Underworld: Bit Awkward

by Arthur B

The fifth Underworld movie is a bit of a mess, even by the series' own dodgy standards.
For this fifth Underworld movie director Anna Foerster and script-wrangler Cory Goodman decide that continuity can go take a hike. It seems like the bits of the previous movies they liked the best were the parts involving high-powered vampire politics, since in this movie they go out of their way to include both an extensive modern vampire coven based out of a high-tech manor house like in the first movie and an ancient castle where the vampires basically dress like elves like in the prequel, with most of the action happening in one or the other of these locations.

Of course, in Awakening we were told that the human authorities had found out about the existence of vampires and werewoofles and had instituted an almighty pogrom against both, and it’s made very clear in that that the vampires have suffered the worst of this - the woofles having entered a deal with the authorities whilst the vampires have been reduced to living in tiny remnants in forgotten places. There’s certainly no scope in that setting for the vampires to be operating out of a huge, fortified mansion in a major city like they do here, so Foerster and Goodman simply seem to have decided to ignore the whole collapse-of-the-Masquerade plot detail, which is not mentioned at all in the movie, not even in the opening narration.

(As well as wanting to revert to the intricate vampire politics of the first film - or, at least, the appearance of intricate vampire politics that the first film tried to create the illusion of - Foerster and Goodman also seem to have followed the lead of the first movie when it comes to the woofles, who once again dress like homeless people and middle class approximations thereof and live in out-of-the-way places. In this case, they are hanging out in a rather cool disused railway yard, and seem a far cry from the elite corporate woofles of Awakening. Then again, the collapse of the corporate conspiracy at the end of Awakening could have believably driven the woofles back to the margins of society, so that feels like less of an overt retcon.)

That opening narration extends into the opening action scene, which is so chopped up and edited that it feels like the edited highlights of a much longer sequence, just as the preceding footage constitutes the edited highlights of the earlier movies. The film’s plot is sufficiently messy and convoluted even in this final form that it feels like it’s gone through a range of different rewrites, never quite reaching the point where it worked the way it was intended to.

So, our premise: Kate Beckinsale once again returns as Selene, a vampire warrior who wears latex catsuits and leather corsets and big stompy boots all day every day, because a) vampires in this universe always dress like they’re at a fantasy LARP or a goth club or a fetish party or some combination thereof and b) Kate Beckinsale’s butt in skin-tight rubber is one of the main selling points of these movies. Foerster’s direction isn’t quite as butt-tasticly male gazey as previous directors’ offerings - there’s no equivalent to the “crawling along behind Kate focusing on her butt as she strides through doors purposefully” shot from Underworld, or the “crawling along behind Kate focusing on her butt as she wriggles down an air vent” shot from Awakening - but you will still be watching Kate Beckinsale in fetish goth mode for most of the movie, though by this point you should really be expecting that going in.

As usual, Selene is romping about shooting guns and fighting and doing wicked stunts like she always does, and there’s a thin plot attached. The situation is this: Michael (played in previous movies by Scott Speedman), her half-vampire half-woofle lover, is missing, presumed vanished. (His costume style in previous movies could probably be best described as “generic normie”.) At the end of Awakening she was reunited with Eve (played in that film by India Eisley), her daughter who has inherited woofle nature from Michael, vampire nature from both parents, and a spot of the Corvinus “pureblood” nature from Selene (which makes her immune to sunlight, as Selene is, as a result of Selene drinking Derek Jacobi’s blood in Evolution). (Eve’s costume style in the previous movie consisted of pyjamas, presumably because she was too young to be let into a goth club or a fetish party and fantasy LARP costume wouldn’t have been appropriate.)

Eve’s wild cocktail of a heritage means that her blood is considered a valuable commodity, with major leaders on both the woofle and vampire sides being intent on obtaining it to see if they can acquire her powers. As such, she’s gone to ground, making Selene promise not to look for her before she disappeared - a sensible precaution, since vampires and woofles can access people’s memories through the drinking of blood. For her part, Selene has continued to be hunted by woofles and vampires alike for killing several vampire Elders.

