Unpopular and Misconceived
If, like me, you're one of those people who feels like they've spent a fair chunk of their life trying to impress upon people the fact that, no, the iconically flat-topped and electrode-necked techno-revenant whose creation was documented by Mary Shelley is not actually called Frankenstein (that honour, of course, going to the Genevan medical student responsible for the beast), then you are going to be entirely exasperated by Stuart Beattie's I, Frankenstein, which is troubling cinemas as I write. On the other hand, if we're discussing popular misconceptions, this film is halfway there.
Victor Frankenstein himself is briefly in the movie, played by Aden Young, but only at the very start. He pegs out somewhere arctic while pursuing his creature, who has taken the shine off Frankenstein's honeymoon by strangling his bride. The cobbled-together creature is played by Aaron Eckhart, which just leads one to wonder where Frankenstein found its chin. But anyway.
So far, so surprisingly faithful to Shelley (relatively speaking, and bearing in mind this is up against some very dodgy competition). Needless to say, I, Frankenstein rapidly casts loose from the anchor of authenticity, and quite possibly coherence, when the Creature is attacked by demons in human form while burying his creator. Things look bleak in the ensuing battle until he is rescued by... oh dear... some angelic gargoyles.
The gargoyles, who spend their non-CGI'd moments looking like a bunch of models, whisk the Creature off to their headquarters, which is a big cathedral in an unspecified major city. There we meet the Queen of the Gargoyles (Miranda Otto) who delivers a big and slightly steaming info-dump – another of those hidden supernatural wars is raging, on this occasion between the Queen of the Gargoyles, who basically works for God, and the Prince of the Demons (Bill Nighy), who presumably is in the employ of the other chap. For some reason the demons want to get their claws on Frankenstein's Monster, and the gargoyles are opposed to this on principle. The Creature himself declares he has no stake in the matter either way and clears off into seclusion.
Two hundred years later he changes his mind though: not for any particularly good reason on his part, but from a marketing point of view it at least stops this from being a costume picture. In the meantime Nighy has recruited a comely young electro-neurologist – does anyone honestly believe that's a real job? – played by Yvonne Strahovski, intending to replicate Frankenstein's work. The reappearance of the original creature is bound, therefore, to have some influence on the unfolding events...
Radical reimaginings like Splice notwithstanding, we've been waiting a couple of decades for a really imaginative and interesting new version of Shelley's famous and hugely influential classic. And the wait continues, for I, Frankenstein is thorough-going cobblers of truly epic proportions (having said that, I must express a certain gratitude to the film-makers for limiting the thing to a commendably brief 90 minutes or so in length).
I mean, here's the thing – we've already got the Underworld series floating around in our collective consciousness, and it's not all that long since the Blade franchise was a going concern, either. So why would you possibly think that making a film which closely apes the look and style of both these things was a good idea? It's not just derivative, it's actively dull: and it's not even as if the makers of this film can claim ignorance, given that I, Frankenstein and Underworld share the same writer.
They also share the same murky modern mise-en-scene and total lack of anything resembling a sense of humour about themselves, not to mention the presence of Bill Nighy as the main villain (it must be said that Nighy's ability to lift this sort of lamentable material is in and of itself virtually supernatural). Beyond this there is little overt acknowledgement of the rich history of screen Frankensteins – there's a nod to the famous 'It's alive!' moment from the James Whale version, while a mention of electric eels may be a wink to the Kenneth Branagh take on the story – nor much sign of any real understanding of what makes Frankenstein work as a story.
It seems to me to be a much-overlooked fact that Frankenstein's Creature is potentially a really good part for the right actor, given the right script. Too often, however, he's just a grotesque, grunting brute (the Hammer movies in particular were repeat offenders on this score), and the only actors I've ever seen give the character the right mixture of intensity and pathos are Boris Karloff (of course) and – here comes an out-of-left-field pick – Michael Sarrazin. Did Aaron Eckhart ever have the potential to join this select band? Well, maybe; Eckhart is a likeable screen presence even in a dog of a movie like this one. But he doesn't get the material or the direction he needs.
The Frankenstein story is a lot of things, which is why it has lasted for centuries: it's about paternal responsibility, man's relationship with technology and the environment, and so on. But what it isn't about is endless 3D battles between the CGI'd forces of heaven and hell. You can do a lot of very interesting things with Frankenstein's Creature, but turning him into a demon-stomping martial arts superhero is not one of them. The action sequences are unengaging and Eckhart isn't allowed to give the character the presence he requires, nor really the depth – we're repeatedly reminded that this is someone who once murdered an innocent woman, but the Creature's moral responsibility isn't addressed.
I could go on and on. I know this is just meant to be a genre action movie, and not meant to be taken seriously, but if you're going to use the name of a serious, classic novel then you're opening yourself up to serious criticism. I recall recently bewailing the glut of heavy, lengthy, based-on-reality movies that have been filling up the cinemas of late, and hoping something solely intended to entertain would come along. Well, this may be an attempt in that direction, but it's a thoroughly botched one. I, Frankenstein sets the bar for this year's silly action fantasies impressively high – or, depending on your point of view, startlingly low. Steer clear.