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.
For whatever reason, I chose to give this sequel a fair chance despite my very negative reaction to the first film. It might’ve been my extreme absence from seeing new horror films in the last few years, or just that it may have seemed a bit more developed than the first (by way of trailers and such). Whatever the case, on its opening theatrical weekend I caught a matinee showing of it, and yes, I actually garnered some enjoyment from it. Before I get into the critique, let’s familiarize you with the premise of Underworld: Evolution.
Eight centuries ago
unknown to humanity, a blood feud raged
between a ruling class of vampires
and a rebellious legion of werewolves
known as lycans.
Legend tells that the war began with two brothers,
the immortal sons of Alexander Corvinus
Markus, bitten by bat,
became the blood leader of the vampires.
William, bitten by wolf,
became the first and most powerful lycan.
This sequel picks up just exactly where the first film ended. The lies about the war between vampire and lycan have been uncovered, many former allies and enemies lie dead, and the vampire death dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and the first hybrid of the two immortal species, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), are now on the run. Meanwhile, vampire elder Markus (Tony Curran) has been revived. He is the very first and most powerful vampire, and he shows it from the very first minute on screen following his resurrection. He absorbs the blood memories of the lycan doctor that was slain in the crypt, and comes up to speed on all the recent betrayals and treachery. He goes hunting down Selene to learn all she knows, more than even she is aware of. Markus knows that Viktor deserved the end he got, as the pre-title flashback sequence shows, but the intentions of Markus are much more frightening, volatile, and lethal than those in the previous film. As Markus tries to move his plans forward, Michael & Selene hideout wherever possible, and eventually become more intimate with one another. More secrets and hidden truths begin to unfold, and Markus’ ultimate plan is unveiled as he wants to create a new race forged by the purest of both vampire and lycan. Unknowingly, Selene holds one major key to Markus’ plans, but there is much vengeance for him to reap along the way. Ultimately, our heroes must evolve to battle this new enemy or perish in its wake.
One of the things that I first enjoyed about this sequel were the more exciting and unique action sequences. No more are we treated to shootout after shootout, but we have much more physical combat on top of some nice chase sequences. Every action sequence is different from the last, whether in context or geography. It made this film much more lively and intense. Secondly, Scott Speedman really comes more into his “evolved” character of the vamp-lycan hybrid Michael Corvin. He’s involved in more smash mouth brawls and chase scenes. He’s a more active member in the story despite having much less pivotal importance to it instead of riding the wild wave carrying him along to unknown destinations. Selene still does much to protect and guide him as he becomes more familiar with what he is, but he’s not helpless by a long shot. Also, the design of the hybrid is more evolved as well, and yes, I am using the subtitle of this film a lot. However, it is justified because there’s a lot of evolution with this sequel. Anyway, with a bigger budget, but not an over inflated one, this film has some upgraded effects that truly benefit the characters and story. Corvin’s hybrid creature design is more satisfying to me as it takes on a few more werewolf characteristics, and the creature itself tends to be more animalistic.
There are fewer characters this time around, but the depth of them is much improved. There’s more emotion here, especially with Selene. She’s no longer some cold killing machine, trying to fight back against everything and everyone. She becomes intimate with Michael, opening her emotions to him, and there’s no denying their love for one another. With no other allies, Michael is all she has, and Selene is the only one that Michael can latch onto. Without each other, I doubt they could survive emotionally or psychologically for too long. One of the new characters is Tanis (Steven Mackintosh), a vampire historian that has been exiled for about three centuries, or so it was believed. He’s a weasel, a real piece of scum that shouts back to the majority of the cast of characters in the previous film, but is easily more enjoyable than despicable. Not surprisingly, Tanis has interesting ties to Lucian . Another new character is portrayed by Sir Dereck Jacobi, a revered British actor of stage and screen. His character is wholly pivotal to absolutely everything, and is greatly responsible for cleaning up after the messes of both the vampires and lycans. He helps keep their underworld as hidden as possible – mainly because he’s partly responsible for its existence – but none have been aware of his existence until now.
