At one point in I, Frankenstein, someone in the movie reassures someone else: “This is real — all of it,” which I think really means “this is real — even the bullshit about gargoyles, swear to god.”
Let me back up. There are only four Underworld movies. You may have thought there were either one or infinity Underworld movies, but that number stands at a measly four. What’s more, the Underworld movies only involve vampires and werewolves in their dense mythology dedicated to explaining why vampires would deign to shoot guns at werewolves and, to a much lesser extent, defy the gun-shooting dictum to fuck werewolves. The Underworld movies try their best to be inclusive (vampires, werewolves, guns), but leave out monsters such as: mummies; zombies; demons; Twilights; gill-people; fifty-foot women; ghosts; Bigfoots; and Frankensteins.
So what if there was a movie about an army of Frankensteins? That is the plot of I, Frankenstein. It may not seem like this at first because “I” is a singular and also because it’s not really mentioned in the movie until around the halfway point, and not really acted upon until maybe the three-quarters mark. But that is because the first three-quarters of the movie are exposition and then only the last one-quarter is plot. I, Frankenstein has a lot of what we who pretend we are in the business call “world-building.” When you world-build, you use computers to construct vast fantastical places that look somewhat like soundstages.
This is the world Frankenstein, who as many people in the movie point out is actually Frankenstein’s Monster, and who is also called Adam after that lackluster Buffy villain, enters into after the events of the Mary Shelley novel Frankenstein. These events are recounted in the space of forty-five languorous seconds at the beginning of this movie before getting down to the real business: adapting a sham graphic novel written for the purpose of being adapted into a screenplay that rips off Underworld. After that boring Shelley stuff is over, Adam is confronted by demons, who covet his secrets to corpse resurrection, and living, shapeshifting gargoyles, who covet stopping demons from killing shit. Both sides want him to join their war, but Adam Frankenstein needs to go his own way, which Fleetwood Mac never mentioned means living several hundred years as a Jack Reacher-like hobo, slinking around in the shadows, traveling via public-ish transportation, and washing a single set of clothes in whatever sinks he can find.
The conclusion this movie has reached is that because the monster was resurrected by unnatural means, he is basically invincible (like Jack Reacher), cannot be killed by normal means (like Jack Reacher), and not particularly psyched about that (like the non-Cruise vampire from Interview with the Vampire). I’m not sure why the half-rotted flesh used to construct this pitiful creature looks so smooth; I guess it’s due to Victor Frankenstein’s previously unsung stitchwork, which also results in scars that don’t disappear, but do rise and fall, and possibly shift around on his face, although he never says “I have scars?!” a la an earlier film in this series, Young Frankenstein.
Have I mentioned that Frankenstein’s monster is handsome in this version? (Or at least Aaron Eckhart handsome.) And why shouldn’t he be, motherfucker? Sexy vampires have had their day. The era of sexy Frankensteins begins now, or whenever Aaron Eckhart puts his back into it a little more, if you know what I mean (I don’t know what I mean). Also, I really like the idea of Frankenstein’s monster roaming the Earth following the events of the Mary Shelley novel and/or Kenneth Branagh movie. I especially like the idea that maybe at some point he becomes the mysterious new sheriff of a small town.
Anyway, though he doesn’t become sheriff onscreen in this movie, Adam Frankenstein eventually turns up in an unnamed city that must be somewhere in the same country as Underworld; at very least, I’m certain they take place on the same continent, a Europe-like landmass known as Eurotrash. This city also happens to be the world headquarters of the company headed by the demon prince played by Bill Nighy. If you’re making a movie like this, you have to include Bill Nighy (who I hope his friends have nicknamed Billy Nigh at some point). He will totally treat it like it’s a real job and make the movie feel substantially wittier than it actually is. He has been training for this his whole life by appearing in Richard Curtis movies that are not actually funny. Nighy employs a couple of legit scientists who never ask why they’re supposed to be studying suspiciously Frankensteinian reanimation science, I assume because they are trying to avoid spoilers.
