Review: I, FRANKENSTEIN Makes An Apocalyptic Battle Look Like a Rainbow of Fireworks

Peter Martin, Managing Editor

Oooh, death looks so pretty! Demons drool, gargoyles rule!

Stuart Beattie, who made his directorial debut with 2010's Tomorrow, When the War Began, delivers what amounts to a simplistic, spiritual sequel to that film, even though he has stepped over into an extension of the Underworld franchise. Having only seen Beattie's first film a few hours before, it made for a very strange, yet familiar sensation.

At the same time, I, Frankenstein looks and feels very much like a cousin to the Underworld series, which was also first dreamed up by Kevin Grevioux. (He created the graphic novel that serves as the source material and is credited for the screen story with Beattie.) Instead of vampires vs. werewolves fighting a centuries-long secret war that will affect the future of mankind, here we have gargoyles vs. demons fighting a centuries-long war secret war that will affect the future of mankind.

This time the battle is married to characters from Mary Shelley's novel, first published in 1818. The novel itself is "honored" by allowing it to serve as the origin story for the monster created by Victor Frankenstein, with a crucial difference: the monster is immortal *. Unlocking the secret to his immortality is the key that is sought after by both gargoyles and demons.

In Tomorrow, When the War Began, Beattie made destructive moments look seductively attractive, filled with slow-motion characters emoting in the foreground, and fiery explosions splattering the screen with bodies and objects in the background. He employs similar methods on a much grander scale in I, Frankenstein. Dozens, if not hundreds or thousands of creatures, are killed in spectacular fashion: dead gargoyles "ascend," i.e. return to heaven in beams of blue-tinged light stretching upward into the always cloudy night sky, while dead demons explode like dying fires, their physical bodies collapsing in clumps of embers, arcing outward in rivers of flames that "descend" back to Hell.

It's all very, very pretty, especially since the gargoyles sprout giant wings like angels and flap around -- the poor demons are stuck wearing business suits inspired by Agent Smith in The Matrix before they emerge from disguise -- and the sight quickly becomes the film's raison d'être.

The arresting and gorgeous visuals, presented with all the depth and conspicuous layers we've come to expect from modern 3D, only serve to emphasize a shortcoming of the film, which is that no one really cares about the stakes involved. Sure, the Frankenstein monster (named Adam and played with stentorian blunt force by Aaron Eckhart) whines about being alone in the world, and the queen of the gargoyles (Miranda Otto, serving up a dish of elegant disdain) tells Adam he must find his place in the world, or some similar old-world folk-song lyric, but the armies of gargoyles and demons act like mercenaries, resigned to their fate and perhaps a bit too eager to die so they can return to their natural dwelling places.

And no wonder; though apparently the film is meant to be set in modern-day London, humans are only glimpsed fleetingly, and never raise a voice of complaint about gargoyles flying around churches at night and making demons go boom. Ostensibly, the lead characters keep talking about the fate of humanity, but it seems that humanity is not even a wee bit interested in what happens to them.

i-frankenstein-poster-us-300.jpgWhich left me sitting in a theater, and asking myself questions that are entirely peripheral to the story, such as, 'Where did Frankenstein's Monster go to get his hair cut? How did he wear the same outfit for 200 years without the material wearing out? Hey, weren't those gargoyles also in Tomorrow, When the War Began?'

At least I have an answer to the last question: Beattie cast Chris Pang, Deniz Akdeniz, and Caitlin Stasey, who all had leading roles in Tomorrow, When the War Began, as supporting gargoyles here. From the Underworld series, Bill Nighy contributes a welcome turn as a slightly different character, a prince of demons, biting off his lines with relish, and Kevin Grevioux lends his presence as one of the prince's helpers. Bruce Spence pops up in a small role. Yvonne Strahovsky is fine as a naive scientist. Jai Coutney provides appropriate, anonymous menace as a suspicious gargoyle.

Behind the camera, Tomorrow editor Marcus D'Arcy returns in that capacity, so the two films share a rhythm that allows the story to flow at a good, strong pace without leaving anybody behind. Composers Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek also return with another subtle, effective score.

Beattie can certainly tell a story. But is this a story worth telling? His screenplay is laser-focused on setting up the universe, laying out the good guys and the bad guys, and constructing a framework for the visual spectacle. He succeeds in all those areas, without exceeding in any one of them.

That about sums up the movie, too. I appreciated the nods to Shelley's work and the 1931 Frankenstein, and definitely enjoyed watching the pretty light show. But, given the set-up and the creative principals involved, I, Frankenstein is nothing more and only a little bit less than what I expected, which makes it a wash.


* Update: Commenter DarlingMagick points out that the theme of immortality is explored in the book. I read it many years ago and should not have relied on my faulty memory. I regret the error.

The film opens wide in theaters across North America on Friday, January 24. It is available to watch in 3D and in IMAX.

Around the Internet:
  • sabretruthtiger

    It was a great movie, far, far better than the reviews. It had great vfx, great action and fight scenes and a good pace.
    Sure it was a bit grandiose in tone and dialogue and could have explored the characters and themes more but it was always meant to be a vfx actioner.