At the close of the rather confused starting action sequence Selene is tracked down by David (Theo James, costume style first-timer at the goth club), a vampire ally of hers from Awakening who, by dint of being saved by her blood, partakes of some of her powers like being able to survive sunlight. David delivers a rather clumsy plot dump - another factor making me think the start of the film is hugely truncated - in which he explains that a new leader has risen among the werewoofles, the mysterious Marius (Tobias Menzies), forging them into a unified force unlike any seen before. (Except, of course, like when Lucius was leading them in the original movie and the prequel but forget it, Selene, it’s Retcontown…)

Meanwhile, at the mansion headquarters of the Eastern Coven of the vampires, David’s father Thomas (Charles Dance, costume style mixed fantasy LARP and goth club) has been summoned by Semira (Lara Pulver, costume style mixed goth club and fetish party), a member of the vampire ruling council (currently dominated by the fantasy LARP-goth club faction). Semira wants Thomas to help her persuade the council to grant amnesty to Selene, so that she may be brought in from the cold to help train a new generation of death dealers (whose uniforms are mostly goth club with a pinch of fetish club) to fight the woofles - for the war is turning against the vampires and they are at risk of losing. (Of course, going from lurking in the sewers in tiny groups to having a giant techno-fortress crammed with soldiers is an odd definition of “losing”, but… yes, OK, this is more retconning.)

Semira, however, has an ulterior motive - she’s heard about Selene’s mysterious pureblood powers (ugh, that terminology’s pretty fascist, isn’t it?), and she wants them for herself - and that means getting hold of Selene’s blood, which she plots to acquire with the help of Varga (Bradley James), her lover and the head death dealer of the Eastern Coven. (Varga’s costume style is reminiscent of that guy at the goth club who’s very, very into Death In June and martial industrial stuff and keeps trying to have conversations with you about Julius Evola.) Between this and Marius’ own intentions to acquire Selene’s blood for the sake of tracking down Eve and taking her powers - since he doesn’t buy this “I don’t know where she is” line for a second - Selene and David find themselves on the run, and ultimately seek sanctuary at Vador, the Nordic Sanctuary - an Arctic castle occupied by vampires with mystical insights and amazing revelations (and 100% fantasy LARP costumes), which could hold the secret to both David and Selene reaching their full potential.

(Note that one does not simply walk into Vador... though you do take the train most of the way there, which I guess makes it a sort of vampire Hogwarts.)

As well as being happy to retcon all sorts of stuff, Blood Wars gives itself much more freedom to muck about with the underlying basis of the Underworld universe. Previous instalments of the series had an effectively science fictional basis, with vampirism, lycanthropy, and pureblood immortality alike being caused by a disease - a disease with some pretty unusual properties, mind, but still a disease. Here, however, Foerster and Goodman seem to have decided to take a more fantastical approach to the condition.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at Vador, an institution steeped in vampiric mysticism involving initiatory experiences of death and rebirth and honest-to-goodness magic. This departure, ironically, makes the Underworld even more of a giant riff on Vampire: the Masquerade than it already is. The talk Selene gets about the Sacred World of the spirits is reminiscent of the cosmology of the World of Darkness, and the idea of a clique of mystical vampires living in a distant fortress, observing the world but not meddling in it and embracing Golconda, a sort of inner enlightenment which brings them inner peace and great power, has been part of Vampire: the Masquerade since its early days. Then again, the new Paradox-owned White Wolf are producing a documentary about the World of Darkness games which prominently includes footage from Underworld in its trailer, so I guess Underworld is, if not canon for Masquerade, at least an adopted member of the wider family.

