TIME movies

‘I, Frankenstein': NOT the Worst Movie Ever

Aaron Eckhart stars as 'Adam' in I, FRANKENSTEIN. Ben King / Lionsgate

Or even of this January. Does anyone remember 'The Legend of Hercules'?

“I was made of a dozen used parts from eight different corpses,” says the creature. “I’m a monster.” That is also the early verdict on I, Frankenstein, which this morning had a perfect score of zero on the Rotten Tomatoes website of aggregate reviews; the rating now stands at a humiliating 4% out of 100. “I, Frankenstein isn’t just a bad movie — it is an abysmally awful one,” writes Edward Douglas on ComingSoon.net.

Critics find Stuart Beattie’s picture robbing a host of distinguished corpses: filching from older Frankenstein movies, from The Highlander and Blade (monsters marshaled against humans), from The Matrix (the dark suits worn by the film’s army of demons), from the Underworld horror-fantasy series (same interspecies battle of spectral antagonists in a modern city), from director-cowriter Beattie’s previous film, Tomorrow, When the War Began (same visual style plus much of the crew) and, just enough to be annoying, from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 source novel. Is that eight yet? Roger Moore of the McClatchy-Tribune news service, disses the movie for “beams of Rapture light straight out of This is the End” — a movie that came out last summer, but which was shot months after the early-2012 filming of this monster movie. It opened last night with no press screening, another omen of critical lifelessness. Reviewers aren’t crazy about seeing a film at midnight and writing till dawn.

(FIND: The 1931 Frankenstein on the all-TIME Top 25 Horror Films list)

Sorry to break the mood, but I, Corliss, didn’t at all mind I, Frankenstein. Based on a graphic novel by co-scripter Kevin Grevioux, this dead-serious, or at least deadpan, sequel places Victor Frankenstein’s creature (Aaron Eckhart) in modern-day London, in a world where seraphic and demonic forces fight for supremacy of the Earth and freedom or slavery for the humans who hardly ever show up. Ambitious of vision and swooping of camera, I, Frankenstein is no I, Robot, let alone I, Claudius, but it’s definitely watchable on a cold Jan. evening or, a few months from now, on your I, Pad.

Produced by some of the Underworld team, I, Frankenstein is on a par with the median quality of that series — better than 2 and 3, not so good as 1 or 4 — which over the last decade or so have been the fanboy equivalent of The Twilight Saga, with nattier vampires and cooler werewolves (Lycans). The multimillennial struggle in I, Frank is between Satan’s favorite spawn, the demons — suave, surly dudes who when unmasked have scaly faces and a hundred tiny claws where their teeth should be— and the Order of Gargoyles. These stone effigies, perched for centuries on cathedrals, come to half-human life to defend God, mankind… and Adam, the name that the gargoyle queen Leonore (Miranda Otto) has given to Victor Frankenstein’s lab experiment.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Underworld: Awakening)

Adam is the guest or prisoner of the gargoyles, who know that the demon prince Naberius (Bill Nighy, exhumed from his Underworld role as the vampire elder Viktor) needs the creature to find the secret of reviving 10,000 corpses Naberius has stashed in his mansion/laboratory/lair. To this end he has hired a human scientist, Terra Wade (the generically gorgeous Yvonne Strahovski), and employs her in attempting to reanimate a rat, just for practice. When the fully reanimated Adam shows up, with his creator’s medical journal in hand, and then escapes, Naberius sends his minions in pursuit, and Leonore her gargoyles. At one point or another in the movie, both sides want him dead — as if God and Lucifer had fought over which one got to eject the original Adam from the Garden.

Except for being the first of his kind, this creature is no Adam and his life no Eden. “I am not human or gargoyle or demon,” he mutters (he mutters everything). “I am like no other.” Actually, he is the standard rogue warrior, the gruff grunt played dozens of times over the decades by Harrison Ford. Eckhart — with a hunky torso and the sort of slim facial scars that lend character to a gentleman who’s fought too many duels — satisfyingly embodies this resourceful loner who is haunted by his origins story and hunted by the denizens of Heaven and Hell.

(READ: Douglas Wolk on 70 years of Frankenstein comics)

Eckhart is further isolated by being one of only two Americans (the other is Grevioux, taking the Idris Elba role as Naberius’ chief enforcer) in a cast thick with Australians; they speak faux-posh English, he talks American, as an action hero should. Armed with a couple of steel rods and a blade etched with the Christian cross, Adam often escapes a fight by plummeting from church steeples, warehouse girders and a penthouse window — from which he lands, somehow, on the top of a moving subway train! Good thing that, like the Adam of Genesis, he can take a fall.

In the strict class system of action fantasy, the lumpen hero needs a villainous dandy, and Nighy makes a dandy villain. You may dismiss the movie, but please admit your pleasure in watching the prime overactor of our generation swan his way through a sentence. Nighy swishes each word in his mouth as if he can’t decide whether the dialogue is a delicate wine or lemon juice.

(FIND: Bill Nighy in the gallery of Harry Potter’s Great British Thespians)

The angels and demons engage in much urgent debate about the disposition of Adam’s soul, if any; and there’s some wan semiromantic badinage between Adam and Terra. (“You’re only a monster if you behave like one,” she says in the tone of a mother both reassuring and chastising a six-year-old sent home from school.) But this is still less a talkie than a movie, and a darkly glamorous one, as designed by Michelle McGahey (who worked on the first Matrix film) and photographed by Ross Emery (who shot The Wolverine). The film has some vigorous, complexly choreographed battle scenes on land and in the air, where the fallen angels end up vaporized and the demons spontaneously combust.

I, Frankenstein is unlikely to generate the sequel that its last scene promises or threatens — but all in all, among Jan. movies, I’d rather resee this one than the latest Paranormal Activity or even Ride Along, which despite Kevin Hart’s resources of charm is a sloppy mess. And who could forget Renny Harlin’s The Legend of Hercules? I almost did, until it just came back as a recovered traumatic memory.

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Legend of Hercules)

One last critic’s point, from The Village Voice’s Alan Scherstuhl (in a sympathetic if not approving review). He quotes a friend: “Unless the movie’s about the doctor, the words I, Frankenstein just don’t fit!” (Similarly, a graphic novel based on the Pinocchio story would have to be I, Gepetto.) The title character in the Shelley novel, and in the superb movie that James Whale directed in 1931, is Frankenstein the scientist; the creature, played by Boris Karloff, is just the Creature. But in later installments of the Universal horror franchise, the creature was sometimes called Frankenstein; and the confusion of man with monster has persisted ever since.

(READ: The 1931 review of Frankenstein by subscribing to TIME)

Besides, Adam decides that he is his creator’s son, a sort of Frankenstein Jr. And at some point — like Lon Chaney’s actor son, who also played the Frankenstein monster — you’ve got to drop the Junior.

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