    While not an Oscar-winner the nasty, overly scathing reviews were waaaaaaayy off the mark and smacked of political interference and money changing hands.
    The rest of the I Frank-bashing blogosphere were just pretentious twats jumping on the bandwagon to gain some sort of pseudo-artistic credibility by association.

    PS: I'd like to applaud you Peter for not jumping on the uber I-Frankenstein bashing bandwagon and giving it an objective well thought out review, noting some good points on the way.

  • GBannis

    Sounds like the kind of story with a sequel. Is it set up for one? (Your description actually makes me want to see it, although I'd prefer another Constantine/Hellblazer.)

  • sabretruthtiger

    Don't buy the negative hype, trust me you'll enjoy it. I went in expecting the worst movie ever and was very pleasantly surprised. Sometimes bad reviews have their uses :)

  • ShadowInc

    I loathe when they turn Universal type monsters into spandex wearing Xmen with Matrix style action, and video game like cartoony CGI. Like VAN HELSING, and the UNDERWORLD series for example. This film looks to be of that ilk, so I am going to avoid it.
    A shame too, because I recall the original premise sounded kinda weird, and unique. A modern day Frankenstein's monster as a supernatural private eye sounded neat. Who knew they would lame it up with CGI gargoyles.

  • sabretruthtiger

    Cartoony CGI? The gargoyle on demon scenes looked amazing!

  • leon

    I wil watch this one cause love me CGI. If i wanted a black and white monster movie i would go and see the whisperer in the darkness again. This is based on a comic the comic had gargoyles so why complain about the movie having gargoyles? Should they have used stop motion gargoyles? lol

  • ShadowInc

    If you like mindless, cartoony CGI, that's on you bro, enjoy. I'd rather they had taken a path similar to what HELLBOY 2 did with the effects, and use as much practical makeup as they are able, before they have to resort to CGI.

  • sabretruthtiger

    Yes, it would be much better if they suspended guys in rubber Gargoyle suits on strings like in a school play, that wouldn't look lame.

    The gargoyles were superbly animated for the most part and looked great, (Cartoony CGI, which movie were you watching?) there was a period toward the end when the cathedral collapsed that looked to be done by a completely different vfx studio and the gargoyles were terrible.
    Overall, great effects and an enjoyable film.
    It seems almost everyone now is so far up their own ass they can't enjoy an action film for what it is, and as soon as they smell bad reviews they jump on the bandwagon to feel part of the crowd. It's the same weak mob mentality that led to lynch mobs and witch burnings.

    At least there weren't any witches in this movie, witches are the new zombies sheesh!

  • leon

    I agree somewhat. But then again there was a ton of practical work in this one. If you mean creature effects that could have been handled differently with 10 million extra. Why they chose Stuart Beatty that's a big question for me the movie would have turned out better with a different director. But for what it is pulpy flashy fantasy/action it delivers. It should have been a little longer and it could have been bigger with a budget a little bigger and maybe a different director. Still a nice story though i liked the graphic novel and the screenplay wasn't that bad just a little bit shorter than i expected.

  • sabretruthtiger

    The creature effects, especially the gargoyle animations were superb, there were some later on when the cathedral was collapsing that looked like students had animated them but that must have been a different studio.
    I don't know what Shadowinc is smoking.

  • Marc Clement

    Other than being a terrible movie with the worst particule fire fx i've seen in a long time (demon souls) it's also exactly the same plot twist as the Van Helsing. movie.

  • sabretruthtiger

    Wrong, it was a good movie and the souls weren't meant to be actual fire they were a spiritual energy type fire so they looked different.

  • Thanks for the comment. Somehow I've managed to avoid watching 'Van Helsing,' so I wasn't aware of the similarities.

  • DarklingMagick

    "Crucial difference" is that he's immortal?! You never read Mary Shelley's novel did you? The Creature was meant to be immortal in that too. Victor was creating a life beyond death. The creature actually states, in the novel that that though he felt hunger pain he could not starve to death and though he felt cold and it could hurt him, he could not die from that either (that's why he leads Victor to the North Pole.) Finally there is a scene in the novel where he (the creature) rescues a girl from drowning. The girl's father shoots him instead of thanking him and he heals relatively quickly from the wound. Next time, read the novel before stating that the creature's immortality is a deviation from the book.

  • Thank you for the kind correction.

  • DarklingMagick

    Actually I apologize for my very harsh reply. I haven't slept yet and had a very long night. I'm a fan of Gothic literature and I shouldn't let little things like this bug me. And I certainly shouldn't take out my over-tiredness on you like some Internet troll.

  • No worries! I strive for accuracy and appreciate corrections when I'm wrong. I regret that I ran out of time this month to read the novel again after many years and instead relied on my memory, which has been corrupted in the past two weeks by research on the Frankenstein movies.

  • DarklingMagick

    Thank you for understanding. If you want a quick crash course on the novel check out the 2004 Frankenstein Mini-series starring Luke Goss as The creature. It's not perfect but it is the most accurate adaptation of the book to date. If you're in in the UK there's a lousy 10th anniversary edition floating around with distorted contrast and dark picture quality. So stick with the region 1 (US DVD version) if you do check it out.

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