The buildup to Selene attaining inner serenity and the new level of badassness that comes with it is not matched by the payoff. Selene’s attainment of Golconda is signified by the fact that her hair is now bleached white at the tips and she wears a big fur coat and uses a sword in preference to guns. (To be fair to the last point, she now has super-speed comparable to the Flash, and in my headcanon she’s switched to melee weapons because bullets now seem frustratingly slow.) This means she is the most powerful vampire ever now, because she has fused the fashion styles of fantasy LARPs, goth clubs, and fetish parties into a seamless whole.

As well as being the place where Selene gets to level up, Vador is also the place where Foerster and Goodman attempt to make something of David, who doesn’t really have much substance to him beyond “guy who was helpful in Awakening”. At Vador it’s revealed that David is the son of Amelia, the vampire elder fridged midway through the original Underworld (sartorial style: the very classiest goth club), so far as I can tell solely for the purpose of giving him some semblance of a point and to pad the film out with some scenes of him moping about her abandoning him and then allowing him to show up and gain the loyalty of the Eastern Coven just because he says he deserves it, in a takeover which is entirely too easy. David does at least get his moment to shine when Marius and his woofles attack the Eastern Coven in force, finally delivering us the full-on vampires-vs-woofles-with-guns mass battle which the Underworld movies have been flirting with since the original but never quite got around to delivering.

The retconning of great swathes of Awakening and the extensive tweaking of the cosmology aren’t the only things which will cause headaches for people who’ve followed the series so far. Characters claim that a mass woofles assault has never happened, which is manifestly untrue - it’s happened in three of the preceding four movies, for crying out loud, one of which depicted the start of the war of vampires and woofles and therefore constitutes an event that everyone should know the broad outlines of. If, on the off-chance, you were at all invested in the fate of Michael, you are likely to be disappointed: he’s killed off in the backstory, his death only fleetingly depicted through blood-induced flashbacks, which I guess is a final “fuck you” to Scott Speedman for not coming back to reprise the role.

Now, to be fair, at least his character is given some closure at this point - however, at the same time, it’s kind of a shame that his fate is dealt with in such a rushed and abrupt manner. To contextualise: he was a main character in the first two movies, and a major motivation for Selene in Awakening was working out what had happened to him. In fact, that movie ended with him bounding off into the distance, the cliffhanger there being how he and she would eventually reunite. For the resolution of all that to be “lol nope” is rather anticlimactic.

Whilst Scott Speedman’s performance in the first two movies is deeply underwhelming, Beckinsale doesn’t exactly deliver an Oscar-worthy performance there either, and shirtless Scott Speedman offered a little something-something for the prurient interests of some audience members that Theo James’ occasional token bids at shirtlessness here doesn’t really compensate for the absence of. It all makes me wonder whether there wasn’t a more extensive Michael plot planned here, scuppered and rewritten in a hurry when talks with Speedman fell through. (I guess if a fridging has to happen, it’s nice to see it happen to a male character for once.)

The new characters introduced this time around aren’t up to much either. Marius has this thing going on where because he’s a special woofle his head doesn’t change to wolf form and he just goes around with a full-werewoofle body but a human head, which looks astonishingly silly - he looks like Michael’s vampwoofle form from the previous movies, only much more muscley and hairy and just doesn’t work nearly so well. We literally learn nothing of who Marius is and where he came from, or really anything about him at all save that he killed Michael to take his blood; Semira at least has some banter with Thomas to establish that she’s got a political history in the vampire clans. Even though we don’t know very much about her past, people at least react to her like she has a past, whereas Marius is nothing more than a cypher.

Semira does the whole sexy-vampire-seductress villain thing turned up to 11 - her various costumes drawing on the “goth club” and “fetish party” archetypes more or less equally. There’s a bit where Semira makes Varga give her head because she’s horny and bored of him talking at her, making this a rare case of this sort of claimed pleasure-seeking seductress character actually advancing the ends of her own pleasure rather than just titillating other characters (and the audience). However, there’s a slightly dubious dynamic there, where Varga seems grumpy about going down on her, and then relishes the opportunity to turn her on later on in the movie when he has a chance to do so with legitimacy, so you’ve got this “a woman asking to be sexually satisfied is a bad thing which deserves vengeance later on” angle.

