I, Frankenstein (2014)
I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve overall enjoyed the Underworld movies as a franchise. Sure, they’re extremely one-note in tone and aesthetic, and after a while the four films kind of blur together in my memory, but I’ve always had a weakness for the “bullet ballerina” genre, as I call it: Highly stylized action movies with a horror and/or sci-fi angle about attractive, leather-clad ice queens mowing down legions of their enemies in a slow-motion hail of bullets.
And while Ultraviolet will always be my top guilty pleasure exemplar of the genre, Underworld stood out for its endearingly meticulous world-building. Over the course of four films, the Underworld universe built up an impressively convoluted backstory in a way that I, as a comic book fan, recognized and enjoyed, even if it was ultimately just so much exposition.
I, Frankenstein comes to us from most of the same creative team, and while the similarities to Underworld are many, the world it’s set in is much simpler by comparison, if only because most of the backstory is simply borrowed from Mary Shelley’s novel, to which the film positions itself as a sequel.
After burying his dead creator, Frankenstein’s monster finds himself caught in a war between demons—who want Dr. Frankenstein’s secret to raising the dead for their own schemes—and a race of divinely-empowered gargoyles who arm his monster against the demon horde. The monster, now called “Adam Frankenstein”, then sits around in the woods for 200 years before deciding to get off his ass and do something about the army of demons looking for him, an awkward leap in the narrative that exists only to bring Frankenstein into the present day, despite the fact that the time period has no real effect on the story.
Right away, this (admittedly enjoyably silly) premise is less interesting than Underworld. While no one would ever accuse Underworld of being emotionally complex, the fact that there was no real good guy in the war between vampires and Lycans added a grayer morality to the story at least. Here, the gargoyles are the clear good guys, with the demons as one-dimensional villains. This wouldn’t bother me if it weren’t for the rather obvious overlooked potential in the setup.
Here we have a war between Heaven and Hell, and demons and angelically-empowered warriors taking orders from the Almighty himself. And in the midst of this, you have Frankenstein’s monster, the classic man-playing-God story. The Gargoyle Queen even comments on how Frankenstein is proof that not only God can create life, and goes so far as to name him “Adam”. And yet, nothing is ever made of this fact. Frankenstein isn’t important because he’s a triumph of science over nature, or because he lives “in defiance of God’s will”; he’s merely a tool the demons want for their own use. There’s a science vs. religion theme here begging to be explored, and the film barely acknowledges it. Yes, it’s a dumb action movie about Frankenstein fighting demons, but that doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to indulge in a little actual meaning should you stumble across it.
The action itself is enjoyably bombastic. The gargoyles are fun even as CGI creations, and I often found myself pretending I was watching that live action Gargoyles movie I keep hoping they make.
The main issue is the demons, who rank among the least threatening demons in movie history. For one thing, they appear as little more than guys in Halloween masks and business suits, and would not look out of place on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
For another, the film is a little too in love with the giant fireball effect that happens when a demon dies, so in battle scenes, they appear to be slaughtered en masse as the battlefield becomes littered with giant fireballs. They’re disposable cannon fodder, most of whom seem to die almost on contact, which is a problem considering we’re told there’s only a limited number of them on Earth (666, because of course they’d use that number). One wonders why there are still so many of them left after centuries of warfare with the gargoyles, who seem to be able to dispose of them with little to no effort.
As mentioned, much of Underworld’s DNA is on display here: A supposedly “secret” war between immortal monsters that’s mostly waged out in the open for all to see, a barely populated city where it’s always night and there are no primary colors, and of course, Underworld MVP Bill Nighy is on hand, though it’s a bit too obvious this time around how much he’s phoning it in.
Aaron Eckhart is unexpectedly fun in his portrayal of Frankenstein himself. The script doesn’t give him much to work with, but in some scenes he seems to be going for a subtly goofy portrayal of Frankenstein as slightly childlike, or alternately animalistic, in a way that I can’t help but see as a nod to the classic Universal version.
Also, Yvonne Strahovski is in this. Nothing much to say about that, I just think it’s nice to see her again after Chuck.
Ultimately, the film’s saving grace is that’s it’s just too silly to get mad at for its shortcomings. It’s two hours of gothic fantasy faux-badassery capped off with a climactic resolution so saccharine that it would’ve been no more out of place if Frankenstein had defeated the demons with a Care Bear Stare. If that sounds like something you’re in the mood for, like I was, you might get a kick out of I, Frankenstein.