Although not nearly so prolific in its progeny as another 19th-century novel, "Dracula," Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" has generated numerous adaptations to the screen, beginning with the classic 1931 version, starring Boris Karloff as the monster. Since that time, both audiences and filmmakers have confused the creature and his creator, so that the title often incorrectly refers to the monster. The confusion makes a kind of sense because the reanimated corpse, assembled from various body parts, serves as the alter ego of the mad scientist who made him.
The name of the menace assumes a special importance in his latest cinematic incarnation, "I, Frankenstein." The monster himself, played by Aaron Eckhart, narrates the movie, supplying a good deal of exposition, explaining his history, the nature of his revenge on Victor Frankenstein, and his alienation from mankind; as he says, he possesses a body and a brain, but lacks a soul, something he more or less unknowingly searches for throughout the film.
Although that concept provides a certain amount of interest and even sympathy, the movie turns extremely weird, introducing a supernatural component when the monster encounters two groups of warring entities, the Gargoyle Order and the Demons. The Gargoyles, formed under the direction of the Archangel Michael, their queen (Miranda Otto) explains, while regarded by humans as mere architectural decorations, both assume human form and also metamorphose into winged creatures who fight their sworn enemies, the Demons, with swords and axes and other medieval paraphernalia. As their name suggests, the Demons come straight out of Hell and return there forever when the Gargoyles kill them.
Learning of the monster's history, the queen names him Adam and hopes he will join their fight to save mankind from the spawn of Hell. For 200 years, however, Adam chooses solitude, dispatching numerous demons on his own before he finally enlists on the side of the good guys.
Mixing in with all this nonsense, the Demons, under the command of Naberius (Bill Nighy) in their human form run a sophisticated laboratory -- it is a Frankenstein flick, after all -- where another scientist, the lovely Terra (Yvonne Stahovski), attempts to repeat Frankenstein's creation of life. Naberius wants to reanimate thousands of corpses, infuse them with the souls of demons, defeat the Gargoyles, and annihilate mankind. Instead of the foaming retorts, the burbling cylinders, the flashing lights, the lightning, this lab employs a collection of modern electrical devices and surgical instruments, an odd contrast to the Gothic buildings and medieval weapons.
Although the writer-director kindly acknowledges Mary Shelley's contributions to his picture, he bases his particular interpretation on a graphic novel, which explains a great deal about the film. For one thing, it features that familiar combination of violent action, dark lighting (the sun never shines in "I, Frankenstein"), and a kind of juvenile pretentiousness. The characters frequently intone thoughts that they apparently believe contain philosophical depth and significance.
Throughout the movie Adam fights a number of battles against the Demons, who then are, as they say, "descended" in a fountain of fire to the depths where they clearly belong. The Gargoyles, on the other hand, if killed by Demons, are "ascended" in a pillar of light to Heaven: it's a great place to go, but you have to die to get there. Naturally an array of the required special effects and stunt work intensify all this spectacular action, culminating in the customary Armageddon that contemporary Hollywood loves so dearly.
As in most horror/science-fiction/fantasy spectaculars, human performance counts for very little, and the cast meets those expectations quite well. Aaron Eckhart snarls and glowers throughout until he finally achieves his unusual quest -- to find a name, to possess a soul, to acquire a companion. Everybody else performs in a generally functional manner, entirely acceptable for the form and entirely appropriate for their ridiculous assignments.
The monster who lumbers through the dreams of Hollywood and the nightmares of viewers may now personify the strangest version of that composite creature, and despite the ambitions of the graphic novelist, without the pathos of Boris Karloff. That humming you hear is Mary Shelley, bless her, spinning in her grave at about 3500 RPM.