Werewolf Wednesday: Underworld

Underworld (2003 film)

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 Mi chael 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.

6 thoughts on “Werewolf Wednesday: Underworld

  1. Actually, I kind of liked the movie. I never even thought of “lichens” though… I’ve just played too much D&D in my time. And I think Selene, if I remember correctly, eventually did give a reason for hating lycans, although it turned out to be misguided.

    • I admit, the “lichens” thing might be a result my of spending lots of time in the Canadian Shield growing up — I’d never heard “lycanthrope” abbreviated that way then and at the time I don;’t think it was that common. Now, of course, the paranormal market has grown so huge, it’s probably not strange anymore.
      I think I really wanted to like this movie — you could tell the filmmakers were really trying to do something with it, but they buried what was unique about it under tons of flash and sizzle that went nowhere.
      Much better, with a sort-of similar concept, was Night Watch — loved that movie, and the book as well.

  2. The thing between vamps & werewolves goes back a lot further than Underworld, but I think they were the first to really put it front and centre on the big screen. I do have a soft spot for Underworld, but when it comes to this franchise, stick to the odd numbers. 1 & 3 are good – 2 & 4 are a waste of time.

    2 doesn’t make sense, and even pisses on a lot of its own mythology laid out in the first film. The 4th one, well… I can hear the bottom of the barrel being scraped from here.

    Its camp and stylized, and thankfully doesn’t take its self too seriously. Bill Nighy and (of course 😉 ) Michael Sheen make it worth while watching. Another point in Mr Sheen’s favour, is that although the press always talk about his more high-brow stuff, like Frost Nixon, or The Queen – he freely admits he prefers doing stuff like Underworld or Tron.

    • Prior to this, the main vamps-vs-werewolves meme I was aware of was the Vampire: The Masquerade and related Werewolf game, which were so huge in the 1990s.
      I’ll take your note and give No. 3 a try. Isn’t Sheen in that one? 🙂 He was great in Tron, as well — another movie that looked fantastic but left me a bit cold.

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