The makers of “Underworld” had a decent idea several years back for reviving gothic movie monsters: outfit them with leather and fighting moves and a contemporary secret-war story line all straight out of “The Matrix.” It was sturdy B-franchise material, a movie that didn’t sweat genre tradition — which, after all, didn’t work out so well for “Van Helsing.” One thing the vampires-vs.-werewolves setup of “Underworld” neglected, though, was to cover all three corners of the unholy creature-feature trinity. And so we get “I, Frankenstein,” which stitches up Aaron Eckhart’s chiseled face like a baseball cover, sticks him in a hoodie, and promptly crashes, thanks to a complete inability to resist awful, overdone dialogue and faux-lofty exposition.
Eckhart’s makeup job is actually effective, if a bit heavy on the undead eyeliner. It’s a look that gives him a certain credibility as a hunted freak who has nevertheless managed to skulk on the fringes of society for two centuries. He’s forced into the open after becoming a pawn in, yep, an eternal, secret conflict between supernatural forces. On one side is a sacred order of shapeshifting gargoyles sworn to protect humanity. On the other are demons led by devil-in-executive garb Naberius (Bill Nighy, gamely mugging away) bent on amassing an entire evil army of Frankensteins. It seems that Frankenstein’s lack of a soul is an exploitable boon to some, a bane to others — although his crazy-quilt abs aren’t entirely off-putting to the comely electrophysiologist (Yvonne Strahovski) who falls in with him. And maybe he’s not so soulless after all, as the movie suggests in a clumsy stab at profundity.
You end up wishing the filmmakers were less intent on saying something, in every sense. The 3-D visuals are familiar, but there are diversions: the tactile gargoyle designs, the next-generation update of the whole “It’s aliiive!” process. Writer-turned-director Stuart Beattie (“Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl” script) and his co-writer, hulking character actor Kevin Grevioux (“Underworld”), could have coasted on such elements, and been better off. Eckhart doesn’t really do any of that classic grunting as Frankenstein 2.0, but maybe he should have.