Sony // 2003 // 134 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // December 3rd, 2004
Its bark is more impressive than its bite
There are few experiences like Underworld. Here is a film with power, passion, and promise, yet it somehow manages to bore its audience to death.
It's an atmospheric world filled with legendary monsters and mythical archetypes redefined for the 21st century. It's an explosive and angry world that would make Jerry Bruckheimer giggle with delight. It's a gothically beautiful world populated by cover models from Vogue and GQ. More importantly, it's a painfully uninteresting world in which characters we care nothing about work themselves into an operatic frenzy amid a self-described critical salvo in an age-old war.
With more than 13 minutes of additional story and a truckload of behind-the scenes bonus material, it's several hours of your life and $35 of your hard earned money you can save by not watching or purchasing Underworld: Unrated Extended Cut.
In the beginning, Werewolves (also known as Lycans) were slaves to the Vampires. That is, until their Moses-like leader Lucian (Michael Sheen, The Four Feathers) lead a rebellion, freeing them from indentured servitude and igniting a war that has been waged throughout the ages. Countless casualties have mounted on both sides, with each "death" fueling a limitless hatred for the other. At present, the Lycans are on the brink of unlocking the genetic codes of both species, giving them the means to create a hybrid creature that would wipe out the opposition once and for all. Can the Vamps, championed by the beautifully dangerous Selene (Kate Beckinsale, Van Helsing) stop the Lycans before it's too late?
While Judge Patrick Naugle found some redeeming value in the original release of Underworld, I fail to see it. I watched Underworld: Unrated Extended Cut three times -- once for the film, once for the commentary, and then once again for the film. To my masochistic amazement, I found it less interesting with each viewing. Every inch of bonus material showcases the excitement and enthusiasm felt by each member of the production team. They honestly believed they were creating a filmatic experience that would change the face of monster pics for all time. How can the final product be so devoid of this behind-the-scenes emotion?
Let's examine the evidence:
Writers Kevin Grevioux, Len Wiseman, and Danny McBride have grounded their tale in science, giving this monster mash a sense of "it could happen" that -- according to them -- many of their predecessors lacked. Unfortunately, the scientific component of the story does little to fuel its engine.
Underworld is a character drama -- strike that -- melodrama, equal parts Dark Shadows, Dynasty, and Days of Our Lives. In this age, the Vamps are the powerful elite, enjoying their wealth and privilege. To maintain this stature, they have created a hit squad of enforcers -- Death Dealers -- trained and armed to quell any potential threat or insurrection by the Lycans. The two Vampire kings -- Marcus and Viktor (Bill Nighy, Shaun of the Dead) -- are in generational hibernation, reaping a well-earned dirt nap from their past reigns of terror, awaiting the day when they shall rule once again. In their stead, they have placed power of authority in the hands of Kraven (Shane Brolly), a self-serving prick who cares for little more than himself.
Kraven's rival, Selene, is the darling of Viktor and an active member of the Death Dealers obsessed with obliterating "the dogs." Catching wind of the Lycans "life as we know it" altering plans, she goes over the head of Kraven (who suspiciously prefers to do nothing about it) and wakes up "daddy." What's more, she's fallen in love with Michael (Scott Speedman, Felicity), the lab rat whose genetic heritage holds the key to the Lycans' ascension. Can you see the high drama developing here?
Come on, this isn't anything we haven't experienced countless times on daytime or primetime television. Granted, Grevioux, Wiseman, and McBride set their story in a darkly alluring, high tech world, introducing us to creative new ways in which to kill and crossbreed vampires and werewolves. But these are merely distractions and do nothing to enhance an otherwise shallow rehash of a tale we've seen told in many different forms and genres.
In his first directorial endeavor, I get the impression Len Wiseman was shooting for The Lost Boys enter The Matrix and wound up with "James Bond in Monsterland." You see, Selene is our Bond, the brooding über-Vamp agent who falls for Michael, the Bond Girl in unintentional werewolf's clothing, while battling both arch-nemesis Lucian and surrogate father Viktor -- two sides of the same coin.
