This review highlights for me what I’ve been finding so pleasurable about recently scratching this particular itch of mine to dote on my love of cinema in general, and my special affinity for the various fantastic adventure genres (i.e., science fiction, superhero, and fantasy) in particular: I occasionally stumble across something that surprises me.
I, Frankenstein defied my expectations in a very good way. That doesn’t happen often with films, and I’m always delighted when it occurs. To begin with I was intrigued that this movie got an astonishing score of 3% (!) on the Rotten Tomatoes critic’s tomato-meter. (Since this film has a comic book source, it may have the dubious distinction of receiving the lowest Tomato-meter score for a superhero film of all time to date.) The picture did not fare much better either with the audience, receiving a score of 38%.
So I was thinking this movie has to be just spectacularly bad. It was free for me on Amazon Prime Instant Video as an Amazon Prime member. I figured I’d take a look to see just how far off the rails a film like this can fly. Every so often a film majestically soars in such a flight by being hilariously bad. Anyway, that was the motivation to watch it.
Even given that my expectations were about as low as can be, I still think I would have found this film a very pleasurable surprise had I not known that it was so critically maligned. I actually liked this film's story a great deal. It is a complete and utter departure from the traditional story of the Frankenstein monster. And I quickly found myself admiring it for that. I realized almost immediately that this is a film that demands that I go with the flow for wherever it might take me–and if I was able to accept it on its own terms, it might (improbably) reward me. For some reason I was able to say, yeah sure, why not. And for me it did prove a worthwhile excursion.
There are spoilers to follow that if you’d rather be fully surprised by the film like I was, then I would say just watch it and read this review afterward. But if you do read ahead, there’s still plenty for you to discover in the movie. I’m just sharing the basic setup, is all.
This movie’s reinvention of the Frankenstein tale is as follows:
The nineteenth century genius scientist Victor Frankenstein created his monster, more or less as we know from the classic tale (although the doctor’s means of harnessing electricity may be a revision from the book–it certainly is from the classic 1931 film). This story then works with the concept that the creature lacks a human soul. Due to some mysterious and apparently metaphysical cause related to the creation process, the monster is imbued with superhuman qualities of tremendous strength, speed, agility, and the ability to withstand physical punishment and to heal from injury. The creature also does not age, apparently.
The narrated flashback backstory that we are given is consistent with Mary Shelley’s novel. The creature is intelligent, but feels profoundly alienated from humankind since it is set apart as a creature that most would regard as an abomination. Akin to a newborn infant in the body of a demigod, the monster reacts with seething hatred and rage at Victor Frankenstein for having created him. So he kills Dr. Frankenstein’s wife in revenge. The monster then flees to the North Pole and is pursued by Victor Frankenstein, where the doctor freezes to death. The film’s story then from that point picks ups and develops a theme suggested in the novel: Shelley’s creature identifies himself to Victor Frankenstein as “the Adam of your labours” but notes that instead he became the doctor’s “fallen angel.”
The monster returns his creator’s corpse to the Frankenstein castle to bury it along with the scientific journal that details and documents the monster’s creation. But the creature is then accosted by a trio of demons who seek to kidnap the monster and take possession of the journal.
The demons’ efforts are thwarted in part by angels who suddenly appear as well to intervene–but these are angels that morph between human and gargoyle-form. The Gargoyles come to protect both the monster and the journal. It turns out that the creature and scientific journal are prize pieces on the chessboard in a war between the Demons race (they too are shape-shifters, except between human and demon form) and the Gargoyle race.
The Frankenstein monster has no soul–and that is of critical importance to a grand scheme that the demon race is working to carry out. It is a plan that would end poorly both for mankind and the Gargoyles, as one can well imagine.
The Gargoyles are protectors of mankind. And as such, although angels, they are also warriors. Like human beings, they seem to have free will and are fallible. They offer to accept the creature into their society. But he will have none of it, determined to avoid relationship with anyone. He does however learn the secret to killing demons from his Gargoyle allies.
The creature, who the Gargoyles’ queen names “Adam,” then wanders the earth fighting off demons when and wherever they do manage to find him. And after a certain point he decides he will begin actively hunting them instead. And this takes us to a tale that is set in the present day.
Beyond that I will avoid telling any more, since that much should suffice to explain what to me is so surprisingly satisfying about I, Frankenstein as a story and film.
To sum, I had no idea what to expect from this film; and after the first few minutes I found myself in a landscape that was completely surprising–and it looked like fun. It is a popcorn movie, to be sure. But I, Frankenstein is very sure of itself in what it sets out to accomplish. The film’s attitude seems to be: “let those who disagree with this way of telling the story be damned.”
Now mind you, one gets all of that information in about the first five minutes or so of the film. Which brings me to the next thing I appreciated about this film: the way the story is delivered. It is done in a style that directly mirrors it’s anti-hero’s personality. Adam is down and dirty. He doesn’t mince words or waste time. Similarly, the story comes at you hard and fast. It actually packs a great deal of information into just an hour and a half. And the story is actually a pretty entertaining one, or at least it was for me.
