To nobody's surprise, the loud and simple-minded new dead-zone casualty I, Frankenstein has little to do with Mary Shelley's classic novel. It's something much more common and much less fun — a battle-mad monster mash-up from the mind of Underworld writer Kevin Grevioux, who, along with director/co-writer Stuart Beattie, cheerfully scraps Shelley's philosophical musings about family, loneliness, and scientific progress. They replace these things with muscles, glowering, flirtations with camp, and one of the biggest, loudest explosions of the year. If you ask me, it wasn't a fair trade-off.
Like so many mediocre movies, the opening scenes of I, Frankenstein are the strongest. Frankenstein's ruggedly handsome monster (Aaron Eckhart) gives us a bad SparkNotes summary of Shelley's novel while cinematographer Ross Emery, who helped shoot The Matrix trilogy, supplies postcards of 18th-century gloom and Arctic desolation.
Unfortunately, this dark pastoral overture lasts about two minutes. Shortly after Frankenstein's monster buries his creator in a grave, he's assaulted by demons wearing rubber masks inspired by the Buffy The Vampire Slayer Fall 2000 collection. He dispatches — er,"descends" — these foes with some help from a group of shape-shifting gargoyle guardians locked in eternal combat with the demons over the fate of the human race. The Frankenstein monster is captured, re-christened "Adam" by the High Queen of The Gargoyle Order(!) and then set adrift for 200 years. Like Mongo in Blazing Saddles, Adam eventually discovers that "he is only pawn in game of life."
There are dozens of questions about this premise that are better left unasked. But here's the thing: If you can silence those voices of reason and logic and plausibility, I, Frankenstein is not a bad way to waste an afternoon. Watching a movie that does all the work for you is like getting a massage; it induces a pleasant state of anesthetized contentment. The only reason the characters open their mouths is to move the story along, and they repeat important information so often that the feeling of déjà vu never really lifts. The action scenes are reasonably clear and the pyrotechnics are agreeably over-the-top. Whenever a demon is killed, it explodes in a swirling comet of flames; whenever a gargoyle is slain, it rises to heaven on a beam of bluish-white light.
As an added bonus, Adam says to the comely "electrophysiologist" Terra (Yvonne Strahovski), "I think your boss might be a demon prince." This immediately became one of my favorite random movie lines ever, rivaling Kevin McCarthy's immortal voiceover observation from the original Invasion of The Body Snatchers: "A moment's sleep, and the girl I loved was an inhuman enemy bent on my destruction."
Now, I'm no connoisseur of bad movies; as Tom Bissell once noted, there are some movies so bad that they're good, but there are no movies so good that they're bad. Let everyone else ironically appreciate awful work, but sometimes attention must be paid, and that demon prince line is genius.
The sensory massage didn't last as long as I'd hoped. Although the film's battle scenes take place in impressive locales — like a Gothic church that sits in the center of a city like a granite tarantula or a giant silo where centuries of corpses hang like the salamini of the damned — they are, like the swooping, soaring, wacky demon-gargoyle brawls themselves, entirely CGI-designed and engineered. The film's constant replacement of actual physical space with designed, computerized space renders meaningless any particularities of geography and architecture.
If the filmmakers had included a few specific, particular details about the people inhabiting the placeless European city where I, Frankenstein takes place, they would have given their movie some useful local color and flavor. If they'd included more than a handful of recognizable human types, they might have given their climactic showdown some weight. However, without these details, it's often easy to forget that real people are onscreen. One character's ringing cell phone accidentally provides the biggest, most incongruous scare in the whole movie.
The actors playing these future video-game avatars are okay. Eckhart, playing a handsome, soulless corpse, is perfectly cast. As usual, the always-watchable Bill Nighy skates into the movie, does a double Lutz/double Axel combo, and glides away unscathed. It's the old Michael Caine trick, done to perfection. Nighy has taken to heart Caine's famous quotation about Jaws: The Revenge: "I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific."