Lakeshore Entertainment, Screen Gems
|Directed by: Len Wiseman
||Running Time: 121min
Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Michael Sheen, Shane Brolly, Bill Nighy|
The reasons to see Underworld on display right from the get go: modern era, gothic undertones, and Kate Beckinsale in a sexy outfit.
If you really want to get technical, Underworld is an action/superhero hybrid film that uses classical monsters as the catalyst for superhuman powers and, yes, they also have guns.
I could complain how utterly useless the other vampires in Underworld are, but what’s the point? Every character and machination of the plot exists to get something cool on screen. That’s its thesis, it’s raison d’être. And, in that regard, it succeeds.
Even in 2003, tinting the frame wasn’t anything new, but it hadn’t yet become the painfully overused gimmick that it is today.
Review by Jay Wilson
There’s a critical moment in Underworld that serves as a great metaphor for the entire film. The vampiric heroine, Selene, finds herself trapped in a corridor with a pack of lycans (werewolves) racing forward to tear her limb from limb. Armed with two automatic pistols, she fires at the advancing beasts and decides the bullets aren’t doing enough damage; so she aims at the floor, shoots in a circle around her until it collapses, and rides the debris down to the floor beneath like a sudden violent make-shift elevator. One can either note that this plan is a perfect cocktail of insanity and stupidity or accept it on the premise that “it looks cool.”
And that, dear reader, is Underworld in a nutshell.
Vampires serve as an excuse to show Kate Beckinsale in skin-tight shiny black outfits making impossible leaps from heights that would kill a mere mortal. Werewolves provide an excuse to tap into creature effects and show large muscular men topless. And the war between the two races paves the way for director Len Wiseman to show guns shooting specialty bullets, physics-defying car chases, and over the top fight scenes. There might be supernatural monsters in this flick, but it’s an undisciplined action movie at its core.
I use the word undisciplined for a number of reasons. During the opening gun battle, a vampire tackles a werewolf (still in human form) off a subway train. Isolated from human onlookers, they hiss and snarl at each other, and not even ten minutes in to this two-hour adventure the werewolf changes into his beast form. So much for anticipation. A better film would have waited and built up to it.
Later on, we see this coven of vampires live in a gated mansion, and way too much of the plot involves Selene going out to various action set pieces and coming back again—driving up the same driveway, pushing through the same doors, and walking through the same foyer with aristocratic vampires engaging in a party that’s apparently been going on since the Victorian era. Once the next obligatory plot point has been hit, she’s sneaking off to another battle, and the cycle continues. Given the arsenal, the technology, and the capital at their disposal, you’d think the vampires could afford more than one place. Although, you do have to admire the economy of having a one-stop base for all the coven’s needs; however, don’t these immortals ever get bored of their surroundings?
And poor Scott Speedman who gets second billing next to Kate Becknsale. He plays the role of a macguffin. Vampires and lycans chase him inbetween long scenes where they explain why they’re chasing him—something about Michael Corvin (Speedman) being the descendant of the Corvinus clan from which vampires and werewolves originate. Through Michael, the lycans hope to create a super-hybrid, bringing their long war with the vampires to an end. And I know this should not bother me, but given the plagues and wars that have ravaged populations, given the tendency of women in western cultures to abandon their maiden names upon marriage, and given people’s tendency to relocate and then change their names to fit their new homeland, I can’t help but observe that a descendant of Corvinus is just as likely to be named Bob Smith fourteen plus centuries later. It’s just a bloody name at this point. I don’t know why, but of all the absurdities, that’s the one of which I can’t let go.
I like how Underworld takes a page out of Batman with nifty gadgets or, in this case, custom bullets designed to kill supernatural creatures.
I also like the primitive lab with the flasks, beakers, and test tubes. It gives the movie just a touch of a Frankenstein.
What a deal? Become an immortal and automatically gain the ability to fight like a beast and land safely like a pro regardless of what heights you fall from! Call now while supplies last!
