B movies have been around as long as the Hollywood studio system, and while they don’t poke up their heads much anymore—with studios preferring to aim for blockbusters every time—many of the recent flood of science fiction action movies are fodder for such a designation. The Matrix (1999) blew its particular blend of action and mind-bending sci-fi into the mainstream and Hollywood has been trying to popularize other self-serious explorations into that world ever since. I, Frankenstein’s closest ancestor in that realm is the Underworld films; they share a writer and three producers, as well as a couple of prominent cast members. And what’s more, the comic book that I, Frankenstein is based on is penned by Kevin Grevioux, who co-wrote Underworld’s story. The similarities don’t end there either, as both I, Frankenstein and the Underworld films adapt old school monster movies into a hip, modern action movie—while their monsters are different, the formula is the same: monsters hiding in plain sight fight a secret war that shapes human existence while we live in ignorance. I, Frankenstein manages to feel, like its nominal creature, like it has been stitched together from many dead scripts lying on Underworld’s cutting room floor.
Director: Stuart Beattie
Producers: Gary Lucchesi, Andrew Mason, Tom Rosenberg, Richard S. Wright
Writers: Stuart Beattie, Kevin Grevioux, Mary Shelley
Cinematographer: Ross Emery
Editor: Marcus D’Arcy
Music: Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek
Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Yvonne Strahovski, Miranda Otto, Bill Nighy, Jai Courtney, Socratis Otto, Kevin Grevioux
Premiere: January 20, 2014 – Buenos Aires
US Theatrical Release: January 24, 2014
US Distributor: Lionsgate
It opens with a surprisingly concise retelling of Mary Shelley’s original narrative and picks up where Frankenstein left off, with the monster (Aaron Eckhart) carrying Dr. Frankenstein’s corpse out of the frozen tundra. But that’s about as far as it stays true to Shelley’s novel, since while burying the mad scientist’s body the monster is beset by a group of demons only to be saved by a pair of shapeshifting gargoyles, who inexplicably dress like the cowled characters from the Assassins Creed video games. The rest of the film follows the “secret war” waged between vaguely angelic gargoyles and the corporate-dressed demons, led by Naberius (Bill Nighy), who also played the heavy in the Underworld series. Our monster—whom the gargoyle queen (Miranda Otto) dubs “Adam” in a heavy-handed attempt to divine some biblical connection—gets involved when it becomes clear that the demonic forces have an evil plan that involves him.
Eckhart plays Adam as immeasurably gruff, with most lines delivered like a combination between Humphrey Bogart and Christian Bale’s Batman, and the script he is given to work with is an abysmal list of one-liners, some of which make it to the category of so bad they’re good. (My favorite is when he describes himself as “a dozen used pieces from eight different corpses.”) Even Nighy’s suit-clad demonic villain comes across as crudely drawn—though he manages to impart considerable menace, he can’t do much more with a character that is villainous for the sake of villainy, and some of his comic-book dialogue is even worse than Eckhart’s. The film’s supposed plot revolves around the relationship between Adam and the beautiful female scientist (Yvonne Strahovski) hired by the demonic horde to learn the secret of reanimation, but it’s clear that the filmmakers care less about that and more about the 300-esque CGI brawls that punctuate every act. The plot relies too heavily on special effects, but the action sequences and special effects are good enough—and the rest of the plot bad enough—that it doesn’t matter.
But as cheesy pseudo-gothic action revivals go, I, Frankenstein is remarkably fun to watch. The fight sequences are well done, with all of the Matrix-style kung fu and gleaming weaponry that marks its provenance. Even though many one-liners are painfully stupid, there’s something compelling about Frankenstein’s monster being a wisecracking noir antihero, rather than a stiff-legged, clumsy behemoth. Its plot is self-serious and lacking many basic considerations (What is the city in which the story takes place? London? Some other English-speaking European city with a massive gothic cathedral?) but the plot is so irrelevant and small in scope that you can essentially ignore it and enjoy the show. The resulting experience is pleasantly similar to watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with great special effects, albeit one that lasts a little too long.