And the new villain, Markus, proves to be quite an adversary for all, especially Selene & Michael. He certainly has a swirl of emotions being manipulated and opposed by Viktor for centuries. He seeks to free his brother William, the most ravenous and powerful lycan ever, and together, no one will be able to survive them. Markus is truly frightening and indiscriminately lethal. He knows what he wants, and will tear through whomever he must to achieve his god-like goals. He’s not as intriguing a villain as Lucian was (who actually proved to not be the villain at all in the first film), but he still does not disappoint. While Lucian was someone with more carefully laid plans (one part revenge, one part survival for his species) who had patience to carry them out subversively and work with a higher level of honor than those around him, Markus is purely about revenge, and has no use for being subversive. He’s very upfront and direct with his approach to achieving his goals. Being as powerful as he is, he has no fear, and thus, destroys whatever he wishes. Tony Curran portrays him fantastically through and through. I so enjoyed his performance – the strength, the confidence, the anger, the defiance – it was powerhouse. He easily makes the movie, and he is definitely a marvelous actor I intend to pay close attention to.
The effects in this film are even more impressive than the first film. There are a lot of effects here that you would swear are practical, but don’t seem logistically possible. The visual effects department deserves major credit for their amazing work here! There’s not a bad or cheesy piece of CGI here, if you can even decipher what is CGI to begin with. In any case, this is a major visual effects achievement, and everyone knows that bad CGI can completely kill any movie (especially one with such a serious tone as this one). Yes, the dead serious tone persists here, but there’s a couple of smirks to be had here and there. Frankly, there’s enough depth and variation of emotion throughout the film to make it more lively and entertaining than the original Underworld.
The music of Underworld remains the same with the industrial rock remixes and such. The score is also fantastic, and possibly a bit more dynamic than before (mainly due to the demands of the story and action). We get a lot more action early on, and I would have to say that there is a higher degree of gore here. It’s not a massive amount of gore, but more gruesome since Markus is a far more violent character than any we saw in the original Underworld. There’s also less “technobabble” this time around because there’s nothing new to describe in relation to it. Simply put, all the medical jargon and related exposition more or less applies here as well. It’s already been established in the first film, and so, there’s no need to say it all again. There’s ultimately less exposition overall, but there’s still plenty of back story to explore.
Basically, I found this movie enjoyable. The action is far fresher than that in the first movie. There’s easily much more emotional depth, allowing you to really feel more for these characters, and to become closer to them. There’s not as much mystery this time around, and the scope of it all might seem smaller. This is partly due having fewer characters than before, and this film takes place more outside in mountainous regions than inside the mansion where there was a lot of production designs to show off (as well as extras). Although, I believe Underworld: Evolution makes up for it on many levels. Also, after viewing the extended cut of the original Underworld, I believe both films are equal, but on different levels. What one lacks, the other makes up for. One film’s weakness is the other’s strength, and so, they even out in the end. I believe if you melded both films together into one, capitalizing on both of their strengths, you’d have one bad ass movie, but instead we get two that are pretty damn good in their own ways.
After seeing and enjoying the sequel Underworld: Evolution on its theatrical opening weekend, I decided to give the original film a second chance with the extended edition. It was clear then that I should’ve given Underworld a second viewing quite a while before then. With that viewing, things became more enjoyable, and more importantly, coherent in a second viewing (even with two solid years between viewings). Anyway, this version of the film has 12 minutes of additional footage with 11 minutes of replacement footage. The audio commentary with director Len Wiseman and cast members Kate Beckinsale & Scott Speedman help to mark the new footage (quite important to me only seeing the theatrical version once). More back story is revealed on our leads, and a few other tidbits are injected. Now, there’s really no extra gore here, and so, don’t let the “unrated” moniker get you excited. It’s just a marketing tool for horror fans, plain and simple. Now, I will endeavor to make a far briefer synopsis this time out.
A war between vampires and lycans has raged for numerous centuries, but the reasons why there ever was a war is unknown to most everyone. Digging into the past is forbidden amongst vampires, and that’s just the least of what’s forbidden. There are many unknowns that none question, but the vampire death dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) soon raises all those questions. After tracking a pair of lycans and subsequently engaging in a shootout in a subway station, she becomes convinced that they were after a human named Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman). She persists in unraveling this mystery, even more so when met with resistance from the decadent second-in-command Kraven (Shane Brolly). He pushes so hard against her that she becomes even more suspicious, and goes to desperate measures. She awakens elder vampire Viktor (Bill Nighy) a century ahead of schedule, and seeks his help. With his power of command and physicality, he easily reaffirms control of things. Meanwhile, the lycans’ plan slowly is revealed, but not fully until far later in the film. In any case, this plan has everything to do with Michael’s bloodline, and with the survival of the lycan species. Selene soon becomes Michael’s only ally when it seems all are gunning for him, and neither of them know why, not truly. Ultimately, all the lies, deceit, deception, and secrets are made known, and the consequences of them all will change everything for both species.
