I have become a fan of this franchise based on its potential. I don’t think any entry, so far, has really been great overall. One entry excels in areas that others fall short in. It’s hard to do a straight update on my old review of this film. There are two reviews I did. One from my initial viewing of the theatrical version, and one from the extended edition which serves as a more informed second viewing. So, what follows is merely a polished up version of my original 2004 review of Underworld. Bare in mind that this is a first reaction review, and does not reflect my current sentiments on the film after multiple viewings. For that perspective, check out my review of Underworld: The Extended Edition.
When I first heard about the premise for this movie, I thought it was gonna be one to watch. A must-see, even. Simply put, that premise was the dynamic of Romeo & Juliet set in the world of vampires & werewolves. I was so very excited to see this movie! Through all the trailers and TV spots. With all the months passing by, I only became more anticipatory of this film’s release. But in the week of the theatrical release, I starting reading the reviews. They were bad. Even the horror sites were saying it was a dull, boring, unoriginal, unimaginative movie. Bloody Disgusting, Diabolical Dominion, and Creature Corner all gave it BAD reviews. After that, and numerous visits to RottenTomatoes.com, I chose against going to see this film that I had been so anxious to see all year long. However, after its release on DVD, I finally decided to plunk down some bucks to rent it, and all I can say is that all the reviews were right. But before I go any further, let’s TRY to lay down the plot for this quite dull and highly non-innovative film.
Kate Beckinsale plays the vampire Selene, a Death Dealer whose job it is to hunt down and kill off the Lycans (aka ‘Werewolves’). At film’s start, she gives us a nice expositional voice over to help with the film’s general setup. A war between the two species has raged for 600 years, and despite the fact that no one truly knows how it all began (digging into the past is forbidden amongst vampires), the war continues. Though, the vampires believe that the war is soon to end, it would leave Selene’s kind, the Death Dealers, as an obsolete faction among the decadent lifestyle the vamps have adopted. Meanwhile, two werewolves are shadowing the footsteps of a mortal man, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), but for what purpose, that is not revealed for another HOUR, maybe more! A shoot-out goes down in a subway station between the vamps and the ‘wolves, amongst humans. We get our first look at the werewolf transformation, and it’s not half bad. Now, at this point I would like to rush the plot synopsis quickly along, but there is too much to simply sum in one paragraph, but I’ll try.
On the vampire side of things, it is only a short time before they are to reawake one of their elders from a centuries’ old sleep. These elders are held in a tomb of sorts inside the Victorian-esque mansion all these vampires live in. In the meantime, their acting leader is Kraven (Shane Brolly), a very self-minded bloodsucker who is Selene’s greatest obstacle. This becomes even more evident when Selene’s interest is peaked as to why the Lycans were following Corvin, and she ultimately is forced to go against everyone’s orders to discover the truth. While investigating Corvin at his apartment, a small pack of Lycans come looking for him, including their leader, Lucian (Michael Sheen). During this encounter, Lucian takes a heap of a bite out of Michael’s shoulder, and damning him to become a werewolf, in time. At the tail end of this encounter, an amazing stunt is performed where Sheen chases after Selene’s luxury import car, and just runs up atop of it. How it’s performed, I’ll tell you later, but no wirework was involved.
Anyway, to find guidance and wisdom as to what plans the ‘wolves might be forging, Selene awakens the one who made her into a vampire: Viktor (Bill Nighy). He is awakened in a manner not far off from Hellraiser. He must be regenerated via the absorption of blood, but they throw a nice twist on it. Now, even though Viktor has been awakened, Selene STILL is faced with adversity where she believed that she would have an ally. It only forces her into an even more rebellious state to uncover what treachery has occurred amongst these immortal enemies. There is, of course, more to this film, but I will not divulge such spoilers to you.
Yes, I know, that was more than one paragraph, but I tried. I guess the first thing that I realized with this movie was that the action sequences are really nothing new. How many shoot-outs have we seen in movies?! Far too many to even consider counting, I’m sure. And that’s basically the only way the vamps and the lycans fight. They pull out guns and a few other weapons. Both sides now have bullets designed specifically to kill their rival species. The lycanthropes have irradiated ultraviolet bullets that burn vampires alive. From that idea, the vampires invent a bullet that releases silver nitrate directly into the lycans’ blood stream. Lycans themselves are allergic to silver. Most have the ability to force a silver bullet from their body, but the liquid silver injected into their veins is a near instant death. However, a lot of other rules are tossed completely out the window such as vampires now have reflections, don’t seem to have any bit of flying ability, and well, don’t really have much powers at all. They are undead bloodsuckers that are incredibly agile, nothing more. And any charm or veracity that have become characteristic staples of vampires are certainly drained from these vampires. The filmmakers were going for a more biological, scientific angle, but in the process, eliminate much of the powers of the creatures. Of course, the werewolves don’t seem to have much of a change, except for the fact that they can now switch between their two forms at will, but it takes a full moon to initially trigger their transformation after they’re first bitten. Also, no one has ever survived a bite from both vampire and lycan.
