Underworld: Not Big, Not Clever, Not Even Once

by Arthur B

These would be the best World of Darkness movies ever if White Wolf had actually been involved in the production process.
So I've covered the third and fourth Underworld movies here, but I never got around to reviewing the first two. Believe it or not there's a fifth film being filmed in Prague this month and pencilled in for release about a year from now, and Len Wiseman talking about a sixth movie and a TV series in the pipeline, so I may as well take this mad October article marathon as a chance to catch up.


In a poorly-specified Eastern European city occupied mostly by Americans, in a world seen through a blue filter, Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is a Death-Dealer, a vampire tasked with hunting down and destroying Lycans - the werewoofles who are the vampires' sworn enemies. The Lycans are supposed to be on their last legs, but Selene is perturbed when a group of Lycans she and her short-lived partner Rigel (Sandor Bolla) ambush shoot back with highly-advanced ultraviolet ammunition. Moreover…


Oh, you're confused about the ultraviolet ammunition? Well, it's ammunition filled with a fluid which has been irradiated with ultraviolet light, so the light dissolves in the fluid and destroys vampires when they're shot with it as sure as if they were exposed to sunlight. Not a fluorescent liquid which emits UV light when it's struck by X-rays or gamma rays or more extreme UV rays something, just as most fluorescent liquids emit visible light when struck by ultraviolet light, mind - the dialogue in the movie makes it very clear it's the former. Of course, the vampires who are examining the ammunition at the time are staring right at it whilst it's supposedly emitting vampire-killing UV radiation, but sssh, quiet, just let it go. You're going to have to deal with much greater leaps of logic if you're going to sit through an Underworld movie to the end.

Where was I? Oh yes, Selene and whatshisface ambush some Lycans and Rigel gets shot to shit with ultraviolet rounds. That's not the only thing that's worrying Selene, though: pursuing the killers, she finds evidence that there's an absolutely crazy number of werewoofles amassing in the sewers, and the woofles seemed to be stalking a random mouth-breathing trainee doctor called Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman). On top of that, vampire Nice Guy Kraven (Shane Brolly) is more interested in trying to get Selene to act like she's his girlfriend by snarling at her than actually looking into any of this shit. As Selene's investigations progress, Michael ends up being nommed on by vampire and werewoofle alike, making him an abomination with the powers of both groups and the weaknesses of neither. Will awakening Viktor (Bill Nighy) from his centuries-long sleep to try and sort things out help derail the woofle conspiracy, and what secrets from Selene's past will emerge as the investigation progresses?

Underworld was infamously the subject of a lawsuit by White Wolf which alleged copyright infringement, White Wolf having previously put out a World of Darkness novel about a vampire who gets involved with a vampire-werewoofle abomination. An out-of-court settlement was reached, which might be an admission of some sort by the producers or (more likely) just consisted of a payoff to make White Wolf go away because it's just cheaper to do that than go through a full-blown trial.

Regardless of the truth behind it, though, in many respects Underworld feels an awful lot like some random 17 year old's Vampire: the Masquerade campaign that's somehow made it onto the big screen. Director Len Wiseman created the story in conjunction with scriptwriter Danny McBride (who had a cameo role as Death-Dealer hit squad member Mason) and Kevin Grevioux (who plays Lucian's second-in-command Raze), and to be honest the whole thing feels like walking into the middle of a Vampire LARP refereed by the three of them and played by the cast, right down to not really knowing what's going on and nobody actually having any interest in explaining it to you. For instance, there's some interesting stuff in there about the upcoming awakening of the vampire elders which the film never really gets into that deeply because Selene is mostly disinterested in clan politics (marking Kate as a veteran Vampire player who knows better than to get involved in that shit). Rarely has an action film flirted so much with having a rich backstory and mythology and done so much to obscure all that and make it difficult to follow.

This kicks off right from the beginning; the opening narration by Selene is weirdly contradictory, because she talks about how the war between vampires and woofles had ground to a halt with the death of boss woof Lucian (Michael Sheen), but then talks about how she and her colleagues have been constantly taking down woofles for the following 6 centuries. (Even though vampires are immortal, 6 centuries are a long time for a vampire in almost any fictional cosmology, and specifically represents at least three-quarters of the lifespan of the world's oldest vampires in this one.) In retrospect, the script could have really done with another pass, preferably by someone who wasn't in on the series mythology to see if the script actually did a decent job of filling in the audience.

