Underworld: Awakening (2012)
For me, this was a “wait for it on cable” movie. The premise for this fourth film in the series simply did not appeal to me. Frankly, it seemed more like another Resident Evil sequel than an Underworld one. I straight up didn’t like the more science fiction edge to everything. It seemed to be trading off the wonderful depth of mythology and classy production design for hollow science and sleek, cold settings. I could not get excited to see this, and from the way the trailers looked, I wasn’t going to spend money to see it. Ultimately, I didn’t have to, and I’m glad for it. Underworld: Awakening is not worth spending your hard earned money to see.
The vampire and lycan species have been discovered by humanity, and have waged a war of annihilation against both. Twelve years later, vampire Death Dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) awakens from a cryogenic sleep in an Antigen genetics laboratory, and manages to escape her human imprisonment. On re-entering this world, she finds that the lycans are almost extinct, but somehow, have begun creating stronger, enhanced lycans. She also discovers that she has a twelve year old daughter, Eve (India Eisley), who is a vampire/lycan hybrid that everyone either fears or fights to re-capture for their own vile purposes. While on the run, Selene is aided by vampire David (Theo James) who brings her to a diminished coven hiding underground led by Thomas (Charles Dance), who does not welcome her presence knowing her past, but David stands with her in her fight. However, soon, all are thrown into danger as those who would use Selene’s daughter for a mysterious antidote abduct her, forcing Selene to take the fight directly back to Antigen, and uncover an unsettling truth.
I will say that the film didn’t turnout to be as bad as I anticipated it to be, but it wasn’t all that worthwhile either. This franchise feels about a half step away from going direct-to-video. The only thing that saves this film from feeling as such are the action sequences. They are still very high grade with big, slam bang stunts and good choreography. However, there are moments that felt a little too preposterous for me. Granted, Underworld: Evolution didn’t have the time to really show the potential of Selene’s newfound abilities, but some of them just seemed ridiculous and beyond the laws of physics in Awakening. Selene might be exceptionally strong now, but I don’t think that someone of Kate Beckinsale’s slim size and weight could possibly ram into a van and barrel it over like a freight train. Enhanced vampire strength or no, it’s just a little too much for me to buy. There are other little moments throughout the film that delve into that well of exaggeration. Some have a mild pay-off like Selene actually reaching into David’s chest and restarting his heart with her bare hand, but most are just there to amp up Selene beyond the suspension of my disbelief. It’s one blatant sign that the filmmakers have ceased to care about creating an interesting story, and just want to go for ridiculous indulgences.
The CGI might be a little better than the previous film – Rise of the Lycans – but it’s still not all that good. There are some sequences that are better than others, but on the whole, it’s still distinctly below the exemplary standards of the first two films. This mainly affects the appearance of the lycans themselves. Sometimes they look cartoonish and silly, other times they appear more real and believable. This could be the difference of some practical lycans having been used in some sequences as opposed to others. Still, it’s all a real lazy job done with them as a whole. None of the transformations were particularly impressive as they lack the harsh, visceral quality that we saw in the series’ earlier installments. It really is a mystery why, with more than triple the budget of the first movie and nine years of progress in digital effects, does the CGI here look inferior to that of the original 2003 Underworld. Maybe too much of that budget went to the 3D aspects of the film, which have no impact on a viewer who doesn’t view films in 3D, such as myself. The vast majority of the digital effects of this film are a substandard failure.
I will confirm to you that Scott Speedman does not reprise his role of Michael Corvin in this film, but the character does appear. The filmmakers simply hired a not-so-convincing look alike and used some digital effects to mask that fact, but it’s pretty clear to my eyes what they did. As a result, Michael is barely seen in the film, and I think that is a severe negative mark against this film. Firstly, what they did comes off as cheap and obvious. If they could have gotten Speedman, we could’ve at least had some substantive scenes with the character who was so pivotal to the start of this whole series. To do what they have done just feels disrespectful to the foundations of this franchise. Selene developed into the character we now know because of Michael, and everything erupted in this first film over Michael. To now sweep him under the rug or hide him in the dark corner works against the story that they have here. It feels like there’s this gaping hole in the film that is never plugged up due to his absence. It forces Selene into a more isolated and coldly violent state of mind which is a huge step backwards for her.
In the least, this felt like the wrong direction to take the series’ storyline in. The end of Underworld: Evolution left the possibilities wide open for something radically different and brave to be done. Instead, what we get is very bland and narrow. I also remember the filmmakers saying after Evolution that they weren’t going to go the route of Selene and Michael having a child together, but here it is. Not to mention, it’s done with the least amount of effort possible. It just feels like they took the creative low road, and it resulted in a cheap substitute for not having Michael present. There are now very few places they could take another sequel because they have setup a very restrictive world for our characters. They can’t simply exist in the world as it is. Any new film has to deal with vampires and lycans being exposed to the world at large, and thus, no film can just be about vampires and lycans anymore. This is what I do not like about this film’s premise. It takes the war between vampire and lycan and shoves humans prominently into it. This makes the human race the dominant aggressors due to manpower and resources. While the story is able to twist it back around to being primarily between the vampires and lycans, the world is already set as both races being fully exposed and hunted by humanity. That just drains all the interesting qualities from the base premise of this series. Compared to how immensely textured and fascinating these vampire and lycan characters had been, making humans such a large and oppressive cog in this dynamic hits like a dull thud to me. The history of both species are essentially meaningless now. None of that will be explored any further because it’s about genetics, cloning, and humans trying to eradicate both species like a plague. There’s no personal depth to humans being the enemy. The first two films were interesting because they dealt with personal loyalties, deceptions, secrets, lies, and emotional motivations on both sides. It was a very complex web that was intriguing to see unravel, but now, all of these fascinating characters are dead and none of the new ones have any textured history to explore. It’s very hollow, and that essentially explains this film in general. It’s a lot of flash and action with little substance. The story it tells doesn’t even push the franchise forward. It leaves it stalled out, dead in the water. This film really doesn’t care much for developed plots or characters, unlike it’s predecessors.
