Though I, Frankenstein isn’t technically a spin-off of the Underworld series, it recreates much of that franchise’s geeky, video-game-worthy camp, with dialogue that’s overloaded with exposition, invented or repurposed terminology (“descended,” “sacramentals,” “scapular”), plotting that suggests a middle schooler’s fan fiction. Adapted by director Stuart Beattie (who, once upon a time, wrote Collateral) from Kevin Grevioux’s graphic novel, the movie plunks Frankenstein’s monster (Aaron Eckhart, of all people) into the middle of a secret modern-day war between shape-shifting gargoyles and demons. Underworld’s fixation on clicking, gleaming, retractable weaponry is present and accounted for, as are series regulars Grevioux and Bill Nighy, the latter once again slithering his way through some of the silliest dialogue (“I am a demon prince”) ever committed to paper. Everything is chosen for maximum dorky/cool factor; characters have names like Naberius and Zuriel, demons explode into clouds of cinder and ash, and the monster—who prefers to be called “Adam”—rocks a trench coat and boot-cut jeans.
This sort of dorkiness can—and should—be fun, but rarely is, because of the Underworld movies’ compulsive self-seriousness and lack of flavor. I, Frankenstein therefore registers as something of an improvement; though it’s almost as humorless as Underworld, it’s also packed with comic-book panel compositions and extreme angles, creating a visual style that fits the material. The imagery is shamelessly derivative—pulled from The Matrix, Diablo II, and the animated series Gargoyles, among countless other sources—but seeing it mashed together has an amusing effect, similar to watching costumed fans interact with one another at a convention.
If the 2009 prequel Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans—which presupposed that people were eager for an entire feature’s worth of backstory to two movies that were already mostly world-building and exposition—represented the Underworld style at its most Byzantine, then I, Frankenstein represents it at its most palatable. Without a Kate Beckinsale-type to fetishize, or an unnecessarily large number of supporting characters to reference, the movie barrels along from one group battle to another. None are exciting, but, as effects-heavy pop-cultural mash-ups go, they’re interesting to watch, with hordes of demons swarming, zombie-style, over the buttresses of a cathedral while angel-winged gargoyles keep shifting from human to statue form for no clear reason.
Like the movies it’s modeled on, I, Frankenstein provides plenty of opportunity to hear actors say stupid things; Miranda Otto, for one, deserves some kind of award for being able to say “I am the queen of the Gargoyle Order” with a straight face. Seemingly unintentional laughs abound. However, there’s a rare moment of near-self-awareness late in the film, when symbolically named mortal scientist Terra (Yvonne Strahovski) tells Adam that, while she’s willing to believe the Frankenstein story is true and he is in fact a 200-year-old reanimated corpse, she simply cannot accept the existence of demons or shape-shifting statues. At that point, a demon leaps in through a window, Terra mutters “shit,” and the story keeps moving along, uninterrupted. This scene—the film’s only intentional laugh—registers as an acknowledgement that camp is best unspoiled. But if the film is made with the understanding that campiness needs to be straight-faced to be funny, then are its “unintentional” laughs really that unintentional?