A reworking of Mary Shelley’s classic tale, Victor Frankenstein has long been touted as a story that concentrates on the relationship between the titular scientist (James McAvoy) and his assistant Igor (Daniel Radcliffe). It sounded like an interesting premise, and with the two stars firmly committed to the project, hopes have been high that this version will show audiences a new, different take on what is now a very familiar story. But this first trailer raises a variety of concerns, not least in that the relationship so focused on during production seems to have been over-emphasised (there’s certainly no glimpse of it in the trailer), and there are too many occasions where McAvoy seems to be cracking one-liners. Whether or not this version proves to be a stylish, thought-provoking addition to the ranks of Frankenstein movies, or something that sits uncomfortably close to Mel Brooks’ brilliant homage remains to be seen, but on this evidence there’s very much room for concern (and the introduction doesn’t help either).
D: Stuart Beattie / 92m
Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Bill Nighy, Miranda Otto, Yvonne Strahovski, Jai Courtney, Socratis Otto, Aden Young, Caitlin Stasey, Mahesh Jadu, Nicholas Bell
Dispensing with Mary Shelley’s novel in the first five minutes, I, Frankenstein – the title doesn’t mean anything until the very end – takes the basic template established by the Underworld movies but to avoid accusations of complete plagiarism, swaps vampires and werewolves for angels (in the form of gargoyles) and demons, and allows Kate Beckinsale a well earned rest from all the leather-clad slaying she had to do. Now it’s Aaron Eckhart’s turn to shoulder the hopes of a would-be franchise opener.
Sadly, he’s hamstrung from the start. Victor Frankenstein (Young) – having perished in the northern wastes searching for his creation (Eckhart) – is about to be buried in his family cemetery by said creature when a band of demons attack the monster. Nearby, gargoyles watch the scene with interest, but before Frankenstein’s creation can be captured – and Frankenstein’s journal detailing his experiments – the gargoyles intervene and the demons are “descended” – sent back to Hell from whence they can never return. Brought back to their hideout, the creature learns that the gargoyles are, in fact, angels, sworn to defend mankind from the threat of Naberius (Nighy) and his demons. Their Queen, Leonore (Otto), names the creature Adam, and seeks his aid in defeating the demons but he chooses to leave and go his own way; Frankenstein’s journal stays with the gargoyles.
Over the next two hundred years, Adam devotes his time to tracking down and killing demons wherever he can find them. In the present day, an encounter leads to the death of a human. Outraged by this, the gargoyles capture Adam and plan to keep him that way to avoid any further human casualties. Leonore’s second-in-command, Gideon (Courtney) is all for destroying Adam, but she refuses; however an assault on the gargoyles’ base by a horde of demons led by Zuriel (Socratis Otto) makes it all a moot point as Adam is released to defend himself and aid the gargoyles. In the melee, Leonore is captured. An exchange is set up: the journal for Leonore’s safe return, but Adam intervenes, saving the Queen but letting Zuriel escape with the journal.
The journal’s importance becomes clear as we learn of Naberius’ plan to reanimate thousands upon thousands of corpses using Frankenstein’s work. He employs Terra (Strahovski) to solve the problem of reanimation but she has no idea of his true motives. Adam infiltrates the demons’ hideout and discovers (quite easily) what’s going on. He escapes (with the journal), and later coerces Terra into helping him. Naberius forges ahead with his plan, forcing Terra’s colleague Carl (Bell) to finish the process. Adam leads the gargoyles to the demons’ hideout for one last ditch effort to stop the corpses being reanimated and inhabited by fallen demons (and by extension, save mankind etc. etc.).
Based on the comic book by Kevin Grevioux (who also has a small role and was responsible for the Underworld series), I, Frankenstein conforms to that series’ visual styling, with thick greys and steely blues dominating the palette throughout with only the bursts of flame that signify a demon’s descending to alleviate the gloom. There’s the usual over-reliance on wanton destruction and well-choreographed if now slightly generic action beats, a plot that puts a stranglehold on logic and common sense, character motivations that often change from scene to scene, emotive outbursts that come and go without acknowledgement, twists and turns that you can see coming from a century away, acting that veers from unintentionally hilarious to po-faced in its attempts to be serious, direction that makes the action sequences feel flat and uninvolving (as well as confusing), dialogue that even the most dedicated actors – and Eckhart, Nighy and Otto in particular are no slouches – could ever add credibility to, and a stubborn refusal to be anything other than a mess of half-realised intentions and sub-par dramatics.
The problem with I, Frankenstein (and pretty much all the other action fantasy movies that clog up our screens) is its inability to give even its target audience something new to enjoy. Any fan of this particular genre will be disappointed by the lack of invention here, and while no one’s expecting Shakespeare, would it really have hurt the process to provide some depth to things, some gravitas? The story of Frankenstein’s creation is a tragedy, but here the character is reduced to the kind of hate-filled killing machine that wouldn’t look out of place in a vigilante movie; it’s a one-note characterisation that undermines both the character’s legacy and its iconic status. (In the end credits, Mary Shelley receives Special Thanks, but it’s hard to tell if the filmmakers are being ironic or genuine.)
Movies like this will always be green-lit by studios or find investors because they generally make their money back through ancillary sales – and hey, bad movies get made every day anyway – but what galls this particular reviewer is that nobody seems to want to make a movie that isn’t so derivative of every other movie like it. There’s something to be said for giving the audience what they want, but as the box office returns for I, Frankenstein have proved, too much of a (relatively) good thing can be off-putting. At this stage a sequel is probably inevitable and if it is, let’s hope whoever takes up the reins decides to take a little more care with the material and its presentation, and maybe tries something a little bit more interesting and/or different (though I’m betting they won’t).
Rating: 3/10 – a bad movie through and through with some dreadful performances (Courtney, Strahovski) married to a dreadful script and direction (both courtesy of Beattie), and a dreadful misappropriation of a classic literary character; I, Frankenstein should be avoided at all costs, and doesn’t even rate as a guilty pleasure.