The confusion extends to the special effects, right down to the way the vampires' eyes occasionally turn icy-blue. The movie is immensely inconsistent about what this means and when it happens. We first see it when Selene is cold-bloodedly executing a mortally wounded woofle and it pops up again sporadically throughout the film, but we never know what it's meant to convey. Emotional excitement? Bloodlust? Invoking vampire powers? It's never clear, and to make it worse a bunch of vampire characters never exhibit this, possibly because getting special contact lenses for all the extras would have broken the budget or something.

Another thing the movie has in common with Vampire: the Masquerade is that, even though neither of them really make much sense, there's plenty of action and they always look cool, even though they do borrow a lot from a bunch of influences. For instance, the first setpiece is a massive vampire-woofle shootout in a train station which I think is meant to be reminiscent of lobby scene in Matrix (right down to the utter disregard for lives of bystanders shown), and the final fight between Selene and the last boss is won by Selene breaking out some honest to goodness wire-fu which she hadn't previously shown any capacity to accomplish.

This is all as silly as you'd expect, but it's fun to watch. The Death-Dealers have this "secret police in trenchcoat" aesthetic going on which contrasts nicely with the way the Lycans all dress like squatters (in keeping with their whole "stray dog" deal), and those aspects of the aesthetic make sense, but the whole latex catsuits and leather corsets deal that Kate and the other female Death-Dealers we see in the background wear instead of the body armour the male Death-Dealers tend to go for seems to be solely for eye-candy purposes. (Those who prefer dudes get treated to a lot of shirtlessness from Scott Speedman and several of the other werewoofles.)

Of course, as far as eye candy goes, a lot of shots boil down to Len Wiseman ogling Kate Beckinsale and taking us along with him for the ride. In particular, Len has this big thing for shots where Selene is bursting through doors dramatically and the camera follows along getting a good shot of Kate from behind as she does so. When you combine this angle with Kate's performance and Kate's costume, what you end up with is a shot which shows Selene being all tough and confrontational and determined but at the same time makes absolutely sure to showcase her shiny rubber bum in a good light. It's male gaze-y as fuck, though given that three entire movies in this series have sustained themselves in a combination of butt shots and gunfights I guess you can't say Len Wiseman doesn't know where the money is.

Honestly, the movie really sinks or swims based on how you feel about Kate's performance. If you want to watch Kate Beckinsale in fetishwear that accentuates her butt, you're covered. If you want to watch her dual-wielding pistols or doing absurd martial arts, you're covered. If you want her to be a take-charge take-no-shit action heroine in a movie where the male lead is firmly kept as her sidekick and is never allowed to upstage her, you're covered. If you want all three of those things at once, then this is going to be one of your favourite movie series*, despite all your reason and best judgement dictating otherwise. It's tough going and I'm just glad I have a support group of fellow fans-despite-themselves I can share my unacceptable crimes against good taste with.

* The exception here would be the third one, which makes the blunder of setting the story in an era before Kate's character, catsuits, and guns were part of the equation, eliminating 90% of what makes the other three movies work.

Underworld Evolution

This one was apparently written at the same time as Underworld, until the studios pointed out that the script was way too long so Wiseman and his co-creators needed to split the script in half, so it's perhaps no surprise that this movie yet again throws you in at the deep end plot-wise. You only get a scant opening crawl before we flash back to 1202 AD to examine the roots of the woofle-vampire conflict (a tale which you'd have thought would have been told in the original movie, except it doesn't really become plot-relevant until now). Given how expensive this sequence must have been, it's not surprising that they eventually made Rise of the Lycans, despite the fact that the plot of that was more or less laid out in the first movie and didn't really need a retelling; it's obvious that Len Wiseman really, really digs the idea of a medieval werewoofles-vs-vampires showdown and this scene wasn't enough to slake his thirst.

Incidentally, and purely coincidentally, alongside Vampire: the Masquerade White Wolf published a very popular line called Vampire: the Dark Ages, which eschewed the modern day setting of Masquerade to instead focus on Europe in the early 13th Century, the exact time period that this flashback takes place in. Just saying.

