Firstly, my thoughts on the UNDERWORLD series – the first one wasn’t very good, and has only become hokier with age, the sequel and prequel were slightly better, but only slightly. I’ve yet to have the “pleasure” of the second sequel. I, FRANKENSTEIN comes from the writer of Underworld, Kevin Grevioux and is directed by Stuart Beatie, who had a hand in writing PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN and GI JOE. It’s not the most promising filmmaking pedigree.
In a grim, generic European city probably some time in the not-too-distant future, the ancient war between good and evil rages on. The forces of darkness, with ranks filled by demonic hellspawn, want to overrun the world and enslave or kill all of humanity (the usual drill), while the forces of light, composed of the angelic Gargoyle Order want to retain balance and protect humankind by “descending” demons with blessed weapons. In the late 18th Century, Dr Frankenstein (Aden Young) discovers the secret to bestowing new life upon the dead, and the result of his experiments, an inexplicably good-looking monster (Aaron Eckhart) is rejected by his creator, whereupon he takes brutal revenge for Frankenstein’s cruelty. After Frankenstein’s death, the monster is attacked by demons, then rescued by gargoyles, given the biblical name of Adam by the Gargoyle Queen (Miranda Otto), and is asked to join them in their war. As the centuries pass and Adam endeavors to remain neutral, the demon leader Prince Naberius (Bill Nighy) finally plays his hand for world domination.
The film opens with a subdued choir singing over an aurora in the heavens, then transitions into a stylish enough (and fairly faithful) re-telling of the second half of Mary Shelley’s iconic and influential FRANKENSTEIN, with a gravelly Aaron Eckhart providing foreboding narration. After about three minutes, a gang of demons show up and Frankenstein’s Monster lays into them all Underworld-style. We then get maybe one more passing reference to Shelley, but apart from that it’s all Grevioux. You have to admit that he’s certainly committed to his particular style. Committed and limited.
What is the most tired, over-used story archetype in action-horror cinema? Why, a literal battle between heaven and hell, of course. I, Frankenstein centres on an eternal battle between demons and angels (here presented as gargoyles) and features Frankenstein’s creation used as a blunt object by the forces of light, and appropriately enough, using two batons to dispatch his foes. Movies like this really make you appreciate how nuanced unavoidably flawed examples of the same genre, like Timur Bekmambetov’s NIGHT WATCH were (and Night Watch wasn’t exactly subtle).
What is probably the key plot point in the film clearly can’t have been thought through. The Gargoyle Order lock Frankenstein’s book of notes – proof that “God is not the sole creator of man” – away in a vault early on to stop them falling into Prince Naberius’ hands. If this book is so dangerous, why not just burn it? After all, as Jai Courtney’s gargoyle general Gideon quite rightly points out, “it is but a book”. Sure enough, the notes fall into the wrong hands later on, and the gargoyles just come across as arrogant morons.
The finale is ripped straight out of VAN HELSING (an undead army awaiting an arbitrary surge of energy to give them unholy life), but with the addition of an “evil plan progress bar”, in story terms the bastard son of the “countdown to doom”, while we keep flitting back to the final brawl between Adam and Naberius.
The demons come in two flavours – ugly, and character actor. The gargoyles are sometimes stoney, winged creatures and sometimes catwalk models. Eckhart’s brief but shameless shirtless scene goes some way to redressing the skewed balance of sexualisation in popular culture, but is otherwise pointless. Like all post-Universal Frankenstein films, they have to get “it’s alive!” in there somewhere, and the film makers unwisely attempt to explain how the Creature was made with some science mumbo-jumbo, missing the whole point of Shelley’s character and story.
Miranda Otto, playing the gargoyle queen Leonore, deserves some sort of medal for delivering lengthy chunks of stunningly stupid plot exposition with a straight face. We’re also asked to care when the queen is in jeopardy despite the fact she only has about three scenes and displays no discernible character or fathomable motivation while she’s on screen. This isn’t Otto’s fault, she’s under-served by Grevioux’s writing and Stuart Beattie’s direction. Eckhart, Courtney and Yvonne Strahovski’s performances are non-existent, but at least Nigh livens up his scenes with a tried-and-tested mix of still creepiness and scenery-chewing overdrive. Bruce Spence is in it too (very briefly) which is always nice.
The film uses numerous Dutch angles for no discernible reason, seemingly just to add some style to Stuart Beattie’s otherwise style-less film. The action is Underworld-meets-BLADE with almost all energy and rhythm drained, and over-compensatory CG pyrotechnics. It’s polished but completely unremarkable stuff, apart from one admittedly cool moment where Adam flying-punches a gargoyle in the face. Polished but unremarkable could also apply to the VFX – the gargoyles look decent, but the rendering of these flying, fighting humanoid monsters doesn’t seem much more advanced than how Dracula’s brides looked in Van Helsing a decade ago.
The script is bad even by Grevioux’s usual standards. Gloriously idiotic dialogue includes “the Gargoyle Order must survive…[pause for effect] and mankind with it”, and even the lines that don’t make you wince as a reflex are delivered laboriously enough by a completely uninterested cast to cause discomfort.
The demon makeup is admittedly well done (always nice to still see physical prosthetics) but it’s not as original or creative as examples in a Guillermo del Toro film, or even the monstrous sorceresses in HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS. The film’s set design is impressively detailed and well-lit, though again it’s too derivative of Underworld and others in the genre.
Would the film be better if it took itself less seriously? If it was funnier, grimier, trashier? Perhaps – that’s what saved Hansel & Gretel, after all. I, Frankenstein is an ugly, will-sapping slog containing very little to recommend other than Nighy miraculously proving that he can be watchable in absolutely everything. I hope this isn’t the beginning and end to Aaron Eckhart’s leading man roles, because he’s a good actor in most things, and has the charisma to carry a big movie, just not this one. SSP