Since it’s October, I figured it would be a good idea to review some darker films, primarily on the spooky, horrific, sci-fi-ey or gothic nature. Meaning that I’ll mostly be talking about anything related to monsters or aliens. With the mention of Underworld 5: Blood Wars being released next year, I said to myself “You know what? Lets do this. Lets revisit 1 of my favourite film series – or more specifically, revisiting Underworld 1, 2 and 4, and watching Underworld 3 for the 1st time (It’s a prequel and I felt that I didn’t need to see it to watch Underworld 4). So lets take this opportunity, and the next few weeks, to cover a definition of cult film series.
Set in (at the time) the modern day, somewhere in Eastern Europe (Most likely Hungary or Romania), an ancient war goes on at night when few to nobody are looking – A war between Vampires and Lycans (Werewolves). Our story revolves around a Vampire named Selene (played by Kate Beckinsale), who is part of an offence force known as The Death Dealers, a group of Vampires tasked with hunting down the last of the Lycans and wiping them out. According to their history books, the Lycans were defeated when the most powerful Lycan, Lucian, was killed by the vampire known as Kraven. Or so it seems…until Selene catches onto some interesting details. During the Death Dealer’s scouting phase (Before a huge gun battle in the subway), their photographs indicate that the Lycans were following someone. A human by the name of Michael Corvin, the possible descendent of Alexander Corvinus, the first Immortal. What role does Michael play? You’ll find out if you watch the film.
Now to look under this movie’s world.
Background-wise, Underworld is the very definition of ‘in medias res’ or “In The Middle Of Things”, it has a rich history and lore built into itself with a lot of adjustments to everything we know about Vampires and Werewolves. For instance, Vampires and Werewolves are not supernatural beings, but rather they are the product of a virus that is spread through biting. The Vampires rarely hunt people, because they now drink synthetic/cloned blood from their own production companies (Similar to True Blood in a way). Many of them live in a big mansion were most of them are socialites and politics in a bureaucracy, and also the Vampires have 3 leaders with 1 ruling while the other 2 sleep (In the case of this film’s story, Head-Vampire Amelia is coming to the Vampire Mansion to awaken Markus and pass the role on so she can take a nap for a few centuries).
The Story is…interesting. Because of the absolute ton of lore and backstory that director Len Wiseman pulled together, simplicity occasionally goes out the window. A lot of exposition is presented on top of what’s already going on, while at the same time, both the flow and the events are very Shakespearian. Everybody has a history and an agenda, and there are Vampire politics, and it’s all crammed into the film – which, in cinema, can be easily overlooked due to the flashy visuals, beautiful people (mostly) and surface storytelling, which comes across as focusing mostly on Selene and Michael as part of a Romeo and Juliet story archetype (She’s a vampire and he’s…not a vampire. Sounds familiar, but trust me, this is much, much better. Kate Beckinsale doesn’t need to sparkle).
The Characters are actually very good. As I mentioned before, everyone has backstories and agendas. Kate Beckinsale as Selene has developed a cult status from how she looks and how she proceeds with her actions. The woman is a complete bad-ass, while possessing an appeal that makes her a timeless crush. To this day, I can’t imagine anybody playing the character, which is why I’m happy when she returns for sequels. Michael Corvin, much like Selene, is a figure of tragedy – and despite his phenomenal potential in the eyes of the werewolves, he just wants to run away and not be hurt again. Lucian has a lot of complications that I will not mention in order to avoid spoilers, Viktor is impressive and also complicated, and Kraven is good as a dislikable individual.
The Acting is perhaps a bit mixed. Kate Beckinsale as Selene, Bill Nighy as Viktor and Michael Sheen as Lucian were great and easily the best parts in the film. Scott Speedman as Michael Corvin was good, as were nearly everybody else, but in truth, I could see others in the roles. Shane Brolly as Kraven certainly had the look (Angry Northern Irish Trent Reznor), but he did sound like a Northern Irishman imitating an englishman, and showed little outside of being an angry and frustrated character in every scene he appears in. To put it simply, his default setting was “Entitled Male-Bitch”, a step in the Viserys Targaryen direction.
The Music by Paul Haslinger is memorable and oddly sophisticated in places, ranging from haunting piano scores to eery techno mystery, to more aggressive themes. Piano scores (with orchestras) that stick out include “Eternity and a Day” which is a beautiful piano piece that enters an orchestrated sound of the high in transition, followed by the nervousness of the great unknown ahead. As well as “Keep watch over the night” that can be described as mixing Goth into quiet adventure. It blends beautifully with the film’s visuals. As for the “Official soundtrack”, most, if not all of it, does not appear in the film. The main 1 that can be heard is “Coward” by Renholder, which is a cover a song by Black Light Burns (an industrial band fronted by Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland). It fits the film perfectly and is a head-banging way to end it.
The presentation of Underworld walks the thin line of being a product of its time and an embodiment of Gothic cool. Keeping in mind that between 1998 and 2004, leather trench coats, leather trousers and shiny shirts meant you were the coolest cat in the room (something I look forward to see making a come back). It was during a time when The Matrix was white hot and both Buffy The Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel were in production.
The Cinematography’s actually very good. Stylish and at times inspired. Aspects of Spaghetti Westerns come to mind, and the presentation of the surprises within the action were really well shown (Such as a very particular escape-route that Selene creates).
The CGI has become dated by today’s standards, but this is more due to the upscale from DVD to Blu-Ray. Blu-Ray brought out the scenes with evident green screen, which looked better on DVD. Also the presentations of environment destruction and transformations have lost some of their realism with the resolution increase. But at the same time, it’s still as good, if not better than a lot of “Terribly Good” Syfy movies. Also, they did use actual monster make-up for the werewolves. When you compare them to the CGI werewolf that appeared in a Kate Beckinsale film after this 1, Van Helsing, you learn to really appreciate good practical effects.
Would I recommend Underworld? Yes, but it depends on who you are and what you’re in the mood for. If you first saw this as a teenager (like I was) and were watching it again later in life, you’ll find that it’s like watching a different film. On the surface, it’s presented as a hip and cool Vampire/Werewolf movie from 2003 that tells a simple story, and yet it flows with an odd rhythm. But later on, you begin to pay attention to all the details and realise that there is a deep story there. How well this story was executed will depend on you, because the blend between the sophisticated and “the cool” is at times a bit clunky. When you’re younger it’s an easier watch, but when you’re older it becomes a more complicated viewing and perhaps not for relaxing. I still enjoyed it. But I enjoyed it differently. It was a more challenging film than I remember.
Practical Effects: ****1/4
CGI: *** (****1/4 in 2003)