Movie Review: I, Frankenstein

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Like watching someone else play a bad videogame.

Have you heard about this new videogame called I, FRANKENSTEIN? If not, don’t blame yourself; the commercials and posters probably left you thinking that I, FRANKENSTEIN is a feature film. They even hired a few movie actors to make it seem more like a – well, like a movie, and adding to the confusion the demo version is currently playing in theatres, so you can check it out and decide whether it’s a game you’d like to play. Unfortunately, the answer is: No.

Now I know what you’re saying: How could a videogame with Frankenstein’s Monster caught up in a war between angels and demons not be super-exciting? I mean, at the very least, there must be some cool graphics and battle scenes, and stuff like that, right? Well, yeah, the computer graphics are great – almost like a movie – but the game itself is surprisingly dull, for reasons I’ll get into shortly.

First, here’s what you need to know about the game’s story: You play Frankenstein’s Monster, an immortal artificial man with superpowers. You get caught up in a war between Good and Evil over the fate of mankind. You don’t really care much about mankind, because mankind hates you because you’re ugly, but eventually this hot, blonde doctor chick puts a bandage on one of your wounds and so you fall in love and decide humanity’s okay after all and take up sides against Evil.

I should pause here and mention that Aaron Eckhart (who was really good in THE DARK KNIGHT) reads the lines for the Frankenstein Monster. His presence is supposed to make this feel more like a real movie than a videogame, but you can sort of tell he knows he’s just filling time in between the action game-play which is the real reason someone might buy a game like I, FRANKENSTEIN. I suppose if they made a real movie out of this game, with him in the role, he’d probably do a much better job.

Anyway, acting aside, I had a really problem with Frankenstein’s Monster as an avatar, because when you play a videogame, you want your in-game character to be the most kick-ass warrior around like Lara Croft in TOMB RAIDER, or Alice in RESIDENT EVIL, or even John Grimm in DOOM, but¬†Frankenstein just didn’t seem all that powerful in this battle between Good and Evil. I mean, yeah, he’s superhuman – which is good in a videogame – but does being artificially created really make you strong enough to battle angels and demons?

I was thinking maybe the idea would be that the opposing forces were so evenly matched that the monster would be able to tip the balance one way or the other, but instead it turns out to be that Team Evil just needs to study the Monster to learn something that will help them; meanwhile, Team Good doesn’t want the Monster to fall into the hands of Team Evil.

So your game avatar is really a pawn in what should be his own game instead of being the hero driving the acting. And it even turns out that Team Evil doesn’t even really need the Monster; all they need is the journal telling how the Monster was created, so the Frankenstein Monster avatar is that much less important to the game’s outcome.

At least, being superhuman, the Monster can fight, but though the action is nicely rendered, the fight scenes just don’t look that challenging to a potential player. Basically, any weapon with the game’s peculiar religious symbol carved on it will kill a demon, so all you have to do is pick up any weapon and hit a demon with it. That’s all there is to it. Not much strategy or skill involved. In fact, you wonder why Frankenstein’s monster need to be superhuman to do that. Anybody could hit a demon with a stick with a symbol on it. Or if the demons were too fast for that, why not carve the symbol on some machine gun bullets and just fire away?

So, uninteresting avatar and unchallenging fight scenes – at least the game might survive on the strength of its visuals, right? Because the fights are so easy to win, you should be able to quickly breeze through lots of cool settings with great-looking backgrounds and soak up all that wonderful atmosphere, shouldn’t you? Sadly, no.

Probably the biggest problem with I, FRANKENSTEIN is the way the “story” keeps interrupting the action and slowing down your progress from scene to scene. Once upon a time, you just killed something and then moved to the next level, where you could at least enjoy the graphics even if the game was not too exciting; now, however, videogames pretend there’s a story that ties all the death battles together, even though it’s pretty obvious that the story doesn’t really matter.

I’m not saying there’s shouldn’t be a story, but it needs to fit a little more smoothly into the game. Here, it just bogs the game down, constantly – in fact right from the beginning, when we get this prologue which acts like one big exposition dump telling us how “Adam” (as he is eventually named) was created by Victor Frankenstein – as if we didn’t already know that. In fact, I’m betting a big part of the reason they named the film I, FRANKENSTEIN is because they know we all know who Frankenstein is.

And that’s not all: the prologue also tells us way more than we need to know about the war between angels and demons. I mean, we get it: angels=good; demons=bad. About the only thing “new” here is that the angels call themselves gargoyles because they camouflage themselves as gargoyles, but I could have figured that part out for myself.

Unfortunately, figuring things out for yourself is not something I, FRANKENSTEIN ever lets you do. As boring as the prologue is, I took it in stride, because that’s the way these games start now, with the little introductory clip before the real game begins; sure, the absence of a “Skip” button was frustrating, but I figured a few minutes of tedium is par for the course before you get to the good stuff. Boy, was I wrong! Once you get into the actual game-play, the game keeps stopping to explain everything – and I mean everything. There’s never a moment when you wonder what to do next, because the character dialogue spells out what, where, and why before you start each new level.

