It would be premature to suggest this without consulting the archives, but “I, Frankenstein” might very well set some kind of record for the most expository dialogue in a single feature film, with almost every spoken exchange either relaying a convoluted backstory, outlining a nefarious scheme, or describing the actions currently taking place onscreen. In fact, it isn’t until approximately 92 minutes into the film’s 93-minute running time that it even cracks its first joke, when the end credits offer “special thanks” to Mary Shelley. Utterly witless, listless, sparkless and senseless, this supernatural actioner makes one long for the comparative sophistication of the conceptually identical “Underworld” franchise (with which it shares producers and a writer). It should struggle to show many signs of life at the box office.
Starting off in the late 18th century, the film — directed and written by Stuart Beattie, from a graphic novel by Kevin Grevioux — gives a more-or-less accurate two-minute rundown of Shelley’s original novel. Yet no sooner has the good Dr. Victor Frankenstein been laid to rest than his monstrous creation (Aaron Eckhart) is beset by a gang of shape-shifting goth demons, and subsequently rescued by some similarly gothy shape-shifting gargoyles, who whisk him away to their urban home base in a Gothic cathedral.
Before we’ve even had a chance to get a clear look at our protagonist’s sutured face, we’re knee-deep in an elaborate mythological backstory delivered with dialogue that would seem drab even in a videogame cutscene. In short, a race of Godly gargoyles, led by Queen Leonore (Miranda Otto, coping heroically with what she’s given), have been fighting a centuries-long battle with a race of demons, lead by Naberius (Bill Nighy). Frankenstein’s monster — duly named “Adam” by Leonore — is wanted by the demons as a blueprint for a whole army of reanimated corpses, while the gargoyles just hope to keep him, and Dr. Frankenstein’s detailed journal, out of the demons’ hands. Adam is uninterested in joining either side, opting instead to endlessly walk the earth, like Caine from “Kung Fu.”
Flash forward two centuries to the present, and Adam happens to mosey his way back to the same unnamed city, where the gargoyles still scowl from rooftops unbeknownst to the (almost entirely unseen) humans below. The evil Naberius, now taking on the disguise of an oily businessman, is still busy trying to iron out the finer points of regeneration, and his crack (two-person) research team is lead by a leggy blonde electrophysiologist named Terra (Yvonne Strahovski). Eventually, Naberius discovers Frankenstein’s journal, and Adam must both recover it and protect Terra in order to stave off “a war that will bring the end of all mankind,” a threat so pressing and cataclysmic that it’s mentioned exactly once.
From here, the film offers a series of choppily edited battle setpieces, some more expository dialogue, and around two dozen slow-motion shots of various irritable creatures crashing through plate-glass windows. When killed, the demons explode into a geyser of whirling fireballs, while the gargoyles are zapped up heavenward in a column of blue light, meaning that almost every fight scene devolves into a blur of epileptic flashing colors within seconds.
But what’s most frustrating is that the film never attempts to explore, exploit, or elaborate on Adam’s origins in the Frankenstein story, to the extent that it’s easy to occasionally forget the film’s entire premise while watching it. (In fact, Eckhart himself disappears from the proceedings with surprising regularity, spending a good bit of time skulking around in the shadows, listening in on various supporting characters as they spout expository dialogue.) The film is also entirely devoid of humor, and so drably chaste that one can’t help but perk up at the slight glimmer of lust in Terra’s eye when she gets a look at the shirtless Adam’s stacked, stitched musculature in a low-lit bedroom. Alas, the size of this particular monster’s schwanzstucker goes totally unexplored.
Director Beattie keeps his camera in constant motion throughout, though it’s sometimes unclear what effect he’s trying to produce. The relentlessly obtrusive score is matched in volume by the sound editing, which renders the rustling of clothes and the turning of pages in a book with floor-quaking resonance. The sets and other production design elements, however, are quite nice to look at when the camera holds still for long enough.