A Trip Through The Underworld: Looking Back at the Vampire/Lycan War
Hot vampire chicks, leather-clad with guns blazing. That’s the appeal of Underworld, yes? It certainly doesn’t hurt, that’s for sure. And while the ever-expanding franchise blasts its way into theaters with a fourth entry this weekend, I’d argue there’s more to these things than sexy British chicks wielding all kinds of deadly weapons.
Taking a look back at the three films preceding Underworld Awakening, we find a flawed but ambitious series centering on an enduring war between vampires and werewolves. There have been missteps along the way: leaden direction, questionable writing and horrible performances, but the sheer scope of the franchise continues to impress. Underworld may not be a work of blazing originality, but it’s an ongoing R-rated action fantasy worth a bit more than its detractors might suggest.
I remember the ads for Len Wiseman’s original Underworld back in late 2003, and it wasn’t something I was even remotely interested in. After all, the idea of watching another movie about people in leather firing dual-wielded pistols in slow motion wasn’t tremendously appealing. This wasn’t just in between the release of two awful Matrix sequels, but coming off of years of endless Wachowski imitations. Underworld looked trite and passé before it was even released. A few friends went without me and certainly weren’t wowed by the material, which effectively killed my interest in seeing what this surprise box office success was all about.
Until DVD. Almost immediately I was stunned to discover that Underworld wasn’t exactly the type of film I was expecting it to be. Yes, it’s general look owes more than a little to The Matrix, but that’s where the similarities end. Wiseman’s film is actually a grounded piece of old school filmmaking from a technical standpoint: Practical effects dominate the proceedings, with make-up and wirework ruling the day. There are a few CGI tricks along the way (mostly surrounding the wolf transformations), but hardly the Matrix with Werewolves movie I’d been preparing myself for. It works thanks to a largely solid cast who remain committed to the material, and also to a story that carefully lays out the expansive universe in which we’re going to witness this war unfold.
Opening in an unnamed city, the audience meets warrior vampire Selene (Kate Beckinsale), who, by her own admission, is a warmonger. This ‘Death Dealer’ exists for the sole purpose of hunting down and destroying Lycans by any means necessary, and she loves it. Of course, this simple plan suffers a few kinks when she discovers that the werewolves have taken a mysterious interest in a human named Michael (Scott Speedman). Selene takes a stance that not only puts her in the crossfire of these vengeful enemies but also in the eyes of her own kind, who suddenly view her as a traitor to their species. There are double-crosses, 11th hour revelations and all kinds of shootouts as this war between monsters is finally about to boil over.
The idea of warring clans of vampires and werewolves endlessly raging for generations is nothing new, but writers Wiseman, Kevin Grevioux and Danny McBride (a different one) flesh out this universe in vivid detail. There’s a lot of information to process throughout Underworld: from all the characters and their allegiances to the way in which leaders manage to retain their rule and so on. The story establishes these details rather well without allowing needless exposition to hamper the pacing (that wouldn’t happen until the sequel). This mythology-laden world is akin to what George Lucas first did with Star Wars: fleshing out a universe that didn’t exist in novels or comic books beforehand. These characters have such expansive histories that we’re clearly only scratching the surface. There’s plenty more to know, and these stories can either be told later on or left up to the imagination of the fans. Whatever the case, it allows curious minds to ponder what might’ve happened in the centuries leading up to this point, and that’s always something to appreciate.
Underworld’s biggest issue lies in its pacing. At 121 minutes, the theatrical cut was a bit longer than it needed to be, and the desire to heap all of the story/world information onto the audience gets in the way of a pretty simple plot (the turning point in the war). Unfortunately, this problem has been compounded with an ‘extended cut’ that has since become the de facto edition of this movie (it’s the only cut you can get on Blu-ray). Clocking in at a somewhat unwieldy 133 minutes (this edition also replaces 10 minutes of footage from the theatrical version), Underworld winds up feeling a bit overblown by the time it’s done. Hopefully Sony will at least make the theatrical cut available once again for those seeking a shorter version.
