Two hundred or so years ago, the mad scientist Dr. Victor Frankenstein dabbled in a world beyond his comprehension. He created a creature that exists somewhere between the human world and the world of the dead, living tissue given live, but without a soul. He tried to kill that creature and, in turn, that creature kills him. When burying his creator in the family plot, the creature that would later become known as Adam Frankenstein (Aaron Eckhart) found himself attracting the attention of a cadre of demons, bent on capturing him for their research. Frankenstein slays the demons with the help of a pair of gargoyles.
Apparently, Adam has stumbled across a war that has raged across time between demons and gargoyles, who have been empowered with the light to kill demons courtesy of the Archangel Michael and communicated to us through exposition and voice-over (the movie is very heavy on voice-over, particularly in the beginning). The vicious demon prince Naberious (Bill Nighy) needs the creature for his nefarious plot to reanimate the soulless dead and inhabit those bodies with demons, driven to crush the gargoyle queen Leonore (Miranda Otto) with the help of researcher/brilliant dupe Terra (Yvonne Strahovski) and a bunch of crazy looking scientific equipment prone to sparking with arcs of electricity.
Drawn into an eternal war, Adam has to choose sides. Will he stand with the gargoyles and protect the human race? Will he turn to the demon side and give in to his darkest urges? The creature has to choose a side, or he’ll find himself a pawn in a game he cannot hope to control.
Stuart Beattie is the auteur behind this movie, and it’s definitely his passion project as he both wrote and directed this film based on Kevin Grevioux’s graphic novel of the same name. The graphic novel origins of the story are pretty plainly on display, thanks to some very impressive visual work from Beattie. He has a real knack for moving cameras, how best to sweep in and show Frankenstein in isolation, when to pull back and let his fighters do their fighting, and he makes good use of his faux-London/possibly Germany/maybe New York/shot in Australia cityscape to show a lot of flying gargoyles and marauding demons scrambling across rooftops like tendrils of dark Cgismoke. The atmosphere is actually pretty well maintained; it’s not so much a city you can identify, like Chicago in The Dark Knight Rises, but it feels like a real city with older parts, newer things, mass transit, etc.
Visually, by and large, I, Frankenstein looks very good. The CGI is solid most of the time, and when it’s not, it’s usually during an action sequence. Actors can be seen flailing around CGI fire, gargoyles look blatantly phony (even if the transformation from gargoyles to humans is generally good thanks to the use of flowing garments and capes) and the demons are a mixed bag. When the demons are merely facial appliances in leftover Agent Smith suits, they look good. When the demons are digital, the effect is jarring due to the difference between the two.
It feels very lazy to compare this film to Underworld, but they’re basically the same movie. Adam is taken in by the gargoyles and thrust into the ages-old shadow war between two species, one of which is goodish and the other of which is definitely evil. There’s a sort of chosen one torn between two forces, vying for control of him, kind of like the hybrid daughter in the fourth Underworld, right down to the bad guys being involved in an evil corporation. Lots of CGI monsters fight other CGI monsters. The movie invokes Underworld‘s stylishness visually. Even though the hero looks like a homeless person who fell into a vat of used steroid needles and emerged with wicked scars and ripped abs, everything and everyone around him looks cool. The demons are in suits and look like they have money (pretty standard demon stuff); the gargoyles look like they escaped from Game of Thrones and ended up getting gargoyle powers (pretty standard angelic warrior stuff). It all feels very familiar, which makes it more of a slog than a fun adventure.
It doesn’t help that, unlike Underworld, this movie’s heroes and villain disappear in digital light shows rather than leave behind corpses, even if the demons do char before turning into puffs of fire. When Adam takes his beatings, it can look downright cartoonish (particular one Evil Dead 2 shot where we get a tight close up of him while the camera dolly crashes through walls). The characters are similarly cut from cartoon cloth: Adam Frankenstein is a silent, seething punisher who learns eventually to love, cute girl scientist Terra (aside: what a great, dumb name) is cute and smart and needs protecting by Frankenstein. Bill Nighy plays Bill Nighy’s stock bad guy character (though admittedly he’s one of the bright spots in the movie). And so on.
It’s a waste of a good cast, considering the stuff they have to say. Frankenstein’s one-liner attempts don’t really work, because they’re both not tough-guy and they’re not funny; he talks like a brooding poetry major or a goth kid that’s just gotten dumped. Bill Nighy is great in his limited role. When Aaron Eckhart gets to stop speaking in exposition and start smashing things with his holy beating sticks, the movie improves. Also, his physical transformation is impressive. It’s not that Eckhart was ever portly by any means, but man, he looks like he hasn’t even looked at a bagel in six months every time he takes off his shirt, which works for the monster. (His big clunky black boots were a cute callback to Karloff’s lift boots, too.)
At a certain point, overwhelming style can beat a lack of substance any day. If you liked Underworld, then you’d probably at least like I, Frankenstein. If you want an action movie that looks good and won’t make you think because you know how it’s going to unfold, then I, Frankenstein is right up your alley. If you like something a little less rote and a little more inventive, then I’d look somewhere else. It has its good points, but not nearly enough of them to justify making a special effort to see it, unless you’re the world’s biggest Bill Nighy fan, want to see Miranda Otto in another cool dress, or if you’ve ever wondered what would happen if you grafted Big Ben onto a Gothic cathedral.
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