I’m all for reinventing a myth (or fictional character), so long as it remains true to spirit of what the original embodied. No where are these types of alterations made than in the tried-and-true creature-feature; that is to say, the reinvention of the vampire, werewolf, mummy and zombie legends. Ever since man could put pictures into motion, writers and directors have tried to one-up each other in creating bigger, scarier (more lovelorn?) versions that appeal to the masses who seek to be horrified (or, as in more recent times, swooned) by creatures of the night. With I, Frankenstein, writer and director Stuart Beattie tries his best to bring new life to what can essentially be considered the very first zombie, but inevitably fails to do so in a labored body of work with absolutely no soul.
Now when I say it has no soul, I mean the film (based off of a graphic novel of the same name) is completely emotionless, devoid of any real passion or heart — or any real conviction for that matter. It all seems like Beattie made the film simply to “update” Mary Shelley’s creation rather than because of any love for the character or desire to further the discussion of ethical implications inherent in the Frankenstein story. The “originality” of the concept overwhelms the reason for bringing it to life.
The script, which follows Viktor Frankenstein’s monster (dubbed here as Adam) caught in the middle of a war between demons and a gargoyle faction of angels, is so expositional in nature, we never get to know any of the characters beyond their personal knowledge of what’s happening on screen (and what happened in the past to get us to this point). If the leader of the angels, Leonore (Miranda Otto), was given more depth than a technical pamphlet, she might have had the strength to make better decisions — perhaps even from being captured easier than a mouse in a cage.
Beyond that, other than their physical appearances, the angels and demons are all interchangeable with one another — almost as if they were a new faction of Agent Smith clones. So much so that during the larger battle sequences, it seems that no matter how many appear to be killed, there are always the same number of demons. And no matter how many times the angels say how depleted their forces are, there are always just enough of them left to keep fighting.
And at no point does any of it feel genuine. The motivations and decisions of every character spin like an out of control dreidel in order to keep the thinly-developed plot moving forward and make sure each character is in the right place for the next action sequence. All of it leads to a twist ending that has no validation whatsoever, and left me cold and indifferent about the meaning behind it.
It’s a shame, too, because the cast includes several terrific actors (hidden among the tapestry of mediocre actors). Aaron Ekhart, so devilishly sinister, yet empathetic as Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, is given nothing to play off of as Adam, leaving him to brood and meander through a non-existent character arc. There are hints of humanity trying to break free (in the search for peace and someone to fulfill Frankenstein’s promise of a creating a mate for him), but those ideas are shoved so far into the background, any substance that could have been developed within them are left in the shadows of his past.
Then there’s Bill Nighy as the demon lord Naberius. A thespian of the craft who has proven time and again the capability of creating well-rounded characters in the subtle nuances of his performances, Nighy isn’t allowed to dig deep to create a believable, formidable foe. Instead, he is forced to go big and bigger with over-the-top sneers, grins and grimaces as he spouts off dialogue best reserved for a SyFy channel original.
But it’s Yvonne Strahovski (best known for her gleefully fun turn as super sexy spy Sarah in Chuck) who pulls the short straw when it comes to lost potential and utter uselessness. As Tess, the sort-of possible love interest for Adam, Strahovski looks, feels and acts completely out of place in this world of angels and demons. She is given the status quo role of incredibly beautiful scientist who cries and whimpers and spouts techno-babble as if she were reading the necessary cue cards written from information found on Wikipedia.
I could have looked past all of that if she had any purpose beyond making bad decisions. In one scene, after Tess finds out that the man she’s been working for to find a way to reanimate life is actually a demon overload, she feels the need to warn her lab partner (who we’re supposed to believe she loves in some pseudo-romantic friendship sort of way). The only way to do that, since he’s still working at Naberius’s lab, is to set up a meeting outside of the lab. Despite the fact that the demons are now on the hunt for her, she thinks it’s a good idea to head out on her own to meet him. The kicker: Adam lets her go. Well, at least he supplies her with a knife.
I want to give Beattie kudos for creating something new from an old idea, but other than some of the underlying concepts and better than average special effects (especially the beauty of how the demons descend to Hell and the angels ascend to Heaven when killed), the execution in finding the right voice to transfer the story of I, Frankenstein from book to screen just can’t hold up under his poor writing and scattered direction.
My Grade: C-
Next week, new movies include Labor Day and That Awkward Moment. If you would like to see a review of this, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.