I, Frankenstein ends with a special thanks to Mary Shelley, a wholly unexpected moment that the film’s legions of critics might take as sacrilege. I wonder how many of them actually read the book. If they had, they might have spotted some real shining reverence for it here. Director Stuart Beattie clearly adores the original Frankenstein, and the monster at its core. When he focuses on that character, the film… well, it isn’t good but any stretch of the imagination, but it’s certainly thoughtful. Beattie and I, Frankenstein deserve due credit for that consideration.
As for the rest of the film, what can you say? I saw it cold at a vintage drive-in theater near my house, and conditions were just about ideal. We had a tub of sloppy nachos and opened up the moon roof and the smell of weed from one of the other cars drifted slowly in the air as Beattie’s little monster flick unspooled in front of us. I won’t lie when I say that life was pretty sweet at that moment. I, Frankenstein is the perfect movie for just such a vibe. Stone faced in the face of its own goofiness; energetic without the slightest idea where to go; full of gravitas and bombast for reasons that defy even the most open-mind audience member… for the right sort of audience, that’s like chuck steak in front of a wolf.
Aaron Eckhart plays Shelley’s ubiquitous monster, unable to die and wandering the Earth for 200 years after the death of his maker. That’s about the point the film parts ways with Shelley, mixing him up some glorious bit of ridiculousness about gargoyles and demons battling for control of the Earth. The gargoyles are basically angels, led by a good queen (Miranda Otto) who spends her free time unloading gargantuan hunks of plot exposition to anyone within earshot. The demons are, well, demons, led by a super camptastic Bill Nighy (the only one we’re certain is in on the joke) who needs the monster to build an army of reanimated corpse ripe for possession by the Legions of Hell. The monster wisely wants nothing to do with either side – he’s a tad bitter, after all – but as these things go, he gets to play ball anyway.
Self-seriousness runs rampant. With the exception of Nighy, everyone plays it super straight, combining with the leaden dialogue and the no-nonsense direction to create a fertile breeding ground for grade-A snark. Add to that a breathless pace, imaginative but unconscionably low-rent special effects, and the kind of pointless fights that twelve-year-old boys adore, and I, Frankenstein readily attains what the likes of Devil’s Due and The Legend of Hercules could not: a level of bad just intense enough to make for a good time.
And again, “good time” doesn’t mean “good.” This is a shitty movie. Shamelessly, brazenly, without the slightest devotion to anything but a quick sleazy buck. It smacks of banal corporate meetings, filled with people who couldn’t give a shit about cinema trying to determine what the kids want and then insisting that it be put in regardless of the grievous harm it inflicts on the basic precepts of storytelling. Why demons and gargoyles? What does Frankenstein have to do with that? Is this the same universe as Underworld, or are they just ripping it off? (Which, considering it’s the same gang, would pretty much make it stealing from itself.)
Questions like these haunt every frame, driven by lines like “if Naberius gets the book, nothing will be able to stop him!” and augmented by earnest Shakespearean performers desperately in need of a payday. The fights scenes show some flair, but arrive with randomly out of the blue amid a plot far too concerned with explaining itself to us to get on with business. Eckhart finds his angry place like he always does, but the script gives him no help and while it’s a respectful take on the monster, we never figure what it’s doing in a movie like this.
All of that swirls around in our heads as we watch the film, all of it is 100% undeniable, and yet I’m again reminded that great bad beats bad-bad every time. We’ve had our share of bad-bad films so far this month that a little great-bad feels right at home. In the cold light of day, I’ll tell you plain: I, Frankenstein is awful. But under the night sky at an old-school drive-in – or with the appropriate spirit in tow – that awful can be a lot more fun than a good number of its betters.