I, Frankenstein belongs alongside the likes of Underworld and Van Helsing. If you’re a fan of both of those films, chances are you’ll also like this one, even if it doesn’t quite reach those heights. It involves a war between two supernatural creatures with one man in the middle who is desired by both sides (Underworld), and the villain’s plot involves using Frankenstein’s monster in order to bring an army of dead things back to life (Van Helsing). It’s not quite as sleek or stylish as the former or as campy and flat-out fun as the latter, but it stands as their younger brother — a smaller, slightly worse iteration of its siblings. Or perhaps a stitched-together version, much like its lead character.
The film stars Aaron Echkhart as Frankenstein’s monster — given the name “Adam” by another character, because this is a subtle movie — someone who was created years ago from the parts of several men and re-animated by Dr. Frankenstein (Aden Young). But Frankenstein betrayed his creation, so Adam killed his wife and eventually also led the good doctor to his death. While burying his creator, Adam is attacked by demons, saved by gargoyles, and now finds himself in the middle of the war between the two.
The gargoyles are the purported good guys, sent down to Earth by God to keep the humans alive and well. They’re led by Leonore (Miranda Otto), who is the only means of communication between the gargoyles and the Lord. The demons, meanwhile, are led by Prince Naberius (Bill Nighy), who has enlisted the help of a scientist, Terra (Yvonna Strahovski), to accomplish his goal of re-birthing a whole load of demons through re-animated corpses.
We’re provided with a number of action scenes throughout I, Frankenstein. It is, after all, primarily an action movie, even if it is cloaked in a Gothic aesthetic. These are quite good. The slick cinematography gives us a nice lens through which we can view them, there isn’t an over reliance — or even much, if any — on shaky-cam, and the editing gives them time for us to get our bearings.
The film is very dark and blue, as you might expect. Much of it takes place in or around old-style castles. It’s a Gothic film through and through, and assuming you’re not tired of that type of mise-en-scène, you’re going to like the way I, Frankenstein looks. It makes good use of this scenery, too, both in where and how its action is staged and the way it has been shot. Director Stuart Beattie, who co-wrote the script with Underworld writer Kevin Grevioux, knows how to make the most of this material.
It’s not quite as silly as you’d expect, although I’m not sure if that works in its advantage or disadvantage. There’s one main wink at how ridiculous its premise is, but apart from that it’s tonally dark, serious, and grim. You’re not going to get many laugh, and the actors even keep it primary on the level. Nobody provides a hammy performance; they take it seriously and hope that you will, too. For the most part, this approach works, but I’m curious what a campier version of this film would look like.
To emphasize how dark it is, I, Frankenstein pulls no punches when it comes to killing off seemingly important characters. A couple of soldiers in the gargoyle army get some key speaking roles early on, but in the first big action scene both die. It’s genuinely surprising when these characters die. This happens throughout the film. Everyone has the potential to die, and that doesn’t happen a lot in the movies. You can usually suss out who will make it to the end. That’s not the case here.
There is a lot that doesn’t quite work, but these problems didn’t take away that much from my enjoyment. The film has a tendency to get exposition-heavy, and this downtime drags down the film’s pacing. It does feel derivative — particularly of the films I’ve mentioned earlier, although that might be just because they both hold a special place in my heart — but whether or not that bothers you will be up to the individual; it might be charming to some people and a disgrace to others.
Despite all of this exposition, it also doesn’t do a great job at setting up this world as anything other than generic. Part of the joy of the Underworld movies is the world and back story that is ever-present. You can tell so much thought has been put into it. Here, 200 years pass by and the war between the two sides seems completely unchanged. There here to fight simply because that is their destiny (God and Satan told them to). At least divine intervention doesn’t ever play into it. That would make things boring.
Appropriately, given its subject matter, I, Frankenstein feels like a stapled-together version of a number of similar films, but I don’t think that’s enough to condemn it. It has solid action that is shot and edited well, a surprisingly serious tone that almost gets the audience to buy into its ridiculous premise, a good setting that is used well, and actors that don’t trivialize it or make it feel silly. It’s a little exposition-heavy and its derivativeness might turn off some viewers, but I had some fun with it. If it sounds like you’ll like it, chances are you probably will.