So, like I said this movie largely hinges on the vampire and werewoofle origin story; Markus (Tony Curran) and William (Brian Steele), sons of Alexander Corvinus (Sir Derek Jacobi), inherit the strange blood-bourne factor that conveys immortality their father possesses; however, Markus was bitten by a bat and became a vampire, and William was bitten by a woofle and became a werewoofle. During the flashback it's established that Markus is incredibly loyal to his brother, almost beyond the point of reason, and refuses to acknowledge the fact that William spends most of his time as a frothing mad beast leaving carnage everywhere he goes.

Shit hits the fan in the immediate wake of the first movie; after Selene kills Viktor, the cowardly and treacherous Kraven (clue was in the name, in retrospect) returns to the vampire clan's mansion hideout in order to eliminate Markus before he awakens, removing the last remaining threat to his power and establishing himself as sole surviving master of vampirekind. However, having been accidentally bled on by a woofle during the end of the previous film, Marcus is already awake and has become a vampire-werewolf hybrid like Michael - and with Viktor gone, the main thing stopping him recovering his brother and joining forces with him in a good old-fashioned world domination attempt, having decided over the centuries that this whole "contain William and try to stop him killing everyone he sees" deal just isn't working out. The secret to William's location is buried deep in Selene's past - and as a result, she and Michael end up caught in a race to track down Marcus and stop him releasing William - or, failing that, taking down both the brothers at once. But what protection can wire-fu, makeup effects and latex catsuits offer against the brothers Corvinus, who are respectively the most ancient and radically warped vamp-woofle and werewoofle in existence?

If you're one of us poor, lost souls who can't get enough of this shit, you'll watch Underworld Evolution anyway. Those whose enjoyment of the first film was more moderate might want to watch Evolution for reasons of simple closure - there's heaps of stuff in the first movie which exists only to set up plot strands that actually come to fruition here, for starters. Certainly, this isn't a film which works well on a standalone level, though arguably that's equally true of the first one, considering how bad it is at explaining, well, anything.

Early on there's a plot point where Michael isn't adjusting brilliantly to being a monster and is to a large extent in denial of it, getting into the sort of trouble you get into when you starve yourself of blood enough that you end up going into frenzy but are simultaneously too shocked by the transformations happening to you to actually make the most out of said frenzy. This is the last actual bit of actual characterisation Michael gets for this movie, or for the rest of the series to date for that matter; for the rest of the movie (and to a large extent in this bit, come to think of it) he mostly exists as a source of motivation for Selene, much as women end up being sources of motivation for men in loads of action movies - Selene goes gunning after Marcus in order to seek brutal revenge for the (apparent) killing of Michael, just as generations of action movie heroes have been motivated by the fridging of their squeezes.

Frankly, the sidelining of Michael is 100% the right call; in both the Underworld movies Scott Speedman appears in, he has this appalling habit of having his mouth hanging open all the time and whenever he thinks for himself it ends up just derailing things; he's most effective when he follows Selene around, doesn't talk, and provides backup in fights. He even adds little to the romance subplot; there's a really awkward sex scene at the end of the first act where based on their pelvis positioning it looks like Michael is gently fucking Selene's bellybutton.

Beyond this, Underworld Evolution pretty much offers up more of the same as the previous movie. Len's gawping at Kate through the camera and inviting us to join him, his commitment to the blue filter, the inconsistent use of contact lenses, and the weird Anglo-American-Hungarian location of the series is unwavering, and just like the previous movie the plot is contrived in such a way that it all ends with a big fight in a waterlogged dungeon. The fight sequences are a bit better, but aside from that if you weren't sold on the first film this won't win you over and you'd probably stay away unless you become infected with Underworld fan syndrome and have to join my support group.

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Comments (go to latest)
http://baeraad.livejournal.com/ at 13:46 on 2015-11-25
Aw, it's actually kind of sad that you feel the need to apologise so much for liking these movies. Sure they're stupid - deeply, shamelessly, unironically stupid - but where is it written that we only have to like things that are smart? Embrace the glorious cheesiness, man! Or if you can't do that, at least embrace the kickass heroine dragging a pretty and soulful but mostly useless male love interest around!
Arthur B at 22:09 on 2015-11-25
I'm not ashamed of embracing the cheesiness, I'm ashamed of the extent to which I've done it. ;)
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