The exposition does actually help create tension. For example, the vampires preserve their founding fathers in advanced cryogenics. Every century one of them is resurrected and assumes control of the house, but as Underworld opens, we learn that Selene isn’t content with Kraven’s (Shane Brolly) current leadership. She sees him as a bureaucratic weakling rather than a warrior, and her trust in him is fleeting. It leads her to question her role as a Death Dealer for the first time, which destroys her previously held world view until she does something drastic about it. And her actions have dire consequences for all parties involved. Nothing earth-shattering here, but the script goes to great lengths to make sure there’s no shortage of tension and conflict. And that helps keep things interesting.
It’s a good thing, too, because Underworld has more issues than just over-length. Beneath all the politics and action, it attempts to offer a poignant romance between our two main characters, and it doesn’t work at all. Script-wise, it’s grossly undeveloped and hackneyed. Selene and Michael never feel like they’re in love, or even all that interested in one another, but the story forces them to go there. It’s detrimental to the film because there’s nothing shown that explains why a centuries-old vampire of such renown would suddenly give up everything for a character without an iota of personality. The character of Michael is written terribly from the get-go, however, and not simply with regard to the love story. Michael is the only human in the story, our cipher essentially, and that could be why he’s written as such a nothing character – so we can project onto him, but I’m not buying it. We should like this guy, have some investment in him, but his scenes don’t work at all. Flat, boring and uninspired. And that’s a huge mistake for the aforementioned love story, but also because this character takes on greater significance in the third act.
Blame can’t go squarely on the script, however. Some goes to the actor in the role, and there’s no debating that Scott Speedman isn’t a colossal void of energy in this. While he eventually squeaked out a decent performance in the underrated home invasion flick The Strangers, this guy has torpedoed his fair share of good films. This is one of them, but nothing will ever be more egregious than his blank-slate performance in Ron Shelton’s ‘might’ve been a masterpiece’ Dark Blue (didn’t help that he was opposite Kurt Russell in a career-best performance). His effect in Underworld may not be so severe, but he wanders through the entire movie with a look barely approaching indifference. Michael is a medical intern who suddenly learns that vampires and werewolves are real and, more so, that he’s wanted for reasons unknown. If the character’s world view is shaken, if he’s terrified, shocked or scared, we never know it because Speedman never emotes. The guy barely seems to care once he discovers that he’s cursed to become a werewolf. That’s a fairly life-altering sort of thing, don’t you think?
Luckily the rest of the cast is much better. Kate Beckinsale had been chasing stardom for a while before Underworld, and Selene definitely put her on the permanent Hollywood map. Beckinsale is the centerpiece of the film, not only because she’s a revelation in that skin-tight bodysuit with those sexy glowing blue contacts, but also because she makes Selene a compelling character to root for. Bill Nighy growls through his role as the conservative Viktor, one of the oldest remaining vampires with secrets of his own. As the leader of the Lycans, Michael Sheen is one of the more multi-dimensional performances of the film, and Shane Brolly is adequately detestable as Kraven, the current leader of the vampire house.
Like Blade, Underworld bridges the horror and action genres well. There isn’t much happening in the way of scares here, but the somewhat different spin on beloved genre lore made this feel somewhat new in 2003. Len Wiseman’s direction may not be as grandiose or effective as many of his peers, but for a budget only slightly north of $20 million, this looks fantastic. The $51 million domestic gross had Sony itching to turn this into a franchise, and a sequel began to take shape almost immediately. Less than two and a half years later we got the next chapter in this tale of vampires vs. Lycans...
Underworld: Evolution appears to be the most divisive entry in the series. Some (myself included) consider it the best in the series, with its slightly more ferocious approach and action-accented narrative. Others feel the endless expository dialogues hinder what should’ve been a fun action movie and nothing more. Frankly, there’s something to be said for both camps, even if I feel like the good outweighs the bad.
Picking up at the heels of the first film’s finish, Evolution continues the story of Death Dealer Selene and Michael, the vampire/Lycan hybrid, both of whom are on the run from the newly awakened vampire elder, Marcus (Tony Curran). Turns out Marcus is actually the first vampire, son of the immortal Alexander Corvinus (Derek Jacobi), and his quest revolves around locating his imprisoned brother William, the first werewolf. Corvinus attempts to locate two keys that will release William from his ancient prison, while the bloodthirsty Marcus is after the very same thing. Selene finds herself an unwilling participant in this game as she races to stop these guys from unleashing the ultimate evil upon mankind. Or something.
