I, Frankensteinby Kavish Chetty / 14.03.2014
Mainstream cinema has lurched into a cultural impasse that threatens to make all criticism cautionary. The whole task of reviewing becomes about inoculants against bad narrative arranged together in a fractured plea: “don’t see this film! I’ve already felt its sting as your whorish proxy, your mercenary guinea-pig.” I must admit at the beginning that I don’t smaak Aaron Eckhart. He had one glorious moment of charm in Thank You for Smoking – a role bursting with such smart-mouth dialogue that it was difficult to ruin, anyway. Like Tom Cruise, he has one of those faces in which the whole smugness of the culture industry comes to settle perfectly. A physiognomy of smugness: the eyes with their awnings of plump brow, the flat forehead with its triple stroke of gentle creases, the bony bridge of American nose… all reaching the point of consummation, tied together, at the minor indent of the arsehole-chin.
I, Frankenstein is a terribly clumsy title, and the archaic pretentions of its declaration (“I, Frankenstein”) are mirrored in the film’s language, which is weighed down by fantasy writings’ unrushed prose (the logic being: it sounds much more of another century when characters make antiquated remarks like “I shall not do xyz” as opposed to the pithier equivalent, “I won’t do it” – but this all too quickly becomes a banal way to constantly reiterate the ancient nobility of the cast). Somewhere near the beginning of the film, a cute, blonde scientist – who, as per script, has no final function other than to serve as a mobile womb to entice the male protagonist – tells her employer, “Frankenstein is a myth; a horror story to scare children”. This is the lie at the heart of the movie. That Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus should be reduced from a splendid Gothic romance about the split-open border between monstrosity and humanity or the ethical curses of an irresponsible science, to a bed-time yarn to spook cry-babies into mute slumber…
This is the fiction from which the film builds its blithely postmodern appropriation of the work. Eckhart plays ol’ Franky’s monster with a triumphal smudge of guy-liner and a face patch-worked together from other flaps of skin. Apparently, mortals are unaware that a cosmic battle is being fought everyday between good and evil – the good represented by “guardian angels” who while away their free time in gargoyle form atop skyscrapers (technically, they’re grotesques, not gargoyles: there are no sprouts of water gushing from their hangbeks) and the bad in the form of demons who mostly look like someone’s thrown a rough splat of pizza dough on their face and then ducked their head into an oven for fifteen minutes. As to why this battle is being fought – in other words, what principle of human exceptionalism leads these supernatural forces to give a flying fuck about us – no real coherent reason really develops. Instead, we are shown Frankenstein living in exile in the woods for about 200 years, and then coming to lam in the west’s modern metropolises. Being proto-human (or something), he’s very much in the center of the skirmish between the gargoyles and the demons.
Everyone in this film is affecting a voice. Eckhart’s going for the gruff-guy grunt orchestra, while there’s a head of security figure, who’s basically a black grumbler. It’s like they thought, “hmm… we need a black guy to just grumble a lot to give the impression of menace”. You can neither make out what the dude is saying, nor actually find his bassy mumble at all threatening. There are a lot of Blade 2 tropes going around too. Demons perish in a conflagration of sparks, and their soul-torpedoes – blisteringly red and with long tails of smoke – depart their bodies and launch dramatically at the ground. The music is also a bit much. It’s like “Jissus, go easy on the violin”. It’s a surging, ridiculous soundtrack, ferociously orchestral, with a whole fleet of musicians rubbing abrasively against their strings; or elsewhere, weepy-eyed violins bray in pathetic chorus, trying to force you to give the shit that this film makes it impossible to give.
So, as I said I, Frankenstein is a kind of postmodern jigsaw in which “Frankenstein” comes to war among angels and demons. Luckily for the plot, an old guy called “Prince Naberius” (Bill Nighy) has his scientists figuring out how to reanimate corpses which he’s using for a demon-led attack on Earth. This ramps the stakes up slightly, but the juvenile quilt-work of one-liners that makes up the dialogue prevents this crisis from taking on any real depth. God is spoken about a few times in the film, but he doesn’t really show up or do anything – he’s basically an absent father who’s not even bothering to pay his maintenance. The love interest, Dr. Terra Wade, is atrociously under-characterised as a fuckable nerd who falls for Franky after a brief evening-long courtship mostly spent jumping in the air and fly-punching a gargoyle on the noggin, or other crazy shit like that. And lastly, we must consider how blunt and brutal and banal the fighting sequences are, summoning nothing like the philosophical grandeur of wing chun as seen in Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster (currently on circuit).
I, Frankenstein is, like so many other action films, an excuse to code paranoid-state politics into entertainment. Franky ends the film practically exalting the invisible forces that keep your mortal life safe, do the dirty work of national security while you sleep: basically, he ends on a pro-surveillance rant. But even beyond this, I, Frankenstein is a failure of an action film. It doesn’t have the professional tensing and releasing of cathartic splurges of violence you might find in a more oiled incarnation like The A-Team or whatever. This film is a black hole where a talentless crew and the motive for economic surplus consummate their loveless, filthy marriage.