There are four good things we can say about I, Frankenstein, another muscles-and-rubble comic book adaptation just un-terrible enough not to alienate its core audience, yet never consistently grand or surprising enough to win over anyone else.
First, Aaron Eckhart brings it, scowling like a champ beneath his jigsawed scar makeup, stick-fighting hellspawn with a vigorous looseness you might not expect from a founding member of the Neil LaBute Repertory Company (especially since he’s playing a 200-year-old corpse). As his amusingly handsome Frankenstein’s monster forms an uneasy alliance with the Order of Gargoyles to stomp 666 legions of demons, Eckhart never once lets on whether he finds the movie around him ridiculous, even when he has to apply his craft to a mouthful like “If the demons could find me in the wilderness, it was only a matter of time before they found me here, which is why I had to find them first.” What a gob of words! Kudos to writers Stuart Beattie and Kevin Grevioux for cooking up dialogue as dead as the monster’s flesh, which is more than Mary Shelley ever bothered to do.
The second good thing here: On occasion, the movie works up a sour-candy gothic grandeur. A demon assault on a cathedral big enough to have its own zip code is shot and cut with rare clarity for a wide-release action flick dumped in January, and there’s vertiginous pleasure to be had from the zero-gravity swoops of director Beattie’s camera. Demons rain down like Space Invaders, while gargoyles leap from spires and chuck those demons into buttresses and stained glass windows, where they combust into hellfire. (This is a PG-13, and most bad guys go down with just one touch, like the bullies in old Charles Atlas ads.)
Later, there’s a not-bad stick-fighting face-off between Eckhart’s beast and a demon lieutenant. (Or “boss.” We may as well just use the language of video games at this point.) Like much of the movie, you’ve seen everything in this scene before, but at least the brawl is crisp and taut, the motions of the fighters clear and the images arranged into a coherent sequence interpretable by the human eye. Considering the hash of so much onscreen violence these days, where the filmmakers just throw the images at you for you to sort out, it’s a relief, despite the battle’s lunkheaded setup.
Also lunkheaded, but in a good way: There’s actually something in the movie as wonderfully stupid as that title. The ridiculous highlight might constitute a spoiler if you’re the kind of person who sees I, Frankenstein for the plotting. Halfway through the film, Eckhart’s monster discovers a Matrix–inspired chamber where head demon Naberius (Bill Nighy) has stored tens of thousands of corpses with the intention of bringing life to their dead flesh and then stocking each new undead beast with a soul on loan from Hell. Assembling this army has taken centuries, we’re told, but Naberius only acquires the wherewithal to bring life to his soldiers-to-be once he’s scored a copy of Victor Frankenstein’s journal from the 1790s. (There’s no explanation for how the flesh has stayed fresh all this time.) Within hours of acquiring the scientist’s notes, Naberius’s crew is playing God and harnessing lightning, and that’s when Beattie reveals a detail I can only describe as bonkers: Every one of those corpses has been rigged up with a small computer screen that charts how far along its reanimation has come as a percentage. Violating the laws of creation is just like downloading from the iTunes store! Better still, once the dead are fully charged up, those screens – which had all been tinted red — blink to a jolly green, which was quite thoughtful of Hell’s IT department.
That was the third winning touch. The fourth also concerns the title, which is distinguished by such last-century creature-feature sincerity that I’d love to see a film one day that fully lives up to it. Not that that title makes much sense. “Unless the movie’s about the doctor, the words I, Frankenstein just don’t fit!” an English department friend complained to me the week before the release. That turns out not to be quite true. Yes, Eckhart plays Frankenstein’s monster, not Frankenstein himself, and, yes, I, Frankenstein’s Monster would be more accurate — and an even worse mouthful than Beattie could fathom. The movie’s workaround: Despite detesting Victor Frankenstein, the monster comes to think of that long-dead mad scientist as a father. Then the monster declares himself his father’s son, and he sends us into the credits with the rousing declaration, “I, Frankenstein!”
It doesn’t come close to working, but it’s sweet that they tried. None of these four decent things about I, Frankenstein makes up for the movie’s noisy and repetitive dullness, its many confounding plot developments and character motivations, or its tossing out the philosophical complexity of Shelley’s novel in favor of Underworld–style good-versus-evil claptrap. It’s not good enough, but it is slightly better than it has to be.