I had no idea when I first wrote about Underworld during a stint as movie reviewer for Uptown Magazine that the movie would spawn a four-movie franchise, the latest of which, Underworld: Awakening, hit theatres in March this year.
I’m afraid I never got past the sequel. This first instalment had its moments (few and far between) but the second, despite Derek Jacobi doing his best Hunt For Red October riff as a sub captain hunting paranormals (if you’re saying “huh?” I say: exactly), was a hot mess. And that’s kind of unfair to words denoting temperature and chaos.
Nevertheless, here’s a blissfully sequel-unaware review of the franchise opener, which I still agree with.
Fangs for coming out
Underworld long on style, short on substance, plot, character
Reviewed by David Jón Fuller
Ah, Matrix, what hath ye wrought? A template for fantasy action movies to follow, just as Die Hard begat the blockbusters of the nineties. Now, everything must feature slow/stop/fast motion photography, wire-fu, and lots of guns. Underworld, a fantasy-horror blend, is so submerged by style that it rarely finds its paws.
The premise is simple: vampires and werewolves have been warring for centuries. With the lupine set nearly wiped out, vampires like Selene (Kate Beckinsale), whose job it is to hunt them down, are finally out of a job.
That’s as much as director and co-writer Len Wiseman gives the audience to go on for a long time. Far more interesting, apparently, are the neo-Victorian stylings of the vampires headed up by Kraven (Shane Brolly) and the rabid antics of the werewolves, led by Lucian (Michael Sheen). Somehow mixed up in their attempts at mutual genocide is Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), a supposedly normal human.
Aside from a few clever twists, we’re treated to interminable shootouts between the two sides as each tries to get to Michael first. The clever bit is that the werewolves use ammunition irradiated by ultraviolet light — ie., sunlight — and the vampires respond by formulating rounds filled with silver nitrate.
The other clever bit is that the werewolves are called “lycans,” short for “lycanthrope.” Unfortunately it’s homonymous with “lichen,” and the abbreviation is never explained. If you don’t know your folklore, it’s going to sound as though the vampires really hate those fungoid symbiotes.
Long after Wiseman establishes that Kate Beckinsale looks absolutely smashing in black leather, spandex and/or PVC, the audience finally finds out what makes Michael so special. The lycans believe him capable of holding both lycanthropic and vampiric pathogens. To complicate things, Selene falls in love with Michael, and Kraven orders her to leave him alone .
What could have an engaging movie falls flat thanks to shoddy dialogue and embarassing acting. Brolly’s Kraven is hardly memorable — he’s about as menacing as Elmer Fudd.
No better are the brutish lycans. An exception is Sheen as Lucian. His slithering charisma seems both passionate and bloodthirsty, and unlike most of the other characters, he has a real reason to hate his enemies.
Selene isn’t so lucky. When Michael asks her why the two sides keep fighting, she brushes him off with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” explanation. (Wiseman’s script, co-written byDanny McBride and Kevin Grevioux, has an excellent explanation — but it is withheld far too long.)
And the erudition implied by ornate mansions and centuries of immortality is severely undermined when most of the vampires seem to spout lines like, “Leave us. Now!” Maybe Kraven et al. should have read more … Shakespeare, Milton, even “Increase Your Word Power” in Reader’s Digest might have helped.
Ultimately, Underworld has too many subplots to make one coherent story. Despite occasional hints of originality, it looks much better than it actually is. Good enough to rent on Hallowe’en, maybe, but otherwise … it just plain bites.
- Rating: C-
Originally published in Uptown Magazine, September 18, 2003.
UPDATE: Read Craig J. Clark’s review of the series’ latest instalment, Underworld: Awakening at Werewolf News.
- Horror In Our Time: Underworld: Awakening (2012) (mibreviews.com)
- Kate Beckinsale: ‘Underworld’ role was a ‘personal experiment’ (herocomplex.latimes.com)