Sony // 2012 // 89 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // May 31st, 2012
Prepare for a new breed of war
Though he's hardly the only one to propose such a theory, comics writer Grant Morrison claims that part of his success has been in knowing when our culture will go through cycles of pessimism and optimism. When we're in the dumps, dark culture appeals to us, and when we're feeling optimistic, we want things bright and shiny. Though not every success story fits into this paradigm, it does explain why a film like Underworld struck a nerve, combining a somewhat dystopian alternate present with a fashion sense that part goth/industrial and part combat gear the story of a war between werewolves and vampires sated cultural desires for violence and escapism in the wake of 9/11 that was neither too realistic nor too ideal. Its success guaranteed a sequel, and we've gotten one every three years since then. The second flick took up where the first left off, bringing more of the same. The third film went back to fill in the vast mythology of the series, offering a prequel. Now we have Underworld: Awakening, which jettisons the epic vibe of its predecessors to become a lean, mean killing machine. It might not work well on its own, but it proves the franchise still has legs.
As Underworld: Awakening opens we learn that Selene (Kate Beckinsale, The Aviator) has just woken up from some kind of deep sleep. She learns that she was captured, and while escaping her captors, she has visions of another person who also seems to have escaped. She tracks this other person down and learns along the way that humans have learned about the existence of the vampires and lycans. This has led to the near extinction of both races. Eventually, Selene learns that it was her lycan/vampire hybrid daughter who also escaped, and humans and lycans will stop at nothing to get Selene and her daughter back.
Underworld set itself apart from most werewolf (and many vampire) flicks by having some serious style. Whether you buy a woman (vampire or not) kicking butt in a leather outfit, corset, and platform boots, the first flick was a breath of fresh air in a genre that could use a bit of reinvention. Sure, the mythology was overheated and the acting so-so, but Underworld and its sequels just seem to radiate cool. To a certain extent, Underworld: Awakening foregoes some of that style. Don't worry. If Beckinsale in tight clothing is your thing, the movie delivers. But rather than giving us an epic tale of lycan/vampire disharmony, this one goes straight for the jugular.
Enjoyment of this film will depend entirely on how much you're willing to put up with this departure from previous films. The practical effect is that we move from action sequence to action sequence so that some serious blood is shed every few minutes of this 90-minute flick, the shortest of the series so far. Even that 90-minute mark is being generous (the box says 89, but the credits start to roll after 79 minutes). Those who want a meaty film to bite into won't be happy, but the short running time and focus on action means that the film moves at a surprisingly spry pace for a film in its fourth incarnation.
For me, Underworld: Awakening worked because of that quick pace. It's almost like a palate cleanser between the prequel Underworld: Rise of the Lycans and the inevitable sequel that this film sets up. There was no good way to continue the franchise after the second and third entries, but by exposing the lycan/vampire threat to humans and adding them as antagonists, this one sets the stage for something bigger in the fifth entry. In that context, the thin characterization and quick pace serve the movie well, even if it will lose the franchise a few fans.
Fans or not, Underworld: Awakening looks pretty good on DVD. The standard definition 2.40:1 anamorphic image has solid black levels (which is good for a film that takes place at night or in the dark 90 percent of the time) and a good amount of detail. Some shots look a bit overprocessed, but that's probably a problem with the source rather than the transfer. The film doesn't seem to have the budget that its predecessors had either, so it's not the visual feast the earlier films were. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track is just as bombastic as the previous films. Dialogue is clean and clear in the center, surrounds get a lot of use, and the low end booms a bit. The only extra is a commentary from the directors, producers, and special effects supervisor. The group is comfortable together and they have a lot to say about the way the film looks and how they brought a new sensibility to the franchise. Though the film was released in 3D in theaters, that version is nowhere to be seen on this disc. It's probably for the best, but I'm sure some fans will lament that absence.
There's nothing redeeming about Underworld: Awakening. It's just a big, dumb excuse to see lots of blood, gore, and tight clothing. Those who didn't enjoy the previous films will find nothing to persuade them otherwise here. For fans, the departure this one makes from the Underworld formula might be a bit much. Though Selene is still the center of attention, the lack of mythology and/or the introduction of a young hybrid might be enough to turn fans off.
Underworld: Awakening is fun, if not taken seriously. It's worth at least a rental for fans of the first three films, and honestly, it's got enough context going for it that even those unfamiliar with the first three films could enjoy the violence and action easily. Fans of the film might want more than a commentary in terms of extras, but this disc is worth a purchase for fans.
It kept me awake. Not Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Thai)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Rated R