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October 15th, 2015


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10:57 pm - 31 Days of Halloween: I, Frankenstein
If you paid any attention to movies in 2014, you know that I, Frankenstein was revered as one of the finest motion pictures ever made, and certainly a greater acheivement than any other entry in the Frankenstein franchise, including the original novel.

One of the best things about text is that you can make a statement like that with a straight face.

I don't remember anyone I know mentioning that they'd seen I, Frankenstein, but I chose to watch it tonight because it's available on Amazon Prime, and because it was tackled a few months back by the Greatest Movie Ever podcast, which made me morbidly curious. I think "morbidly curious" is a good way to describe it; I felt like I was walking into a burning building just to have a look around.

So, the movie opens with the briefest recap of the novel. Dr. Frankenstein creates and rejects his monster who kills Mrs. Frankenstein in retaliation. Then the monster flees to the Arctic, and the good doctor pursues revenge but freezes to death (or something). The monster returns the body to the Frankenstein family crypt, where he is accosted by demons. Then the demons are defeated by living gargoyles. Are you with me so far? Really? Okay, we'll keep going.

The gargoyles, it turns out, are creatures of God who have been waging an ancient battle against the demons, who are creatures of the devil. The demons want Frankenstein's monster because they want the secret of reanimating dead tissue. The gargoyles give the monster his name--Adam--and ask him to join them, but he declines.

A couple of centuries and some change later, Adam is still killing demons (actually, it's called descending, and when gargoyles die, it's called ascending, but never mind) when he crosses the radar of international businessman Charles Wessex. Wessex is, in fact the demon prince Naberius, who has hired electrophysiologists to unlock the secret of life. Naberius's has collected thousands upon thousands of dead bodies with the intention of bringing them to life and commanding them as an army.

Blah blah blah the robot falls in love.

I, Frankenstein was not universally hated, but it came close enough that one wonders how it got made at all. Sometimes I watch a huge, staggering mess of a movie--which is what this is--and I find myself questioning how it got past the myriad layers of failsafes that are designed to prevent Hollywood from making unwatchable mistakes. Then I think about the movie John Carter, and I remember that the sort of people who greenlit this movie are the same sort of people that shortened the title of John Carter of Mars because the last few movies with "Mars" in their title tanked.

The movie has a lot of problems, and they come down to two points:
  1. There are too many long, CGI action sequences, and
  2. The story has too many rules.
I complain a lot about CGI, but there's nothing inherently wrong with it. CGI gives us car chases and avian dogfights that would never be possible to film in real life. The problem is bad CGI, and I'm not sure I can give a concise, blanket definition of bad CGI here; like pornography, I know it when I see it. The CGI problem in I, Frankenstein is that some of the action sequences are so far removed from the traditional visual language of film storytelling that it's impossible to get your bearings long enough to really appreciate what's going on. And I guess that's fine if you can watch the action without trying to absorb it, but I spent all of the fight scenes trying to make sense of what I was seeing.

When I say that rules are a problem, I mean that this movie has to dump massive amounts of information on the audience about how its world works, and then that information has to stick. This is not uncommon, but it completely exposes the artifice of the medium; it's not hard for me to suspend my disbelief, but if I get too much information all at once, I choke and it takes me out of the movie. Harry Potter and Avatar take place in similarly complex universes, but they reveal their secrets gradually enough that I can handle them. It's the same with books--you can take your time with a written narrative, but turning the world upside-down only works in a movie if the point is for the audience to puzzle out how that world works.

I think the rules problem is the studio's fault. I, Frankenstein is based on a graphic novel by Kevin Grevioux who appeared in and worked as a writer for the Underworld films (he appears in this one too). Maybe the story works as a graphic novel, but the movie does nothing to connect its story with the Underworld universe. Wikipedia mentions an unfilmed scene which would have tied the stories together, and I think the movie--even with all its too-busy plotting--might have worked better for me if I could have placed it into that context. Sequels were planned by scrapped in the wake of poor box office performance, and though I personally am not interested in more I, Frankenstein, I could at least respect this movie if it were laying groundwork for a franchise. Unfortunately, it's just loud and incomprehensible.

And all of this is too bad because there's some real talent on display. Aaron Eckhart's Adam is a bad Frankenstein's Monster, but a good action hero. Bill Nighy's Prince Naberius is a quietly and incredibly nasty villain. Miranda Otto is impressive in her role as Queen Leonore of the gargoyles, but her role--which is a major one in the story--wasn't important enough to warrant mention until this paragraph. All of these actors deserve a better movie. Maybe the graphic novel deserves a better movie. Unfortunately, this is the movie we got, and it just feels like kind of a waste.

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31 Days of Halloween: I, Frankenstein - Garmonbozia for the soul.

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