Take nothing away from "Monsterland." Bruton Jones's settings are lush, Janos Czako's gadgetry is cool, Wiseman's action is hot, and Tony Pierce-Roberts visuals' are striking. But in order to capture the hearts and minds of your audience, the denizens of Monsterland must be compelling individuals in whom you become emotionally invested...and they are not.
Which brings us to...
Oy vey. Where to begin?
Kate Beckinsale is a beautiful woman, but Selene requires more than good looks and two tortured expressions -- hatred and lust -- to be effective. I truly believe she did the best she could with what she was given. The bonus materials document Kate busting her ass for this role. It's just unfortunate the payoff wasn't more satisfying.
Scott Speedman is a meat puppet, easily replaced by any other hot male face/body combination of the day. Aside from looking confused (which may have been a direct result of trying to figure out the script), Michael does very little else. Maybe he was saving himself for the sequel.
Bill Nighy, a classically trained British stage actor, compensates for Beckinsale and Speedman by emoting all over the place as Viktor. Anger, hatred, disgust, rage -- you know, a real well rounded character.
Perhaps the overacting sucked all of the talent out of the air, leaving Shane Brolly with nothing. Devoid of any realism is exactly the type of performance he delivers as Kraven. Just another pretty meat puppet (see Scott Speedman).
The only performance worth noting is that of Michael Sheen. Lucian has levels of complexity and issues he's struggling with. Sure, he yells and screams a lot, but you can see a real person in pain behind those eyes, which is more than you can say for anyone else.
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer is a high-quality image equal to the original release. Despite its dark palette atmosphere, the varying levels of darkness are strikingly bold and well defined. The Dolby 5.1 surround track will rock the system and your home with deep, reverberating bass tones, underscoring each and every tense moment and explosive battle scene. You can listen to or read the overplayed dialogue in English and French, but it won't make any more sense in another language.
I know you've been waiting for it -- cry foul the evil that is the dreaded double dip! Well, technically there is 13 more minutes of exposition -- enhancing the backstory of Lucian and Viktor -- but most of it is nothing more than extended fight sequences and establishing longshots. The "unrated" moniker is overplayed, as nothing here would have jeopardized the film's original R rating. What we do get is a deeper look into the making of the film, courtesy of a new commentary track by Wiseman, Beckinsale, and Speedman; several new production design featurettes; outtakes; a pre-packaged television special that looks into the mythology of vampires and lycanthropes; and the so-called "collector's items," a comic book and sketch booklet. The commentary is entertaining (often times more so than the film itself) and the features are a treat for young filmmakers in training. Other than that, the rest is pretty much carryover filler from the original release.
In many double dip cases, I would postulate on the marketing machine gone awry. In this case, I prefer to urge studios and filmmakers to spend their time, energy, and capital on stories their production teams would benefit from making and audiences would benefit from seeing. Granted, the masses love to be entertained, but it shouldn't be courtesy of an expensive, mindless opiate derivative. Underworld was not a good movie to begin with and Underworld: Unrated Extended Cut does nothing to justify or enhance its existence.
The court orders all involved to take Underworld as a lesson learned. Identify those few creative elements that worked well and use them as the foundation to build a compelling tale of monster mystery and intrigue. There are countless stories to be told, but it takes more than pretty faces and fancy effects to make them work. Len Wiseman and company are put on probation and given another opportunity to use their talents for good instead of evil. Don't blow this reprieve on Underworld 2.
Review content copyright © 2004 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 134 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Feature Commentary
* TV Special -- Fang v. Fiction
* Featurette: Visual Effects of Underworld
* Featurette: Designing Underworld
* Featurette: Look of Underworld
* Featurette: Making of Underworld
* Featurette: Creature Effects
* Featurette: Stunts
* Featurette: Sights + Sound
* Storyboard Comparison
* Music Video
* TV Spots
* Studio Trailers
* Official Site