Evolution boasts an admittedly convoluted story. There’s a bunch of character histories to keep straight, and it becomes hard to do so on a single viewing without the help of a flow chart. Wiseman doesn’t handle his exposition quite as well as he did the first time (where it still should’ve been tightened), giving way to many scenes where characters just stand around and spout lengthy excerpts of story in an effort to push the narrative along. It’s clunky and too bad because Wiseman otherwise steps up the energy for his sequel, making things bigger, bloodier and wilder. It sheds more blood in the opening scene than the original film did in its entirety, and seeing warring creatures battling with blood and gore splattering across the screen lends Evolution something of a ferocious (and welcome) edge. Atop that, Wiseman also piles on some vampire debauchery in a smarmy threesome sequence, as well as a would-be steamy love scene between Selene and Michael (the lucky sod) where their genitals are hilariously (and noticeably) misaligned (unless it was always intended to be a dry hump!). It’s definitely more of an R-rated film than the first one was, and I had fun with these elements being trumped up.
Efforts to deliver a more ‘kickass’ Hollywood crowd pleaser also gave way to some disappointing inconsistencies between the two movies. This time around CGI shares much more screen time with traditional stuntwork, and character vulnerability doesn’t seem to work quite the same way this time around. For example, Selene takes a knife to the shoulder in Underworld, and she winces in pain and sits out of commission for a while. In Evolution she’s shot point-blank with a shotgun and barely blinks. These kinds of movies aren’t as exciting when you’re telling audiences from the get-go that our heroine is essentially invincible. Yes, we all know that James Bond is going to prevail by the end of the movie, but it shouldn’t be so damn easy for him, right?
Evolution eschews some of this by pitting Selene against some equally invincible baddies. And it gives way to some really exciting action sequences, heightened by a genuinely badass climax. But it just means that when Selene is battling droves of faceless henchmen, there’s not that much at risk here.
Overall I enjoy Evolution more than its predecessor, and that includes much of the story. As a werewolf enthusiast, I was happy to see this one offer up some interesting ideas that haven’t yet been explored in genre films (at least, not to my knowledge). The idea that the “first” lycanthrope cannot regress back into human guise because his rage is so great is pretty cool and could’ve been explored further (if you’ve spent centuries as a hulking beast is there any humanity left in there?) with a better script. As it stands, however, this is a nifty villain to pit your hero against.
Kate Beckinsale is pitch-perfect here. Her Selene is a little angrier and her performance a bit more ... human. Even if the script turns her into a superhero, Beckinsale gives her enough vulnerability to make her interesting. She also handles pistols, shotguns and machine guns like a champ and looks great while doing so. Scott Speedman is every bit as awful as he was the first time around, although he picked up another expression between the two movies. Instead of wandering through these proceedings in complete indifference, he’s added boredom to his repertoire. After all, nothing elevates a scene more than staring at a winged vampire with dead eyes.
Underworld: Evolution is a superior sequel in spite of itself. It takes everything that worked about the first movie and amps it up. Yes, that means there’s more leaden story drudge, but it also means it’s a high energy actioner that features some of the coolest modern-day creature FX work I’ve seen in recent years. At 106 minutes, it’s not the lugubrious experience the first one could be at times, and the aptly staged Gothic locations really do add some great atmosphere and history to the proceedings. As this one leaves off with an open-ended setup for a part 3, it seemed a no-brainer that Selene would be back in no time flat…
It took three movies in six years, but Team Lycan (I apologize) finally have the Underworld flick in which the werewolves are given their due.
Of course, the necessity of a prequel most likely stemmed from Kate Beckinsale’s reluctance to slip into that leather bodysuit and corset for a third time (can’t really blame her for not wanting to be typecast, although she naturally acquiesced later on), but it seemed like a sound business decision for other reasons as well. The first Underworld, in a short-sighted move, killed off most of its interesting characters in one fell, climactic swoop. Evolution didn’t exactly have suitable replacements for Viktor (Bill Nighy) and Lucian (Michael Sheen), and since the fans were really taken with these guys, it seemed like as good a time as any to do a prequel.
