Over the years, Frankenstein’s monster, originally brought to vivid life in the pages of Mary Shelley‘s classic horror novel “Frankenstein,” has been many things—a hulking brute, a tortured poet, a comic foil, a Marvel superhero. But in Stuart Beattie‘s colorless new sci-fi mishmash, “I, Frankenstein,” the creature created by the mad scientist Victor Frankenstein is blandly recast as a biblical savior, tasked to even the playing field in an eternal struggle between (would you believe) hellish demons and stoic gargoyles (yes, gargoyles), with Earth hanging precariously in the balance. Or something. For all of “I, Frankenstein”‘s wooshy visual effects and sexy brooding (not to mention its overtly convoluted plot), it’s hard to find much of a pulse.
In the opening moments of “I, Frankenstein,” the filmmakers at least give a passing nod to having read the original text (or at least skimmed the Spark Notes), with the creature making its way into the arctic. Then, about five seconds later, some demons show up and try to kill the creature (played with strapping good looks and a straggly hippie wig by Aaron Eckhart) for reasons that still, even after having seen the movie, we’re not entirely clear about. The creature is then whisked away by a pair of gargoyles to some giant castle, where the benevolent gargoyle queen Lenore (Miranda Otto) explains to the monster, who she calls Adam, that there is a war raging between unholy demons and much holier gargoyles. Adam is then talked at by a bunch of characters, most of whom are insanely attractive in their non-gargoyle form and who unload page after page of clunky exposition and unnecessary “rules” for this made-up universe.
Adam then just kind of disappears for 200 years, to “Where no human, demon, or gargoyle could find me.” Oh. 200 years. And nobody finds him? Really? Adam has taken this time to perfect his demon-hunting skills, and growls (in a sub-theatrical-version-of-“Blade Runner” voice over) about how he’s going after them since he was tired of them coming after him. When the story resumes, it’s present day, and Adam is now rocking closely cropped hair (with a dollop of product to perfect that spiky flip), fingerless gloves (presumably from his time spent as part of an eighties break-dancing crew) and a hooded sweatshirt he borrowed from Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.” Adam, it should be noted, is still really cute for being stitched together from a bunch of corpses.
After all this time Adam also happens to find himself back in the anonymous Eastern European city where the gargoyle kingdom still stands (Prague? Somewhere in Bulgaria?), and promptly gets drawn into a treacherous, unwieldy plot involving a demon prince (played by Bill Nighy, on full autopilot), who wants to use the same technology that created Frankenstein’s monster to bring an army of demons back from the underworld. In order to save the planet, Adam must regain his humanity, mostly through making goo-goo eyes at a comely young scientist (Yvonne Strahovski) who has been tricked into aiding the drably evil plot, even though the most scientific thing we ever see her do is radiate a dead rat with what can only be described as blue lightning, a process that is marginally more scientific than Herbert West injecting a body with glowing green goo in “Re-Animator.”
The biggest problem with “I, Frankenstein,” a movie that oftentimes feels like it’s nothing but problems, is that it’s thoroughly silly without ever revealing a sense of humor. The central conceit is an inherently insane idea, and that insanity should have been embraced, on some level. Instead everything is treated with an agonizingly straight face, with dialogue recited like it’s Shakespearean verse and a blue-gray color palette that suggests an even dimmer version of the “Underworld” movies. This is a movie with gargoyles, wings outstretched like giant bats, flying through modern European cities, and yet no one says anything about it? Surely a bystander with an iPhone must have gotten a glimpse. And do any of the characters have any sense of humor about the cosmic ridiculousness of their plight? Apparently immortality comes with a huge price. That price is crankiness.
Every action sequence (and there are many) is staged and filmed exactly the same way, with Adam or the gargoyles dispatching demons with all the subtlety and nuance of a videogame cut scene, complete with tons of swirling fireballs and heavenly rays of light. But for all of the unimaginative, overstuffed computer trickery, the demons are literally guys with cheap, Halloween-y masks on that look like monsters from a Z-grade episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Even Bill Nighy, covered in rubbery latex and hamming it up to an almost obscene degree, doesn’t make much of an impression or seem like he’s having the least bit of fun. These sequences are creatively bankrupt bores, and for a movie that tries desperately to fit into the difficult action-horror genre, come across as neither scary nor thrilling.
It’s hard not to feel bad for Frankenstein’s monster himself, Aaron Eckhart. Not the character in the movie but the actor in real life. Eckhart used to do consistently interesting work, which wasn’t always a complete knockout, but was often daring and courageous (think about his performance in “Erin Brockovich,” for one). But since his success as a second fiddle villain in the blockbuster “Dark Knight,” he’s been stuck in a series of agonizing genre affairs, like last year’s tepid “Olympus Has Fallen.” To hear the performer, who would so nimbly recite acidic bits of Neil LaBute dialogue, say things like, “Descend in pain, demon” is borderline tragic. Hopefully this role paid for a house, or at the very least a really big, gargoyle-adorned boat.
“I, Frankenstein” was written and directed by Stuart Beattie, a competent genre craftsman who wrote the knockout script for Michael Mann‘s “Collateral” and last year wrote and directed one of the niftier YA adaptations, “Tomorrow, When the War Began” (a more soulful variation on “Red Dawn“). Here, however, Beattie seems to be resting on autopilot, with a script that doesn’t have any forward momentum (or surprises or meaningful character moments) and lacks a single memorable set piece of any kind. It’s a movie about a man cobbled together from other men, and it’s a movie cobbled together from other movies (amongst them: “The Matrix,” “Van Helsing” and, of course, the “Underworld” movies). This movie is a corpse in desperate need of reanimation. [F]