This would be bad enough if I, FRANKENSTIEN were a non-linear game with multiple paths you could follow; however, the progression is strictly linear, with no two ways about it, so there’s really no need for explanations to justify “decisions” that are predetermined for you by the game. It’s as if they game designers realized their actual story was too flimsy to hold your attention from one level to the next, and so they tried to cover it up by giving you step-by-step explanations why you had to go on to the next scene and defeat the next demon or whatever.

Naberius (Bill Nighy) wants his scientific team to unravel Frankenstein's secrets.
Naberius (Bill Nighy) wants his scientific team to unravel Frankenstein's secrets.

Again, I’m not saying we shouldn’t know why things happen, but part of the fun of a good game is strategy – weighing options and deciding what the next move should be. Here, it’s all laid out for you, and it left me wondering whether the designers even know who their target customers were. The fight scenes and computer graphics make I, FRANKENSTEIN look a cool game for teenage boys, but the constant hints and suggestions about what to do next make I, FRANKENSTEIN feel more like a lame Interactive Hidden Object Game for ten-year-olds. You know the kind: you can’t “lose,” because the game always tells you what to do next. (“Congratulations! You have found Frankenstein’s journal! You can use it to revive your fallen demon hordes and route the angelic gargoyle army!”)

What this means is that I, FRANKENSTEIN is predictable from beginning to end. Not just the usual predictability, where you know you’re going to win if you pay attention and play well – but scene-by-scene predictability, where you know what to do to complete each level even before you start playing that level. Watching the I, FRANKENSTEIN demo in theatres the other day, I ended up feeling like I was watching someone else play a videogame – someone not very talented. At first I wanted to take the controls for myself and show him how it was done, but after seeing how easy it all was, I just lost interest.

Sure, there would be a little more suspense with my fingers pushing the buttons to make Adam swing his club and whack his demon adversaries, but that’s not enough to make a satisfying game experience. I want some challenges, some puzzles, and adversaries whose weaknesses need to be discovered and exploited. To be fair, there is just a tiny bit of that in the end, when Adam comes up against the “boss” demon (named Naberius and played by Bill Nighy – another actor whose presence makes I, FRANKENSTEIN seem almost like a real movie). For some reason never explained (which is weird when you consider who much trivial stuff is explained) Naberius cannot be killed by weapons with the weird religious symbol carved on them.

If you plan on playing I, FRANKENSTEIN yourself, I recommend you watch the demo version on you X-Box at home and stop at this point before it gives away the solution for killing Naberius, which is just about the only halfway decent surprise in the whole game. As for me, as I said, I saw the demo in a theatre, and it totally gave away the solution for killing Naberius, which instantly killed any interest I had in ever adding this game to my collection.

The I, FRANKENSTEIN demo was show in 3D at my theatre, which did add a little bit to the game. I liked seeing wide-angle shots of the ancient cathedral (where the gargoyle order resides), which was surrounded by modern buildings, while demons swarmed the cobblestone streets for the final battle. But the 3D technology has its problems, especially when the game pretends to be a movie. If they had just done the whole thing with computer-generated imagery, it probably would have looked okay, but when they mix the real actors with the computer stuff, it doesn’t always line up properly – and in 3D, the alignment problems are more obvious. Like, there’s a scene where this character shifts from human form to his true demonic appearance, and his head is too big, kind of like a balloon – or more like that joke they do on THE TONIGHT SHOW, where they paste Jay Leno’s face on the body of some guy streaking through a football scene. Except the scene in I, FRANKENSTEIN is much funnier.

The last thing I will mention is that the actress who played Hannah McKay on the last couple seasons of DEXTER shows up as the doctor who sorta falls in love with “Adam.” Which is kind of funny, because on the TV show she fell in love with a serial killer who she thought might kill her because he had killed lots of other people, and now she falls in love with a monster who she thinks might kill her because he killed Victor Frankenstein’s bride Elizabeth in that long boring prologue I mentioned above. But of course her blonde hair and good looks provide an invulnerability shield that guarantees she will survive through the closing credits.

I Frankenstein poster closeupWhich, come to think of it, are the best thing about I, FRANKENSTEIN: at least there’s no post-credits teaser promising us a follow-up to a game no one wants to play in the first place.

I, FRANKENSTEIN (January 24, 2014). A Lakeshore Entertainment production, distributed by Lionsgate Entertainment. 93 minutes. PG-13. In 3D. Directed by Stuart Beattie. Screenplay by Stuart Beattie, based on a screen story by Beatie and Kevin Grevioux, based on the graphic novel by Grevioux, inspired by the character created by Mary Shelly. Cast: Aaron Eckhart as Adam; Yvonne Strahovski as Terra; Miranda Otto as Leonore; Bill Nighy as Naberius; Jai Courtney as Gideon; Socratis Otto as Zuriel; Aden Young as Victor Fraknenstein.