Like the monster at its heart, I, Frankenstein is made of many parts — ugly parts, sure, but others that aren’t nearly as disastrous as the film’s title and premise might suggest.
Written and directed by Stuart Beattie, and starring Aaron Eckhart, I, Frankenstein exists in the world of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, albeit with Hollywood blockbuster flourishes. The fantasy action film begins with a recap of that Gothic classic, as Eckhart’s monster retells his origin: Abandoned by his creator, Victor Frankenstein, the vengeful monster relieved his rage by killing the scientist’s wife, and then luring him into the wilderness, where he ultimately froze to death.
As Frankenstein’s monster prepares to bury his “father,” he’s ambushed by demons, and later saved by a group of gargoyles, who act as Heaven’s soldiers in an endless war against Prince Niberius (Bill Nighy) and his Hellish horde. Gargoyle Queen Leonora (Miranda Otto) names the monster “Adam,” and informs him that he has a central role to play in the struggle between Heaven and Hell. But the soulless Adam isn’t interested in any war, and instead takes some Heavenly fighting sticks from the gargoyles, stomps off for icier pastures, and remains in exile for two centuries.
Adam eventually returns to civilization, where he reencounters the gargoyles and demons, befriends a scientist named Terra (Yvonne Strahovski), and learns the forces of Hell have a plan to achieve immortality — one that hinges on Adam’s creation at the hands of the late Dr. Frankenstein.
It’s easy to pull apart the stitches that hold together I, Frankenstein: It’s a silly title and a sillier premise, taking a literary classic and filling it with high-flying action, explosions aplenty and gargoyles galore. The biblical references, including the creature’s name “Adam,” are about as on the nose as it gets. The story barely exists, and the characters don’t have enough time in 90 minutes to make much of an impact.
But that’s not a surprise, is it? Based on the trailers and promotional images, and on the concept that drives the movie forward, surely you expected I, Frankenstein would be nothing short of a colossal failure, right?
Only it’s not. Mind you, it’s not a Best Picture contender, but it’s not a Razzie frontrunner, either.
Take the gargoyles, for instance: There’s something refreshing and exhilarating about seeing the winged stone creatures soaring through the sky and sawing demons in half. It’s not the traditional movie monster, certainly not one that’s been created to this effect. The gargoyles make for some compelling action sequences, particularly in the first half of the film. Forget Frankenstein’s creation: It’s the gargoyles that warrant the price of admission.
There are interesting mythological ideas at play, too, from the ancient war between gargoyles and demons, to the way these creatures are dispatched. When gargoyles die, they “ascend” to Heaven in a bright burst of green light. When demons die, they “descend” to Hell in an explosion of fire. As a result, I, Frankenstein plays around with extreme violence with vibrant, colorful energy. It’s a fairly bloodless affair, but the blood isn’t missed given the stylized action on display.
Beyond the high-flying battle between gargoyles and demons, Eckhart’s Adam is at the center of some compelling fight scenes. The way these scenes are shot make it clear Eckhart is doing much of the heavy lifting, rather than relying on a stunt double to sell the action. It’s exciting to watch an actor of his caliber pull off such impressive physical feats, even if the rest of his performance is lacking.
That praise aside, there’s no denying the film’s fundamental shortcomings. There’s nothing special about the performances, nothing that pulls the audience into the story. There’s very little humor, too; by and large, I, Frankenstein plays it straight, which is a mistake. But there are laughs to be had, even if they’re at the expense of the film. It’s “fun bad,” not just “bad bad” like 47 Ronin [LINK: http://spinoff.comicbookresources.com/2013/12/24/review-47-ronin-is-big-dumb-and-not-at-all-fun/], thanks to the rich and well-structured action, and the monsters that drive the violence.
I, Frankenstein isn’t great, but it’s better than expected. It’s not a life-changing event, but it’s also not the monstrous bomb it appears to be at first glance.
Perhaps that’s a victory in itself.
I, Frankenstein is in theaters now.