“200 Years Later, He is Still Alive”
Directed by Stuart Beattie
Starring Aaron Eckhart, Bill Nighy, Yvonne Strahovsky and Miranda Otto
After killing his creator’s bride and returning the body of Frankenstein – dead of exposure – to his family graveyard, the Creature (Eckhart) is attacked by demons intent on his capture, and so becomes embroiled in the age-old war between the Gargoyle Order, led by Queen Leonore (Otto), and the 666 infernal legions of the Demon Prince Naberius (Nighy). Despite his best efforts to avoid the conflict, he is tracked by the demons and intercepted by the Gargoyles when he tries to take the fight back to his hunters.
Meanwhile, Naberius is working with human scientist Terra Wade (Strahovsky) to recreate Frankenstein’s work as a means of reinforcing his legions and breaking the deadlock in the war. Only the nigh-indestructible Creature – named Adam by Leonore – has the power to stop him.
What’s wrong with it?
The film is full of frankly fuzzy motives. The Gargoyle/Demon war is pretty solid (the demons are evil, the Gargoyles were created by St Michael to fight them), but anything more personal than that starts to be dictated by the needs of the plot.
To take the most specific cases: Leonore is the spiritual leader of the Gargoyle Order, a beacon of devotion and surety and the direct line to Michael, and she is vacillating as Hell, especially about Adam. Terra tells Naberius she would rather die than help him create a legion of possessed Frankies, but as soon as her assistant is killed she’s running the process to save him, despite the fact that she knows she will be raising a soulless husk to be filled with demon. Finally, Adam apparently gets a conscience after Terra offers to make him a mate, but then he doesn’t actually want one, or maybe he’s in love with Terra or something, and anyway why would either of those fundamentally selfish motives earn the divine grace to grant him a soul?
The Gargoyles are dumb as rocks, and have no idea how to defend a fixed position (clue, it’s not by taking the battle to the enemy). I mean, okay, Notre Dame de Paris is not a fortress, but seriously guys; I know you have wings, but that doesn’t mean it’s always good to be airborne.
The Gargoyles insist that their war must be fought in the shadows, then pursue an army of demons across the rooftops of central Paris, with each slain demon descending in a column of flame though the buildings below. Yeah; subtle.
Serious points off for the Queen of the Gargoyles being taken prisoner like a wilting flower rather than the glowing, angel-winged badass she is otherwise made out to be. Likewise, the dagger Adam gives to Terra serves only to let him know she was captured after a demon disdainfully bats it out of her hand. The only female character who gets taken seriously in an action sequence is the secondary female Gargoyle Kezia, who dies in the midpoint battle sequence (choosing to die for love of a man, to boot).
The film owes a substantial aesthetic debt to Underworld, a film that it was originally to have been linked to more closely, with members of the creative team hinting at potential crossovers before I, Frankenstein tanked. It also borrowed heavily from the unrelated Van Helsing*, in particular with the image of rows and rows of creatures waiting to be reborn from the lightning of Frankenstein’s genius (although this film’s ghoulish, preserved corpses were much more effective than the cutesy baby-vamps.)
What’s right with it?
The film has a good handle on its own mythology and creates something reasonably distinctive. The demons are fairly stock, but the Gargoyles are a bit different, and the death-effects for the two are visually interesting: Demons are ‘descended’ when struck down with blessed objects, the demony part of them erupting as a fireball and burning a path into the Earth and down to Hell, while Gargoyles can only be ‘ascended’ by soulless things, and return to Heaven in a burst of blue-white light.
The idea of a war of attrition in which the more numerous, but less powerful demons are seeking to break the deadlock by bringing their fallen back from Hell provides a good sense of stakes. Also, it means that Leonore is ‘take dumbass risks’ important to the Gargoyles not because she is a woman, or because her general is into her (although he so is), but because she is their sole spiritual link to the Archangels, and thus their only hope of one day receiving reinforcements.
How bad is it really?
I, Frankenstein is hella fun in its goofball way, but it lacks any serious originality outside of the Gargoyles, and is mostly held together with its action sequences and more than a few plot-contrivance decisions. The fact that Adam’s progress from rage-filled beast to soul-carrying hero is basically a flat trajectory with no distinct watershed is probably its greatest flaw.
Best bit (if such there is)?
The battle of Notre Dame is a visual feast, with the Gargoyles swooping around the flying buttresses of the Cathedral and blasts of flame and light peppering the screen as demons or Gargoyles are destroyed.
What’s up with…?
- The Gargoyles’ appalling battle strategy? An argument can be made that they are victims of their physiognomy and nature – it is in their nature to fight on the wing instead of defending the narrow way – but I’m not sure that this is the film to sit down and go over the philosophical points needed to make that case.
- The greatest electrophisiologist (whatever that is**) in the world being a fresh-faced thirty? Seriously; how did she get that good, that young while also remaining in excellent physical shape and maintaining an extensive regime of personal grooming?
- Gargoyle General Gideon taking Adam to task for fighting demons where one gendarme could see, and then leading his force of flying statue beasts in a rooftop chase which must have left the fourth arrondissement looking like a Swiss cheese?
- The matching job on Adam’s body? He claims to be made from ‘a dozen spare parts from eight separate corpses’, but his skin tone is homogenous and there is no imbalance at all in his features or limbs.
- The big reveal that Bill Nighy is Naberius? It’s Bill Nighy and he’s not someone’s affable dad; of course he’s the lord of darkness.
- The plot elements knocked off from Van Helsing (or did Van Helsing nick them from the graphic of this?)
Production values – It’s a good-looking film in that slick, slightly unreal, Underworld-y sort of way, and has fewer instances of obvious CG stand in than the earlier film. The whole thing takes place either within a single night, or without anyone coming out during the day, with the resulting limited range of colours. 10
Dialogue and performances – The actors struggle heroically to give fairly terrible dialogue far more than it deserves. Nighy and Otto both manage a level of gravitas unwarranted by the film, while Eckhart’s sub-Bale growl is far more in keeping. 12
Plot and execution – The basic set-up is good, but the plot bounces around through a series of contrivances which rob it of true purpose. On the plus side, no gratuitous sex. 15
Randomness – There are just too many contrivances to let this one go, especially as one of those is Adam’s redemption. 14
Waste of potential – There are some amazing moments and the basic set-up is strong. There could have been much more to this film if it hadn’t been shot as a series of actions scenes strung together with luck. 13
* Which finally, as of January 2015, has a review.
** The study of the electrical properties of biological cells and tissue. So now we know; and knowing is half the battle.