Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)
The problems with a prequel are many. With Underworld, the biggest is that so much back story has already been detailed throughout the previous two films that we already know what led to what, and the motivations behind everyone’s actions. All making a prequel can do is flesh out these ideas and show us something deeper, and possibly previously unrevealed to make it worthwhile. Unfortunately, prequels are hardly ever that imaginative or worthwhile.
The other detractor is that we are already familiar with these characters at the end of their lives. We’ve seen their emotional states after centuries of turmoil, conflict, and deceit. So, in a prequel, one must strip all that emotional depth and history away. These are not the characters as you’ve come to know or enjoy them, and that can make them far less interesting or entertaining. Basically, in a prequel, there is less to explore because we already know the outcome, and that’s worst thing to go into a film knowing.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans takes place centuries ago telling the tale of how Lucian (Michael Sheen) came to be, and his eventual struggle to break out of the oppressive tyranny of the vampire elder Viktor (Bill Nighy). Lucia is a lycan, the first of a new species able to retain human form, and change to a wolf at will. As he is brought up under Viktor’s vampiric regime, Lucian becomes passionately in love with Viktor’s beautiful and strong willed daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra). However, they must keep their love a secret as Viktor would never allow such a union to exist, but it is only a matter of time before secrets are uncovered and a lycan revolt is sparked.
Michael Sheen is clearly at the forefront of this film as Lucian. It’s his story to ascension from slave to lycan leader. He fills the role well as a strong, bold, and passionate warrior. He is clearly a deeply talented actor with wide range that understands the character completely. Sheen is able to take what Lucian was in the first film, and wrangle him back to a more impulsive, youthful man driven by his passions instead of being methodically driven by sorrowful vengeance. Of course, Bill Nighy returns as Viktor, and is much more in the forefront of the story. He commands his scenes with his usual intensity and venom, but also brings forth the pain of a hurt father when needed. His subtlety of emotion gives Viktor his gravitas. I couldn’t imagine anyone else bringing this much theatricality and impact to Viktor. I just wish Nighy wasn’t so gung ho for those blue contact lenses. They get to be distracting after a while.
The one thing this film allows us to freshly explore is Sonja, portrayed by the always fantastic Rhona Mitra. She has spirit to spare. Sonja won’t be held down by anyone as she is a brash, capable, and proud warrior. She lacks no confidence, but is emotionally torn between the man she loves in Lucian and her beloved father, Viktor. Rhona plays the heartbreak very well showing it troubling Sonja beneath the surface. She is absolutely a strong lead, and entirely convincing as the kind of strong, bold woman that Lucian would devote his heart to. Simply due to Sonja’s confidence, strength of character, and emotional context, she can prove to be an even stronger lead than Kate Beckinsale at times. She is a finely textured character that makes it easy to see how a war could breakout over her by two men who deeply loved her. However, it is Viktor who allows his disdain for the lycan species to eclipse his love for his own daughter.
Steven Mackintosh reprises the role of Tanis. I absolutely loved his uninhabited weasely personality in Underworld: Evolution. Here, it’s much more restrained because Tanis cannot risk Viktor knowing of his shady dealings. So, Mackintosh never gets a chance to really flesh out the character. He plays it quite straight and low key. It’s a shame that is necessary since, as we’ve already seen, Tanis can be an immensely entertaining character. It’s almost a disservice to the film and the actor to have him play the character as so subservient. He was always a bit of a coward, but at least he had some bravado before.
On a side note, I had hoped that Kraven would appear in the film. I had seen Shane Brolly in the IMDb credits prior to seeing the film, and expected his despicably deceitful character to grace this film. Unfortunately, his credit is merely for the re-use of dialogue from the first Underworld at the film’s end. While Shane Brolly did overplay Kraven at times before, I still enjoyed the character in general. He was fun because, while surrounded by characters full of honor, dignity, and respect, he was an entirely straight forward self-serving, egotistical, and reliably disloyal delight. What you saw was what you got, and he never wrapped himself up in a web of facades to cloak his dishonorable actions. Truly a character you loved to hate. Unfortunately, it is doubtful we’ll ever get to see him, again.
Patrick Tatopolous takes over the directing reins from Len Wiseman, and does a fine job. He maintains a consistency for the franchise in all aspects. To his credit, he handles every dramatic moment as if this was the first film in the series. He doesn’t allow foreknowledge from the previous films to diminish the dramatic integrity of what he’s putting on screen here. He surely makes it so that any newcomer can watch this film first, and still feel the weight it deserves to give the other films their proper context. And quite seriously, the drama can be heart wrenching and deeply impactful.
The film does lack in the CGI area. Where the previous two films had quite seamless effects, here, it’s not quite as smooth. The first film had a $22M budget while Evolution had $50M. This falls in between with $35M. Still respectable, but with larger effects sequences featuring more lycans running amuck and so forth, the filmmakers probably had to stretch the dollar thinner to accommodate it all. The practical effects are still consistent with the rest of the franchise, but the screenplay required CGI visual effects to take a more prominent role this time out.
The music here is an expectedly more traditional film score. While that’s not entirely new for the series, it clearly wouldn’t be peppered with industrial rock remixes. As with Tatopolous’ direction, the cinematography also maintains a consistent cinematic quality throughout. It’s very well shot and edited. Much of the same techniques are used with momentary slow motion action beats, and the desaturated blue tones.
Ultimately, what we have here is a hard film to sum up. There’s solid talent up and down the line on both sides of the camera. The screenplay is executed very well by deeply talented individuals. The CGI is a bit dodgy here and there, but the real stinging point that damages the film is that there’s nothing new to be had here. From the first film, we knew all of this story, and more importantly, the end results of it all. The screenplay, while well conceived, offers nothing that we weren’t already told two films ago. It simply takes that spoken back story, and shows it to us. No new layers are added to the Underworld mythology, and no new perspective can be really had by watching this film. Maybe there’s a little more emotional context seeing who Lucian was, and then, who he came to be centuries later. So, you see it’s not a bad movie at all, but it just is a generally unnecessary one. You can take it or leave it because, quite frankly, there’s very little to gain if you’ve seen the first two Underworld movies. I like a good, solid back story to be fleshed out, but if a prequel isn’t going to flesh anything out to show us something new to the storyline, it fundamentally fails. That could launch me into a whole different rant about another film franchise’s prequels, but who really has the time for that sordid mountain of madness?