There’s apparently a written rule that you cannot make an Underworld movie without casting a gorgeous British woman in a lead role, which is precisely why Rhona Mitra was a natural choice for the pivotal role of Sonja. Mitra is as beautiful as Beckinsale, and she can kick the same amount of ass with aplomb, making her a perfect addition to the series. It also works to the mythology’s favor that these actresses bear more than a passing resemblance to one another since Sonja’s fate is tied directly into why Viktor eventually would turn Selene into a vampire.
This is a series of films that cautiously operates within its already established parameters. There’s nothing in Rise of the Lycans that completely contradicts the future events of the Underworld movies and this attention to detail is greatly appreciated. There’s even been talk of re-editing the original Underworld to replace those hasty flashbacks with scenes from Rise of the Lycans - something I’d actually like to see done whenever this series winds to a permanent close.
Another plus for Rise of the Lycans is the straightforward narrative. Unlike the first two movies, which occasionally went overboard in their efforts to remind viewers that the writers had created a mythology for this franchise, part 3 is the backstory. It’s free to tell its tale without stopping to remind viewers of ancient lineages, old treaties and shaky alliances that had become intrinsic characteristics of Underworld before this.
But this is a pretty simple flick. Vampires rule ancient Europe. They keep werewolves as slaves to guard their castle from crusaders and other such menaces. A charismatic young Lucian (Michael Sheen) is one such slave, embroiled in a secret relationship with vampire royalty Sonja. They have secret rendezvous at night and no one is any wiser to their relationship. Like the original Underworld, part 3 is also built around a love story. Unlike the first film, Rise of the Lycans pulls it off. Sheen and Mitra have solid chemistry together, and both actors are invested in this material. The script (written by the same guys who’ve penned the whole trilogy) also makes their love genuine; a good thing considering it serves as the basis for the ensuing war. We know it won’t end well for Lucian and Sonja, and that also hangs heavy over the flick.
Rise of the Lycans plays out like Spartacus with Werewolves and the creature carnage delivers in spades. The werewolves have never looked better (and largely practical, too), and new director Patrick Tatopoulos captures the action with a deft touch. Action scenes flow rather well, and there’s quite a lot of it packed into a 92-minute running time. By the time we reach the massive werewolf siege on the castle, it’s almost impossible to not enjoy the proceedings. If anything, this one might’ve benefited from a slightly longer length as I would’ve enjoyed a bit more of Lucian and Sonja’s affair at the outset, but it’s nothing that hinders the overall experience.
In a lot of circles, Rise of the Lycans is considered the best of the Underworld movies. While I wouldn’t go quite that far (I’m still more invested in Selene’s story at this point and would hope that Underworld Awakening will resolve it), it’s a damn fun time at the movies.
And while I don’t count the Underworld movies as guilty pleasures (a term I quite despise), I have no problem admitting their flaws. But it’s a far better series of movies than, say, Sony’s other ongoing franchise, Resident Evil. There’s no cohesion there, no good characters or performances and certainly no imagination. Characters can’t be bothered to act the same from film to film, and the plots don’t hold up to an iota of scrutiny. Resident Evil movies aren’t written so much as they’re slapped together as a series of action scenes. Underworld may be similar in terms of being a second-tier series of popular movies, but at least there’s respect for the storytelling process here. Yes, Sony Screen Gems has two franchises about attractive women who battle monsters, but that is where the comparisons end in my eyes.
Now we’re ready to see how Underworld Awakening fits alongside its peers. There’s been much scrutiny around what basically amounts to a new cast of characters with only Selene as the through-line set years beyond the events of Evolution. Only time will tell if Underworld will continue to be a respectable little genre franchise or if it’s already grown far too long in the tooth. It can only be a good thing that Speedman isn’t back (at least, not to my knowledge), and there are some truly great character actors on hand in number 4 (Charles Dance, anyone?) to keep things interesting. And as long as things are interesting, I’ll keep watching them as long as they keep making them.
Read our Underworld: Awakening review here!
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