When I first watched this film, it was very confusing and tiring on a mental level. There were so many plot twists and turns that from one scene to the next I didn’t know who was a villain, an ally, or a hero. I was completely lost on the geography of this plot, let alone where these characters stood within it. By the end, nearly everyone you believed was a protagonist or an antagonist flipped sides, and it was all very confusing. I felt like Michael Corvin wondering just, “what the fuck is going on?” This time through, I was fully aware of where the plot was going, and everything made much more sense. A second viewing allows you to be “in the know” about the intentions, schemes, and treachery of all. It allows you to enjoy the film more since you are not trying to re-decipher the plot every few minutes.
Now, I still find the action sequences to be lacking. A shootout is a shootout – practically every action flick has one. Granted, it would be silly for the vampires and lycans to be doing battle with swords and battle axes since these are technologically evolved times, but after seeing the sequel, Underworld: Evolution, there are other ways to create multiple action sequences unique within one film and make them exciting and dynamic. Since I had already seen this movie, I knew what to expect from the action sequences, and so, I was able to enjoy them more. But still, they could have been much more impressive and unique.
I still give major praise for the effects in this film, both practical and computer generated. They are exponentially better than the cheesy, third-rate CGI in Van Helsing, and nothing here comes off cheap. It’s all wonderfully designed and executed. After watching some of the featurettes on disc two of this set, I got to appreciating the development of this film even more than before. I do retain the belief that this film could have benefited from a bit less dreary visuals. The desaturated colors really bring down the potential beauty of this motion picture. The Crow absolutely had an insane amount of darkness, and a heavily gothic look to it, but it is a beautiful film. It didn’t use desaturated colors, but instead used the contrast of light and dark. I believe the same could’ve been done here, and made the visuals much more compelling. Still, the cinematography is fabulous, and the production design is deeply intricate.
The music as well as the costume design is directly in line with that of The Matrix – industrial rock remixes and tight black leather n’ latex. Yes, it’s been done to death, but it certainly works fantastically well here. Kate Beckinsale looks all the more beautiful and sexy the more you see her. The lycans have a far more down n’ dirty look as they live a more low class lifestyle than the aristocratic vampires. I guess leather attire will always be some indefinable symbol of coolness. So, despite my previous negative attitude towards said choice in costume design, I really won’t knock it now. It’s cool, and I’ll leave it at that.
The quality of the acting doesn’t change in this extended cut, we just get more of it. I speak nothing negative about it, and knowing where things ultimately lead up to not only in this film, but the next, I truly understand the coldness of some characters. Those that survive this film definitely show far more depth in the sequel. Still, I still have to praise Michael Sheen for bringing such a great character like Lucian to life. He does an incredibly intriguing job with him, and by far, proves Lucian to be the most in-depth and emotionally invested character here. The rest of the cast has acting chops to spare, and while Speedman may seem miscast in this film, I think him coming into his own in the sequel really makes up for anything he may appear to lack in this film.
Again, what this extended cut gives us is more character moments. These are nice extra elements, but don’t change the complexion of the story or characters much at all. They just add some additional depth and back story. The pace of the film was already pretty slow, and thus, this only elongates the existing pace. There is a sex scene between Kraven and Erika, but there’s nothing gratuitous about it. It’s sexy and lustful, but no real nudity Beyond that, there are a few bits and pieces of scenes added back in that were likely just cut for time originally.
All in all, with two years later and a fresh perspective along with the knowledge of the sequel with me, I appreciate Underworld much more. The story does drag in the middle (even more so in this extended cut), but it really picks up near the end. I recommend that anyone who may have disliked or was disappointed with this film should give it a second viewing. Being aware of the plot and its progression will allow you to appreciate the overall film much more. Your mind is more free to enjoy it instead of trying to keep up with plot twists. Simply put, you’ll spend much less time being confused, and more time enjoying yourself. Checking out this extended cut should be an option for you, but it doesn’t offer anything greatly important regarding the plot, let alone the action, but does offer more on the characters themselves. Theatrical or extended is perfectly fine for a second viewing.
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.