Late in the film Semira drinks a big overflowing goblet of Selene’s blood to acquire her powers, but is then killed by sunlight, which Selene is immune to thanks to drinking Brother Cadfael Derek Jacobi’s blood; if it’s ever explained to us why that happens, I missed it. On the whole, Semira seems to have achieved nothing by drinking Selene’s blood, which is yet another tremendously anticlimactic conclusion to a significant plotline. Likewise, Selene’s final fight against Marius ends abruptly when she seems to decide that she’s gotten bored of being punched in the face and nonchalantly rips his spine out.

This isn’t the only part where the movie seems to be a bit underwritten. There’s a rather gaping plot hole early on when the vampire squad sent to bring in David and Selene show up at Selene’s hideout to hustle them away before the woofles arrive. The woofles know where her hideout is because they made a special tracking device bullet that they shot David with, prompting Selene to take him to her place to try and heal him… but how did the vampire squad know where to find them? It’s almost like Goodman intended to go back in and write a scene where they get that information but forgot to.

The movie seems to be a definitive end to Selene’s story - her closing narration explicitly talks about how she’s come full circle, and she’s now become one of the three Elders of the vampire nations and attained enlightenment, and there’s a brief shot before the credits suggesting that she’s been reunited with Eve, so between that and the destruction of the woofles’ latest leader there really doesn’t seem to be anything more to do with the character.

Len Wiseman was talking up the idea of a television series coming out of this; if that ever happens, I suspect Selene will mostly be an off-screen presence with perhaps occasional appearances from Kate if and when an appearance from the vampiric Elders is necessary. This was previously called Underworld: Next Generation, making me wonder whether Selene was supposed to just die here rather than getting enlightenment - or at least retire like she did here, but with more of her new wave of death-dealers surviving, so that they can be the titular Next Generation going forwards.

As it stands, with Selene and David as newly-minted Elders next to the master of Vador, it doesn’t feel like there’s a new generation of characters there to come up and take their place. Eve isn’t in this movie enough to really establish her as a viable character going forwards (she does eventually show up in “goth going to the shops instead of the goth club” garb, her full goth club costume presumably having been avoided so as to keep her identity secret), Varga needs a personality beyond “very loyal, adequate cunnilingus skills” and Alexia, by far the most interesting of the new death dealers, does not survive the movie. (Her garb is at the militaristic end of goth club, with perhaps a light sprinkling of fantasy LARP.)

With the old generation’s plots mostly resolved or shitcanned, and with nothing new coming down the pipe, this feels like the end for Underworld. The situation can only be complicated by the awkward fact that Kate Beckinsale and Underworld producer, director of the first two films, and overall franchise mastermind Len Wiseman have broken up, having got together as a result of their collaboration on the original movie. The split was announced during the filming process, and the fact the movie got made demonstrates that Kate and Len seem to have been willing to be professional about things at least to the extent of getting this production wrapped up, but at the same time you have to question whether the grand plans Wiseman was talking about when this was at an earlier stage of production are still on the table after the fact.

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Comments (go to latest)
Ibmiller at 02:28 on 2017-07-09
Glad you got to see it, underwhelming as it was. I was also disappointed that they got rid of pretty much everything in Awakened, but that's their prerogative, as the director and writers. The writing around Michael and Eve's characters felt a lot like the way the newest Pirates movie wrote around Will and Elizabeth's characters - and was similarly unsatisfying. One wonders if the rewards for making a movie that dances around what it really wants to show because they can't convince the old actors to come back outweigh the negative impact on the franchise. I suspect not, but then again, I'm never good at predicting these kinds of things.

I did think that the super speedy/ghosty powers were cool, and appreciated the different dress aesthetic that the ghosty vampires brought to the series.
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