Nighy sends out demons to kill humans and/or gargoyles, who also have some kind of headquarters in this town. As someone who is very interested in mythology built around shapeshifting gargoyles, I found the treatment of gargoyles in I, Frankenstein pretty confusing. The gargoyles sometimes take human form and discuss things while walking through doorways, a technique the Underworld people must have explained makes them look busy, and they do all of this in buildings lined with gargoyles. Gargoyles living in buildings lined with gargoyles: does this mean that when they go to sleep, the buildings are actually empty? Are the prime spots in this building on the outside, or the inside? I, Frankenstein is good at showing gargoyles swooping around and grabbing demons and killing them, but disappointingly mum about matters such as gargoyle real estate or gargoyle job descriptions. Like for another example, at one point, a leader gargoyle instructs another gargoyle to make sure there are plenty of gargoyles posted on all nearby buildings to keep watch over the plot of the movie. This for me raised many questions about what the gargoyles are otherwise doing. It seems like saying, hey, make sure there are plenty of humans sitting on their couches tonight.
Another weird thing about the gargoyles in this movie is that while the gargoyles and demons fight and kill each other, they can all see each other ascending to heaven (gargoyles are basically semi-angels) or descending into hell (that’s the demons), which hardly seems fair, in fact seems kind of like a major morale-suck if you’re on the side that descends into hell. When you kill a gargoyle and it just ascends majestically to heaven, possibly to be awarded seventy virgin gargoyles because I don’t know how this gargoyle-inclusive religion works, I can imagine that might set off an existential crisis about the meaning of gargoyle-demon warfare.
Then again, presumably you know the score with gargoyle-killing when you become a demon (however you become a demon). This does not explain what goes through the heads of the two normal human scientists (one hot lady, one “other”) when every day they report to work in a gigantic complex where they appear to be the only two non-security employees, and basically looks like it should have a giant DEMONCO sign out front. The DEMONCO science room is one of my favorite parts of the movie, even though it leaves me hanging about the fate of the successfully reanimated giant rat they use as a test subject. When the scientists try to reanimate something (which they aren’t able to really do correctly until they read the MacGuffin Frankenstein Book o’ Resurrection), their screens totally have a reanimation status bar readout that says stuff like “Reanimation 2%” (it takes a super long time to reanimate something). This raises questions — this movie raises many questions; it should include them after the credits, like those discussion sections they sometimes append to paperback editions of popular novels — about what, say, a 40% reanimated corpse is like. Is that like, the limbs do stuff but the rest of the body isn’t into it?
I just realized I may be recapping I, Frankenstein more than assessing its quality. Its quality should probably be discussed in Screen Gems terms. Though it comes from an Underworld writer and is obviously patterned after that series, I, Frankenstein more closely resembles other Screen Gems specials like Legion or Priest in the way it’s always swarming with sometimes-winged CG creatures. In fact, it’s extremely confusing that Paul Bettany does not appear a single time in I, Frankenstein. Bettany is a little more convincing at being intense during a storm of nonsense than Aaron Eckhart, who does look pissed off, but in that way where you can’t tell if Adam Frankenstein is pissed off about getting jerked around by gargoyles and demons and only having one hoodie, or if Aaron Eckhart is pissed off that he was Harvey Dent in the biggest Batman movie ever but now winds up with Paul Bettany’s non-Jennifer Connelly leftovers.
But I like the designs of the demons and gargoyles, and of some of the buildings, and I like the general level of Frankenstein-related glass-smashing though I feel that more of the CGI stained glass should have CGI-smashed; that feels like a missed opportunity. Also, there should have been a part where a gargoyle turns against the other gargoyles and the gargoyles have to fight each other. This admittedly does not have much to do with Frankenstein’s monster but remember, in my ideal post-Frankenstein story he’s off being the sheriff of a small town. There could still be gargoyles in that version, and some glass-smashing.
Also, this movie doesn’t have a secret ending; I checked. Come to think of it, it barely has a public ending. They must be saving that for the sequel.