Now, since the action sequences are tired and bland, the next question has to be, “is the movie fun at all?” No. Everything and everyone is taken very seriously here. Not a singular joke is cracked, not one witty play, nothing humorous of the sort makes its way into this film. Which makes for a very dull 121 minutes. I don’t even think anyone in this movie even cracks a damn SMILE! Also, the film never really delves much past the surface of these characters to give us any sort of emotional involvement with them. And in fact, the only character I really, really liked was Lucian. Michael Sheen has a lot of charisma and sharp theatrical sense to give the lycan leader a strong gravitas. His is the only one with a heartfelt emotional motivation for his actions that are not wrapped up in lies and deception. Lucian also has a great look which supplements the feral lycan quality. Despite Sheen’s shorter stature, he really is a strong presence that commands respect, even next to his hefty second-in-command Raze. Kate Beckinsale IS quite seriously sexy in her skin-tight PVC leather / rubber cat suit and corset, but it’s a hard thing for an attractive young woman to NOT be sexy in such an outfit. Her character is the heroine, but despite the script’s best efforts, she’s rather mono-emotional (as practically all of the characters are). It’s not an issue of acting quality, but the tone of the film and characters that creates such a heavy, dry movie. Bill Nighy is fantastic as Viktor bringing his always intense emotional sense to the vampire elder. He also commands his scenes with theatrical breadth and subtlety. Shane Brolly as the snake-in-the-grass, short tempered vampire Kraven can feel a little over-the-top at times. The character is wonderful as it becomes refreshing to know that, at the end, he is just as vile and self-centered as he first appeared to be. Still, the rage and shouting could’ve been turned down a few notches to make him a little more intimidating.
Now, we hit the assessment of the plot (and yes, the film feels, at least, as long as this review). The plot is very tiresome. Not that it’s repetitive or anything like that, but because we keep getting more and more elements added to this plot without reason. Well, without reason until the last 30 minutes of the motion picture. And by that time, you really don’t know who to root for. Those who you believed to be the villains aren’t really doing anything villainous, but some of the despised characters are despised for a reason. Although, some of the protagonists become deserving of all that they have coming to them. So, through the whole film you’re acting like Michael Corvin after being bit saying, “What the HELL is going on?!” You get tired of waiting for the plot to progress to a point where you actually know WHAT the real plot is. And once you get there, there’s not much left of the film to hold any bit of interest in you. The fact is, the screenplay is structured in such a way that you have no clear understanding of the plot’s landscape, or where any of the characters stand in that landscape until the final act of the film. Selene herself doesn’t know who to fight against either until that point.
And for the final bit of assessment, the special effects. I am so very glad that director Len Wiseman chose to do as much of the effects practically as possible. The werewolf designs are very impressive, and that certainly helps to inject much to the feel of the film, keeping it as grounded as possible. Though, the werewolves don’t happen to showcase much movement or flexibility in this form, but when they’re crawling rabidly along the walls, they are very animated (not in the CG sense). Also, remember that stunt I mentioned earlier involving Michael Sheen running up atop an accelerating automobile? That was executed using a tarp of sorts attached to the back end of the car, and Michael Sheen simply ran up that tarp while the car was in motion, and thus, making him seem like he was actually running at 35 miles per hour. Very cool, yet simple stunt. You can catch that on the DVD. Now, the vampires don’t have much makeup of effects work aside from their fangs and contact lenses, but Viktor is a whole ‘nother story. As he goes through a regenerative process, a series of progressive effects were designed for him. They were full body casts, no suits. This is well documented on the DVD’s featurettes, and it is a make-up effects process that was well worth the time and effort. However, what was very disappointing was the design of the vampire-lycan hybrid. It seems highly underdeveloped as it does not work as a pay-off at all. There is nothing special or intimidating about this design. It showcases nothing of feral strength or creative ingenuity. Basically, it is a vampire with a more pronounced rib cage with deep, dark blue skin. His abilities are more impressive, but it’s still a grave disappointment on both counts, to me. Nothing impressive at all, as is practically everything with this movie.
So, to sum it up. Underworld is a mix of Blade and The Matrix (maybe a bit of The Crow woven in), but it lacks any of what made those such entertaining films. There’s no fun, no excitement, or character depth to be had in Underworld. A whole boat load of never ending plot developments that just weigh this film down far, far too much. Add that to the fact that the characters’ emotions are practically as flat as a board. Also, I agree with a few others that the role of Michael Corvin was miscast. Scott Speedman just doesn’t play it with anything but weakness. And when the finale comes, he is not one bit convincing as the bad ass that he should’ve been. While the cast is full of talent, there’s very little to nothing for them to showcase that talent, aside from Sheen. And as I’ve said many times, great creature and makeup effects do not a good film make. And as strange as this may sound, I stick with a quote by George Lucas, circa 1983: “Special effects are just a tool, a means of telling a story. People have a tendency to confuse them as an ends unto themselves. A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” That is very true. The makings of a good film start in the screenplay. If you don’t have that solid foundation in place to build upon, it doesn’t matter if have the best special make-up, visual, or creature effects ever in the history of cinema. The quality of your film will falter.
Now, wrap ALL of this together and add in the most obvious and cliché of sequel segue endings, and you’ve got Underworld. A greatly disappointing film that could’ve been a great, fun ride with fabulous creature effects, stunts, and at least, somewhat interesting characters. The script was done all wrong, and it never opens itself up for some fun. Everything is played with such earnestness and grim drama that it’s hard to gain entertainment value out of it. We get so much plot, a good deal of back story, but belated answers and no character depth. Plus, the look of this film is tired as well. All blue and gray filters that make the film’s look as grim as everything else in it. The whole movie takes place at night, in shadows, indoors, or in subterranean environments. It makes the film feel very visually dull and bland. And I’m not even gonna BOTHER critiquing the leather-heavy costume department as this has been a BIG trend since The Crow, or even more so since The Matrix. Can’t seem to outlive this trend, can we? Simply put, this is a painfully derivative film that takes ideas, production designs, costumes, action set pieces, and pretty much anything else you can think of from other sources. And other, better ideas that could’ve injected some life into this rather dead film are jettisoned for bland, tired ones.
So, you think this review has gone on long enough, huh? Well, now you know how long this film feels. In the very conclusion, Underworld – a disappointment? Indeed. Greatly.