfold, it feels more and more like collaborative fan-fiction, which conveniently sets up a punchline about the film being stitched together and lumbering about. You know, like Frankensteinís monster, the guy thatís sort of at the center here.
I say that because heís obviously the lynchpin to the proceedings: the demons need either his body or his creatorís journal to unlock the secret to creating life, a plot point thatís reiterated about a half-dozen times. Considering that film contributed to the notion of the Monster being a lumbering brute, itís sort of ironic that I, Frankenstein is a gabby affair that canít go more than a few minutes without scattering about some exposition to keep viewers afloat in its shallow mythology. Adam himself is but a cog in this expository machine and only allows poor Aaron Eckhart to be a dour collection of angst and movie trailer quips.
Eckhart is just one of many performers subjected to the rigors of the filmís special kind of stupidity, including Nighy (whose experience with this brand has granted him the ability to unlock the fun in it all), Miranda Otto, and Bruce Spence. Unexpectedly, Jai Courtney is one of the more engaging characters here, as he exudes a meathead charm as Gargoyle queenís (Otto) most trusted warrior; throughout the film, he butts heads with Adam, and the two develop a rivalry that deserves better than a fight that ends with the two trading dialogue with faux-badass dialogue that only sounds cool if youíre a high school sophomore scrawling it into your notebook during English class.
Much of the film leaves you asking ďWhy Frankenstein?Ē, and it rarely stops you from arriving at the obvious, cynical answer: the novel is in the public domain, and studios thrive on brand recognition, so this particular property represents a convergence of economy and convenience. Never mind that the finished product barely resembles the work that spawned it (Shelley is relegated to the ďspecial thanksĒ section of the credits!) or that it hardly engages a pretty cool concept (what would it look like if Frankensteinís monster survived into the modern world?)óitís just easier to have some choreographers and CGI artists conjure up some bland digital scuffles between some anonymous creatures (youíve got pixelated gargoyles vs. demons wearing rubbery, Halloween masks) than it is to delve into the philosophical tenants of the original story (the Monsterís continued desire for a mate gets a cursory mention here, but you know itís lip service the minute Yvonne Strahovski gawks at Eckhartís shirtless monster in the mirror).
Despite the convoluted mythos at their center, the Underworld films have never actually been about storytelling, and I, Frankenstein follows suit. It carries the pretense of an arc for the Monster, mere window dressing for another set of dull, murky brawls between monsters (to its credit, the film does at least dust off gargoyles, one of the few creatures that havenít risked overexposure) that are occasionally punctuated by some dialogue that also give off the pretense that anything important is actually happening. Itís the type of movie that goes out of its way to explain the symbol that gargoyles need to etch on their weapons to slay demons but fails to explain how billions of humans remain unaware that those beasts have shacked up in a huge cathedral right in the middle of a city. Youíre supposed to just turn off your mind and go with it, of course, but that seems disingenuous considering itís leeching off of a story centered on reanimating a brain. Rent it!
*Iíve still got Van Helsing crusting at the bottom of the barrel. Now letís light the barrel on fire and never speak of it again.
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