Underworld: Awakening (2012)
Directed by Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein
After giving fans a Kate Beckinsale-less prequel with 2009's Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, Selene is back and better than ever for Underworld: Awakening, which has the Death Dealer fighting against both Lycans and a powerful corporation named Antigen whose primary focus is eradicating the world of the non-human "plague" by creating a cure for the otherworldly creatures.
At the start of the flick, we find out that once the humans discovered vampires and werewolves living amongst them, a "purge" was ordered, and both species were driven to the brink of extinction. During the genocide Selene was captured by Antigen and held in a cryogenic tank for 12 years while the company experimented on the unsuspecting vampire warrior.
Of course, if Selene stayed frozen, we wouldn't have a fourth movie so she makes it out of Antigen (with her trademark skintight suit intact) and is introduced to a shocking new world where she no longer has only werewolves to contend with but the human race as well. There are a few more shocks and surprises in store for Selene as the story continues in Awakening, but as someone who's a firm believer in not posting review spoilers, all I will say is that fans of the franchise will be happy with what directors Märlind & Stein have cooked up here under the guidance of Underworld co-creator Len Wiseman, who's on board Awakening as both a producer and story writer.
For those of you out there who aren’t really fans of the Underworld franchise, Awakening most likely won't do much to change your mind on the series: It seems like it was made with the fans of the series in mind who have been waiting for Selene's return to the big screen after almost a six-year absence and does a fantastic job of getting back to the original story that drew us in almost 10 years ago.
A lot of detractors have always had issues with the amount of exposition that seems to get jam-packed into the Underworld movies, which is a fair assessment. But as a fan, I've always enjoyed the rich history that Wiseman, Kevin Grevioux and Danny McBride took the time to establish with their story as opposed to a franchise like Resident Evil (a series Underworld finds itself compared to a lot) that is purely action-driven; at least the Underworld movies try to give audiences characters they can care about, which is a rarity in the action genre these days.
There's no doubt that Awakening is the film that has finally gotten the Underworld narrative vs. asskicking formula almost down pat- the film does offer up a lot of exposition and story for us, but the film never lags and the action itself this time around feels far more brutal and violent than its predecessors. Clearly, Märlind & Stein were heartily embracing their R rating as they've got a few gore-filled tricks up their sleeves that are wickedly fun to experience in 3D.
The performances in Underworld: Awakening were far better than I was expecting going into the fourth installment; Beckinsale seems like she's finally owning the character of Selene and delivers her most mature work in the series. Selene's never been the deepest of characters, and while she certainly doesn't get all "lovey-dovey" on us for the fourth film, I was surprised by the amount of emotion Beckinsale gave to the role in just a few key scenes, finally giving the talented actress more to do than slaughtering Lycans and acting insolently against her elders.
Of course, fans show up to watch Beckinsale's fight scenes, and what we get in Awakening is hands down some of the best fight choreography work of the entire franchise. Beckinsale herself finally seems more comfortable with her moves, and she's got some pretty huge adversaries to take down in the fourth film, making Selene's fights some truly awesome stuff to behold on the big screen (if you dig that sort of thing).
Michael Ealy, who plays a human cop and unlikely ally of Selene, is one of my favorite guys that pops up a lot in non-genre films these days, and he's got some great chemistry playing off of Beckinsale's cool and calculated Selene. Brilliant character actor Rea plays the main bad guy working behind the scenes at Antigen and adds a level of eloquence to Awakening that had been sort of lacking in previous Underworld entries. I would love to see him return (not a spoiler, folks; Bill Nighy returned to part three after being beheaded so anything's possible; whether Rea lives or dies, you'll have to see for yourself) in future installments as he does a fantastic job with his portrayal of an evil corporate scientist who keeps pushing his research for a cure way too far.
In terms of the look and feel of Underworld: Awakening, of course the color blue is still very much focal color of this franchise, and the color palette looks surprisingly great in 3D. With the Underworld films having such a dark aesthetic to them, that was a big concern for me going into the fourth chapter as to whether or not the 3D would be able to pop as well with a movie that is mostly blue and black hued. The directing duo of Märlind & Stein clearly knew this would be somewhat of an issue and incorporate a lot of scenes that have a somewhat "traditional" and unsaturated look to them, keeping a nice balance of the blue tones we've come to expect and giving fans also a bit of a "new look" for the Underworld franchise.
The 3D itself is pretty great (at least far better than Shark Night 3D, which was the last flick I saw in that format). It plays subtly when needed and also features a few "in your face" moments, too, which is always fun. It has a good blend of both 3D approaches, and if you can swing the extra few bucks, Underworld: Awakening is definitely a lot of fun to enjoy in 3D. For those of you over the 3D gimmick, I'm sure the movie will look great when presented in 2D too.
The digital effects (something I've always found to be a bit distracting about the Underworld films) this time around are far better than what we've experienced previously in the series. While I would have loved to see more practical effects being used in Awakening, practical werewolves are just not going to happen in an Underworld movie, and as a fan, you either come to terms with it or you don't. As someone who has come to terms with it, the beasties this time around look far less cartoonish, and one creature in particular (no spoilers!) is quite the fearsome sight to behold.
As a fan of the franchise, Underworld: Awakening feels like the movie I've been waiting for ever since the first one was released in 2003. Beckinsale has never been better, the story and action finally blends together a bit more smoothly, and incorporating humans into the Vampire/Lycan war breathes a new life into the series. Awakening won't do much for the detractors, but for fans- this is the Underworld sequel we've all been patiently waiting to see for almost six years now, and hopefully Screen Gems won't keep waiting another half-dozen years for the next chapter in Selene's journey.
3 1/2 out of 5