February / March 2004

Muddleworld

I was one of those folks who took a pass on the Kate Beckinsale flick Underworld when it premiered last fall. Still, I was happy to see that it did well financially because it was ostensibly a horror picture, and helped contribute to the genre's total domination of late 2003, along with 28 Days Later, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Jeepers Creepers 2, Cabin Fever and Freddy vs. Jason.

Yet my instincts told me that Underworld was probably one flick I could safely avoid in theaters and wait for the DVD release. The trailer highlighted a lovely woman garbed in black leather, guns blazing in both hands - often in slow motion, as well as sharp-fanged vampires, old European architecture and an endlessly gloomy night-scape. Where had I seen those elements before?

Or more accurately, where hadn't I seen them before?

The previews made Underworld look like director Len Wiseman and writer Danny McBride had raided a genre vault and absconded with the best elements of The Crow (1994), Dark City (1998), Blade (1998), The Matrix (1999), Resident Evil (2002) and Blade 2 (2002).

The previews weren't wrong.

I know many people complain that Hollywood these days is bankrupt of a new ideas, but Underworld really takes the cake, proving itself wholly derivative, and ultimately uninteresting. The film's premise is simple, and perhaps even tantalizing, given a little thought, energy and originality. The vampires and Lycans (werewolves) have been fighting a war for generations and now one human named Michael (Felicity's Scott Speedman) holds the key in his very genetic make-up to forging a peace between the clans. But there are still hard-liners in the vampire tribe, bigots as it were, who would rather fight to the death than accept a peace that might threaten their "pure" bloodline. Into this war comes a death-dealer and vampire named Selene (Beckinsale). An avowed hater of Lycans, this beautiful avenger in black leather re-examines her beliefs (and loyalty) as she learns more about the history of the Vampire-Lycan conflict, and her own terrible beginnings.

That actually sounds cool, huh? Some of the advanced press also described Underworld as a supernatural variation of Romeo and Juliet, featuring lovers of opposing clans (Selene and Michael) facing the hostility of their respective (and monstrous) families.

Well, it's no exaggeration to say that this film isn't exactly Shakespeare. Had it adhered to the Romeo and Juliet outline, Underworld would have been a lot better, but the disappointing truth is that Selene and Michael share no love affair at all. In fact, they barely touch, and their big "kiss" is merely a decoy. Even worse, the Shakespeare metaphor doesn't fit because Michael isn't a Lycan anyway - he's a human, so it's not like Selene and Michael are defying long-standing prejudices, braving bigotry, and smashing tradition, all for true love. Instead, the whole love affair angle is tepid at best, non-existent at worst.

Horror movie fans may not care about Shakespeare, but nor will they appreciate the manner in which Underworld treads on long-standing genre traditions. For in Underworld, you see, vampires cast a reflection, have tamed their appetite for blood, and fight not with their pointy little incisors, but hand-guns. The Lycans aren't exactly what you would call werewolves either. They also fight with guns, and can apparently transform from human to beast at any time, whether or not there is a full moon. So really, Underworld has more in common with a mob movie than a monster flick.

Disappointingly, the film doesn't clarify the role of human beings in this dark city universe. Are they merely fodder? Do they know about war? How do they feel about living in a world of perpetual rain and darkness? There are other pertinent questions. Are vampires born as such? Are Lycans? Or do they each bite humans to add them to their ranks? If that is the case, how can there be a pure vampire or Lycan blood-line at all, since everybody is just a bitten (transformed) human being? Why do all the vampires sit around a big mansion lounging in antique furniture? Isn't there something more productive to do? Aren't they at war? There are no answers here, but plenty of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.

I suspect that if Underworld had been shot in an interesting or even competent manner, some of these complaints might be mitigated, but this film is over-edited and deeply confusing in its compositions. For instance, during the final confrontation, one figure, a Lycan revolutionary named Lucian is wounded. As Selene dukes it out with the bad guys, Lucian re-appears to lamely help out, crawling along on the floor to her aid. The only problem is that he is wounded in one sewer-like room and re-appears in another sewer-like chamber that appears some distance away from the first one. So did the wounded man crawl from room to room unnoticed as he was dying? The effect is that his "surprise" re-appearance is laughable instead of shocking.

Also in the final battle, Selene hesitates to kill the villainous leader of the vampires, Viktor, as he battles with Michael. Selene actually stops, sits (or kneels) and does nothing but brood for a good few minutes, so the climactic fight can carry on just feet away. In other words, our protagonist sits this one out so the director may film a neat fight between vampire and uber-vampire/lycan Michael. Then, when Selene finally does leap into the fray, she deals the death blow in one balletic stroke, and it happens so fast you can't even see the sword strike flesh. This shot was actually featured in the commercials too, so some audiences will see it coming.

A lot of the action is confusing. Either the director has no capacity to make the spatial relationships of the characters understandable, or the editor has so badly hacked up his work that the result is indecipherable. Underworld is such a muddle both spatially and story-wise that viewers never understand why anyone is doing anything. At the climax, once Selene has learned that Lucian is actually a good guy, she nonetheless continues shooting the Lycans. Why? They're on her side now! This is one movie that loves the image of guns blazing away, but never stops to figure out who should be shooting at whom.

Beckinsale is lovely to watch in action, but not really much of a compelling screen presence here. Speedman is a very good actor (anyone remember last year's thriller Dark Blue?) but seems confused about the film's plot throughout. Who can blame him? The most disappointing element of Underworld may be that by all rights Michael should be the story's main protagonist. He is the one with the special origin and abilities. He is the one, who, like Neo in The Matrix is a messiah-figure. But some suit in Hollywood apparently decided that all the 19-year old boys out there would more likely go see a film in which the hero was a woman wearing tight-black leather. For all the presence Beckinsale brings to this film, the director should have just shot her in skivvies and called it Underwear. It would have been vastly more rewarding for the target demographic.

Instead of watching Underworld, watch the first ten minutes of Blade, then pop in the DVD of Dark City, then slip into Blade 2 and finish up with The Matrix. The end result will make about as much sense.