Hollywood could use a primer in churning out proper schlock these days. By rights, a movie as shamelessly doofy as “I, Frankenstein” ought to generate a heap more fun.
Here you have Aaron Eckhart, a semi-serious actor of such films as “Thank You for Smoking” and “The Dark Knight,” getting gussied in eyeblack and body-length stitches to play literature’s greatest stiff: Frankenstein’s monster, now 200-something years old and still ticking right along. Except this movie supposes that as a walking miracle/abomination, he draws the attention of, uh, demons, who want to crack the code of animating the dead. And that gargoyles, who operate sort of as an order of warrior angels battling said demons, reluctantly take in the monster to keep him from falling into the hands of the enemy. They give this patchwork zombie, name of Adam, a couple of slick, heavy ninja sticks, and he turns out to be a quick study at bashing demons back to hell.
Gargoyles vs. demons, with a gothic man-monster caught in the middle? The proper place for a tale of this cracked ambition is either 2 a.m. on a cable channel you forgot you even subscribed to, or at 8:30 a.m. on a network cartoon 8-year-olds cackle at while mainlining Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs.
Presumably the producers and director Stuart Beattie had an audience in mind other than stoned insomniacs and third-graders. But the story originated as a graphic novel by Kevin Grevioux, which seems about right: sci-fi/fantasy cheese comes off most convincing when you have to imagine the voices, as in comics and pulp paperbacks. Watching live adults in actual costumes explain, with community-theater “King Lear” earnestness, all the pseudo-religious pseudoscience behind this Sunday school holy war will make you squirm in your seat, as when a substitute teacher breaks into song.
A simple laugh track would triple the entertainment value. Or maybe a wacky sidekick for Frankenstein. As it stands, though, the demons are stodgy and dull, led by the slightly less dull but relentlessly stodgy Niberius (Bill Nighy, taking his attempts at world conquest waaay too seriously). And the gargoyles, who in their human forms dress like American Gladiators attempting “Stargate” cosplay, are so deathly dull you’ll pine for the sly, self-aware prose of the white pages. In their gargoyle form, well, let’s just say you’ve seen similar CGI featured in fast-food commercials.
At least we get a sexy science woman (Yvonne Strahovski) to add a laugh when she realizes the Very Serious Experiments she has been running are actually in the service of this gothic Dan Brown fan fiction. Otherwise, we’re left with a miserable, soulless jumble of reanimated corpses to carry the Q-rating. Eckhart’s monster is spryer and more articulate than the Boris Karloff gold standard, rather more a vigilante superhero in hoodie and trenchcoat. He’s cranky and reclusive and has abs that could juice a grapefruit half.
Does he have a personality to offset all the brooding? Meh. He’s mostly content to let his swinging ninja sticks do his talking. After one demon slaying, he attempts a Schwarzenggerian one-liner that thuds like a tipped cow. The script decides better of giving him another and instead sets about digging a couple of plot holes you could drive a camper through without glancing twice at the overhead clearance.
You’ve seen worse movies than “I, Frankenstein.” We all have. But movies that suck more flagrantly than “I, Frankenstein” tend to skid into such laughable badness that they wander back to popcorn-with-red-wine watchable. “I, Frankenstein,” like its undead protagonist, is mostly content to lurch ruefully into the cold and stay lost, well out of the view of human eyes. We should take the hint.