/ March 2004
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.