CLAS­SIC TALE LACKS SOUL

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews - Evan Wil­liams I, Franken­stein (M) Na­tional re­lease

DOZENS of Franken­stein films have been churned out by Hol­ly­wood stu­dios through the years, and we all have our favourite ti­tles. Mine in­clude Bride of Franken­stein, I Was a Teenage Franken­stein, Ab­bott and Costello Meet Franken­stein and Franken­stein Meets the Wolf Man. Even when the films took them­selves se­ri­ously the ti­tles were usu­ally the scari­est thing about them.

They were, of course, B-pic­tures, shot on the cheap in black and white, of­ten with Boris Karloff in the monster role. But hor­ror films have come a long way since. Stu­art Beat­tie’s I, Franken­stein is very much a prod­uct of the dig­i­tal age, a lav­ishly mounted 3-D spe­cial ef­fects ex­trav­a­ganza with a touch of ro­mance and some big names in the cast. I haven’t laughed so much in years.

It was al­ways im­pressed on me at school that Franken­stein wasn’t the monster of the story — at least, not in the orig­i­nal Mary Shel­ley novel. Franken­stein was a con­sci­en­tious sci­en­tist who hap­pened to like rob­bing graves and suc­ceeded in cre­at­ing a monster from bits of old body parts.

He called his monster Adam — the name used for the monster in Beat­tie’s film. So why isn’t the film called I, Adam? Au­di­ence re­search would no doubt have shown that a film called I, Franken­stein would pull in big­ger crowds. For bet­ter or worse, Franken­stein’s name sur­vives, but if I call him Adam you’ll know who I mean.

Adam’s prob­lem is that he has no soul, which makes him less than hu­man, even though he bears a re­mark­able re­sem­blance to Aaron Eck­hart. This makes him eas­ily the best-look­ing monster in the his­tory of Franken­stein movies. A pity about the soul.

But a big­ger mys­tery for me is whether he has a belly­but­ton. The first Adam, be­ing not of woman born, wouldn’t have had one (de­spite sug­ges­tions to the con­trary in many clas­si­cal paint­ings). The re­sult is that I spent much of I, Franken­stein watch­ing out for Eck­hart’s belly­but­ton but couldn’t catch a glimpse of it, not even in the scene when he gets his gear off to re­veal a hunky torso.

I can only con­clude that the film­mak­ers, with all those art­ful, shad­owy shots, were de­lib­er­ately mis­lead­ing us. Would Adam have a navel in the right place if he has been patched to­gether from bits of old bod­ies? Who can say?

This isn’t the Shel­ley ver­sion of Franken­stein, as you’ll have gath­ered. Its source is a graphic novel by Kevin Gre­vi­oux, who wrote the screen­play with Beat­tie.

The film was shot in that most gothic of Aus­tralian cities, Mel­bourne, with Aus­tralians prom­i­nent in cast and crew.

We be­gin with the rev­e­la­tion that Adam has been roam­ing the earth for 200 years af­ter tak­ing a cruel re­venge on his cre­ator. Two hun­dred years from the book’s pub­li­ca­tion would take us to 2018, when hu­man­ity is threat­ened by a war to the death be­tween evil demons and an un­likely band of gar­goyles. Yes, those hideous faces we see carved on old build­ings are the good guys, and gar­goyle HQ looks like a huge cathe­dral, big­ger than any­thing I re­mem­ber in Mel­bourne. It could be Notre Dame with­out the hunch­back.

The leader of the gar­goyles is the beau­ti­ful Queen Leonore, played by Miranda Otto, who has a spe­cial sym­pa­thy for Adam. The guy may lack a soul (and pos­si­bly a belly­but­ton), but all life must now be con­sid­ered sa­cred, since we know from Franken­stein’s re­search that God is no longer the sole cre­ator of man.

Adam soon finds him­self in the thick of a deadly strug­gle, which yields a large quota of the film’s spe­cial ef­fects (all those rings of fire and fly­ing bod­ies). I liked Otto’s re­gal bear­ing, which seems to come nat­u­rally to her. And she has form in big, showy pic­tures, hav­ing ap­peared in Steven Spiel­berg’s War of the Worlds and a cou­ple of in­stal­ments of The Lord of the Rings. On the strength of this per­for­mance, she’d have been quite at home doubling for Cate Blanchett as Queen El­iz­a­beth I or He­len Mir­ren as El­iz­a­beth II.

And Eck­hart as the monster? He’s OK, I sup­pose, though too good-look­ing to pass for a liv­ing corpse. Those fa­cial scars give him a rugged ma­cho look, as if the worst suf­fer­ing he’d en­dured in 200 years was to go a cou­ple of rounds with Robert De Niro in Rag­ing Bull.

The other ac­tor slum­ming it in a leading role is Bill Nighy, play­ing Prince Naberius, mas­ter of the de­mon hordes.

Nighy’s nat­u­ral air of pol­ished ur­ban­ity takes on a won­der­fully sin­is­ter qual­ity. It’s un­usual in a Franken­stein film — some would say it’s a fa­tal flaw — when a sec­ondary char­ac­ter looks spook­ier than monster.

But Nighy pulls it off. He must like this sort of thing. He had a big part in the Un­der­world films, in which a war to death was waged be­tween vam­pires and were­wolves. And if you thought that was scary, wait un­til you see the demons and gar­goyles slug­ging it out in I, Franken­stein.

The odds would seem to favour the demons. They like noth­ing more than to oc­cupy the bod­ies of dead hu­mans, and Naberius has as­sem­bled a vast army of corpses for this pur­pose, all wired up to a cen­tral con­trol room and await­ing the great elec­tri­cal charge that bring them to life.

Work­ing for Naberius in a well-equipped lab­o­ra­tory is Dr Terra Wade (played by the Aus­tralian-born Yvonne Stra­hovski), who has been try­ing to repli­cate the suc­cess of Franken­stein’s orig­i­nal ex­per­i­ment. But the best she can do is re­an­i­mate a mouse.

Any num­ber of old Franken­stein films would have shown her what to do: hook up the bod­ies to a light­ning con­duc­tor and wait for a mighty thun­der­storm. Dr Wade is de­scribed as an elec­tro-phys­i­ol­o­gist, which sounds as if she ex­per­i­ments with cat­tle prods and elec­tric chairs. Nice work if you can get it.

Beat­tie di­rected To­mor­row, When the War Be­gan, that lik­able Aus­tralian film based on John Mars­den’s books for young read­ers, and wrote the screen­plays of the orig­i­nal Pi­rates of the Caribbean and two of its sequels. He can han­dle a good ac­tion scene and has a sharp ear for an in­ven­tive turn of phrase.

When the demons in I, Franken­stein are re­ferred to as “de­scended” it means they have been killed — or at least sent back to the in­fer­nal re­gions from whence they came. To use “de­scend” as a syn­onym for kill could be a handy eu­phemism in mil­i­tary par­lance. My com­plaint with I, Franken­stein is that the spe­cial ef­fects have de­scended the sus­pense, and the em­pha­sis on spec­ta­cle has de­scended any sense of mys­tery or dread. The orig­i­nal story was one of the great moral fables in Western lit­er­a­ture. I, Franken­stein, with its monster rein­vented as a su­per­hero, is a fairly pre­dictable ac­tion movie. Shel­ley would not have ap­proved.

Aaron Eck­hart and Yvonne Stra­hovski in I, Franken­stein; Eck­hart as the mus­cu­lar monster

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