Now, I tease and nitpick Underworld because its faults and lapses in logic don’t cripple the movie. I bring them up only because they act as amusing speed bumps which prevent Underworld from going full throttle into action movie greatness. But I hasten to add that many of the best action vehicles commit the same sins (though, rarely all at the same time like Underworld.) And for the most part, they don’t take me out of the movie. For the most part, Underworld delivers what it promises—a stylish action thriller with guns blazing and supernatural characters performing superhuman feats. There is one part of Underworld that does, however, irritate the living hell out of me, and that is the flashbacks. Not just flashbacks, but incoherent montages with heavy drunken-like distortions that grotesquely warp the on screen images. You see, a vampire or lycan transfers their memories to their victims when they bite, hence the heavy handed disjointed dreamlike effects. I’m fine with the intention, and maybe it would have worked with proper restraint. But in a movie that felt the need to show the werewolf transform in the opening ten minutes ... it gets old really fast and keeps coming back.
Anyway, flashbacks aside, I really do like Underworld for its technological twist on these monsters from gothic fantasy. And strangely enough, I like the movie most when it’s not indulging in the obvious vampire/werewolf traits. Or I guess to be more specific: when it’s not indulging in useless vampire/werewolf traits. I’d rather see Selene lift a grown man up by his throat with one hand (which she does) than see her crawl on the ceiling, bare her fangs, and hiss (which she does not do, thank God.) While in human form, Lucian (the leader of the lycans) gets hit by a car, flies high in the air, and lands on his feet unscathed. I’ll take that over the obligatory werewolf transformation any day. Maybe it’s because in all cinema not a single werewolf effect has ever impressed me. But nevermind.
An immeasurable amount of Underworld’s charm comes from its cast overcoming the script’s shortcomings which are so easy to nitpick (why do the vampires just stand around and let the lycans transform instead of, you know, emptying entire clips into them? Nevermind.) Kate Beckinsale, of course, plays the lead protagonist, Selene, and has the thankless job of giving her character a sense of conviction. Yes, she looks great in fetish wear designed to worship the female curves, but no matter how attractive an actress may be she can’t carry a performance on looks alone. Selene is a no-nonsense badass out for lycan blood who stumbles upon a conspiracy that threatens her coven’s survival, and her toughness is believably juggled with the emotional vulnerability in discovering damning revelations—revelations that could force her to betray her beloved surrogate father, Viktor.
As if the lightning fast montage-on-speed editing wasn’t obvious enough, as if the sudden change to sepia (through the blue tint) didn’t make it clear enough, these transferred memories get post-production overkill to drive home the point.
I do love the idea of the vampire elders hibernating for centuries, requiring rejuvenation upon awakening. It provides an interesting progression of effects, and better yet, that’s Bill Nighy who can act through makeup like no one else can.
Kate Beckinsale gives an underrated performance, convincing us Selene is, indeed, a badass ... but with camera angles like this people tend to see only one thing.
Michael Sheen is perhaps the most fascinating and inspiring choice for Lucian. The Underworld lycans are depicted as the underclass, brutish thugs that transform into bigger and meaner brutish thugs. But Sheen, while not a monster of a man, has an aura of formal theater about him, a sense of grandiose charisma and sophistication which makes his presence larger than his physical frame and allows him to lead this “pack of rabid dogs.” That and he doesn’t have to be the biggest lycan to rule; he just has to be the meanest. And when special effects can show Lucian expelling silver bullets from his body by force of will alone, he pretty much has that title locked up. Furthermore, Sheen lends credibility to the backstory of the lycans serving as the vampires’ daylight guardians centuries ago, for clearly their aristocratic snobbery has rubbed off on him. Just listen to the condescension and disgust in his voice when he comments to his vampiric co-conspirator, “I guess it never occurred to you that you might actually have to bleed to pull off your little coup.”
And lastly, Underworld never truly comes alive until Bill Nighy enters the picture as the vampire elder, Viktor. There’s a fine line between overacting and grandeur, and Nighy walks dangerously close to disaster. But there’s an overabundance of flat, stately, and brooding “elder” characters in cinema, and even Underworld itself has no shortage of serious characters. So I found Nighy’s very animated performance rather refreshing, especially given his character’s age and weakened state upon first waking up after a century of slumber. But the key is even though he dismisses the lame excuse of his underlings with a humorous over-the-top head jerk, it doesn’t undermine his viciousness later on when he snaps the neck of a lycan with his bare hands. When you’re the baddest vampire around, you can react as dramatically as you damn well please.