And this brings me to the final (admittedly abstract) reason that I enjoyed this film: The director Stuart Beattie made a movie that strongly resembles the monster itself. The movie is, in a way, a kind of Frankenstein monster; and the film has the same basic personality traits as the monster it features. Beattie probably knew this film would be reviled by the critics, and perhaps even the audience as well. But this film doesn't give a crap about that. Following the monster's observation about himself, it chooses to live by its own rules. It is "like none other," and doesn't care what you think. And it comes at the viewer as hard and fast as Adam does his enemies in the film.
The good time I had watching I, Frankenstein put me in mind of some of the bases for my “likes,” which some of my friends find questionable (Daredevil (2003), The Dark Knight Rises (they hate Hardy's Bane and I think he's great), Fantastic Four (2015), and now this film as well):
With Remakes, What is the Right Amount of Revisionism?
One of the regular conversations that I have with my fellow sci-fi, comic book superhero, and fantasy genre fan friends is how far film and TV series producers should go in revising established characters and stories from the comics, and also with the recent the Star Trek reboot films. What is the sweet spot for honoring familiar and iconic characters and elements, but also giving the viewer something fresh? In the same sense, not all conventions from a source (i.e., a comic book, novel, original TV show, or original film) will always translate well to the new reframing of the source. Happily, this provides endless debate because we all have our own idiosyncratic likes and dislikes for both the source material and the fresh version. (Thank goodness. How boring life would be if we all had the same tastes and subjective reactions!)
This tale, I, Frankenstein, takes the basic Frankenstein story and runs with it whole hog to invent its own unique story, and, indeed, fictional world. I really enjoyed that about it. In this case I don’t feel any particular loyalty or attachment to the 1931 Frankenstein film. I did read Mary Shelley’s novel when I was a teenager, although I was not particularly taken with it. I can barely remember it, to be honest. This is not to say that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is not a great novel, I don’t doubt that it is. But sadly, I just don’t have any affinity for it. (That said, I now actually may consider trying to read it again one day after watching this film, though.)
So it was no problem for me that this film “plays God” in its own way with the classic Frankenstein story. In fact…could that indeed have been the director’s whimsical intention? Note that like the Frankenstein monster, the film itself was shunned, haha!
I’ll briefly add here that having just watched the final episode of the season for TV’s The Flash, that too is a show that develops story in a very terse, fast, and hard hitting way, and faces its own unique issues regarding revisionism. The show is excellent and an undeniable success. So if we’re not going to fuss about that style of story-telling there, why should we for I, Frankenstein?
Basic Litmus Tests for A Film’s “Success”
I’ve written about this quite a bit in other articles but I’ll try to summarize here some thoughts about appreciation of film that this experience drove home. Film appreciation is, in my opinion, first and foremost a personal and subjective experience. Why a film might be meaningful and enjoyable to one person does not necessarily apply to another. Therefore, although we can talk about certain elements of a film that are an objectively shared experience, the value and meaning that they may have for the viewer is ultimately idiosyncratic. Understood in this way, a film “succeeds” by striking a chord of some kind with the viewer, and that can occur for an almost infinite number of possible reasons.
My first and most important litmus test is: do I care about what happens to the characters? If the film makes me care about them, and I want to see how they fare, it has succeeded at the most basic level. Even if other elements of the film are poorly executed, I can usually tolerate that as long as I care about the characters.
The second major litmus test is strongly interrelated with the first, but the two are not identical: how much am I enjoying the story? Rarely can I enjoy a story if I have no investment in the characters. But beyond that, is their story–i.e., the challenges they face, and the world constructed around them to tell the story–worth my time and attention?
The third major litmus test I have is the creativity and artistry of the product. This is basically the bonus territory for me. When the first two litmus tests are passed, and then the craftsmanship of the filmmaking from the hand of the director (i.e., the storytelling from the script writers, cinematographers, CGI engineers, and actors are all brought together in a cohesive and compelling way) and quality of the acting are really good, then of course that makes the film a treasure for me.
I, Frankenstein for me succeeded fairly well in all of these ways. In the way that I experienced it, I found it to actually be one of the most creative and daring films that I have seen in a very long while. It doesn’t succeed perfectly, true. But for me its strengths greatly outweigh its weaknesses. There is a self-reflective quality to the storytelling style of this film that mirrors the character it presents, which if intentional on the part of the director is fairly brilliant.
The CGI wasn’t the best I’ve ever seen. But the Gargoyles in particular were pretty darn cool. The movie almost at times felt like a very good video game (especially with the fast pace of story development); and perhaps the CGI had something to do with that. Perhaps my experience as a gamer helped make the CGI more palatable.
One final though to fit in:
As mentioned, I was able to go with the flow of the movie by accepting it on its own terms. However, there was one scene in which my willing suspension of disbelief was put strongly to the test. Adam and the female scientist, Terra, who he is protecting (nicely played by the lovely Yvonne Strahovski) are hiding out in a crumbling abandoned building in which there are furnishings that would skeeve out almost anyone to come into physical contact with. And while we can easily imagine that this wouldn’t bother Adam, Terra seems a bit too at home with it. There is also a bit of sexual tension between them in this scene that in hindsight I suppose worked in an odd sort of way, by setting up a possible romantic relationship between them, yet (wisely) not consummating it. For Terra to be attracted to Adam felt a bit of a stretch to me. But on the other hand, this did no significant harm to the story, really. And it managed to mess with my expectations a bit, i.e., I was about to roll my eyes at the film throwing in an obligatory romance, but fortunately the film stopped short of it.