The actual villains in the film are boring to no end. There’s nothing on the page or in the performances to make an audience give a damn about what they’re doing or why. Stephen Rea is certainly a better actor than this film demonstrates. He’s entirely phoning this performance in. There’s no passion in anything he does as Dr. Jacob Lane, and the plot twist with him still left me not caring. No one else around him does anything worth caring about either. These are pointless, empty, disposable villains. I can feel the lack of giving a damn coming directly from the script. Previously, you’ve had Viktor, Lucian, and Markus as powerful, vibrant, and intense foils for our protagonists. They had a lush depth and emotional vigor that made them compelling to watch. They were written greatly and portrayed brilliantly by some amazing actors. They felt dimensional, real, and purposeful. The supposed villains of this film couldn’t be a more stark opposite to all of that. When the scripts start falling this far off in quality from where the franchise started, you know the direct-to-video market is not far away.
I will admit that Charles Dance does a rather good job as Thomas, the head of the diminished vampire coven. Dance puts in the effort to make a poignant impression upon the audience for Thomas to have relevance. I felt him channeling Bill Nighy a time or two with his line deliveries. Of course, it would’ve been wiser for him to not keep trying to talk through the vampire teeth, or at least, have him re-record his dialogue in post-production. It just seemed to impede his performance a little, but overall, Charles Dance did well here with a solid, dimensional performance. Theo James does a fair job as David, but ultimately, it’s a take it or leave it character and performance. There’s simply no depth or charisma coming from him. If he had remained dead, it wouldn’t have mattered to me. Much the same could be said for the rest of the supporting cast. They are just there to serve a role in the story, but they’re just disposable and forgettable. Whether they are given some substance or not, they just have no lasting impact. Even India Eisley offers nothing to endear herself to an audience. She should be someone we come to care about, but neither the script nor her performance give you anything to latch onto. Even when the previous films failed to reach an emotional connection with the audience, it wasn’t for a lack of trying by the screenwriters to give depth to the characters. Here, everyone just exists in the film for the sake of the plot, and they offer up nothing else beyond those narrow, shallow confines. I’d almost welcome another prequel film just to have some characters I care about show up again.
The film at least has something somewhat worthwhile for Kate Beckinsale to do. She’s given a decent emotional range to convey with some tears to shed, and some heartfelt concern to struggle with. However, again, it feels like a step down from where she was in Evolution where there was the bond with Michael to flesh her out and open her up, emotionally. Here, she’s even more cold blooded and vicious than ever before killing helpless humans left and right on a rampage to find the person she loves. As always, Beckinsale looks great, and handles the physical demands of the role excellently. Still, it is a film heavy on the action and lighter on substance. In the hands of a screenwriter with some enthusiasm and ambition, a great deal more could’ve been done with Selene in this premise. Themes could’ve been explored in depth about her uncertainty in this new world, and her finding a new purpose with or without Michael. The ideas of rebuilding the vampires as a strong species could’ve been grappled with more intensely as well. Instead, these are just background elements to the bland forefront storyline. I believe Beckinsale has said she will not come back for another film, and I think that’s a wise decision. She is a very good actress who should focus on expanding her career instead of shackling it to a franchise that is on a steep decline in creative quality. Not to mention, the filmmakers and screenwriters seem to have no ambition to push the character to anywhere that challenges Beckinsale. Rarely is any charisma ever is injected into the character, either. Any expansion on the character’s range is marginal from film-to-film. There are leaps and bounds they could take Selene with some powerful new stories, but there is just no place for that in this franchise, four films on. Underworld has settled into a straight action film franchise with some thin emotional strands and increasingly weaker plots and characters.
I think the problem with the franchise is that the filmmakers have never been confronted with the problems of the films. Therefore, they have never had critical pressure put on them to improve the aspects that have dragged along unchecked from movie to movie. The odd thing is that they have all been different problems in each movie. Whether it’s a lack of emotional vibrancy, thoroughly fleshed out stories, or a prequel that doesn’t just retread the same back story we’ve already been told about, the screenwriters and filmmakers just can’t balance out the vital aspects of these films. There simply doesn’t seem to be a fire lit under the filmmakers of this franchise to push themselves to do more with it. They settle for something adequate instead of striving for exceptional. Underworld: Awakening is a blatant example of that slipping, lax attitude.
I honestly only took the time to watch this film in order to round out my reviews of the franchise. There was nothing I saw of this marketing campaign that gave me any confidence in this sequel. It is excessively mediocre in almost every aspect. While I have never viewed any of the films in this series as great, there has been potential here and there that has just never been put together in the same film. The best aspects of one film combined with those of another could be forged into just the right mix of story, action, and character to make a fully satisfying film. Instead, we either get something too oppressive in tone and complex in story dragging the excitement of the film away, or something with a lot of good action and excitement with not enough substance to make it feel like a full film. Underworld: Awakening is the latter done to an excessive degree in addition to populating itself with an array of forgettable characters and bland performances. It’s never an outright bad film. It’s just one I fail to care at all about, same as the filmmakers, evidently. The creative forces behind this film put forth no effort to improve upon the franchise when there was ample opportunity to do so. It’s disappointing when a franchise fails to reach its full potential when it has good ideas and good talent to start with. It’s just plain sad when those in charge of it simply stop trying, and that summarizes my feeling on the Underworld series as a whole. If another sequel is to come, I deeply hope the studio brings some talented writers and filmmakers on board with some original, ambitious ideas to revitalize this series.