Sony // 2003 // 134 Minutes // Not Rated
Sony // 2006 // 106 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // January 23rd, 2009
An immortal battle for supremacy.
Who doesn't like a little vampire on werewolf violence?
A millennia-long war between vampires and their werewolf slaves (also knows as Lycans) is winding down after the death of Lycan revolutionary Lucian (Michael Sheen, Frost/Nixon). A "Death Dealer" vampire named Selene (Kate Beckinsale, Pearl Harbor) is tasked with hunting down and killing the remaining werewolves. During her adventures, she discovers that the shape-shifters are interested in a medical intern named Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman, The Strangers). Though Selene tries to protect him, Michael is bitten by a Lycan. Selene believes it was Lucian. Suspecting that the leader of her coven, Kraven (Shane Brolly, Room 6), is in cahoots with the Lycans, Selene takes it upon herself to awaken a hibernating elder vampire named Viktor (Bill Nighy, Shaun of the Dead) to warn him of the danger. But, absent hard evidence, the ancient and powerful vampire sides with Kraven, forcing Selene to flee the coven.
When Selene captures a Lycan scientist, she learns that Michael is a direct descendant of Alexander Corvinus, whose two sons, Markus and William, were the first vampire and werewolf. The Lycans want to capture Michael because they believe his blood may be the key to combining the vampire and werewolf bloodlines, ending the war once and for all. Selene finds herself set against her own coven as Viktor is determined to prevent a merging of the bloodlines. When Michael is mortally wounded during the ensuing melee, Selene's only chance of saving him is to bite him. Already a Lycan, the vampire bite may kill him or it may turn him into a new kind of immortal: half-werewolf, half-vampire.
Underworld: Evolution (2006)
In 1202 AD, vampire elders Viktor, Markus (Tony Curran, Red Road), and Amelia capture William (Brian Steele, Hellboy II: The Golden Army), first among the Lycans and Markus's brother. Despite Markus's misgivings, Viktor orders that William be locked away forever.
In the present day, Markus awakens from his hibernation, murders Kraven for his treachery, and sets off to find Selene and Michael, who are on the run from both the vampires and the Lycans. The duo eventually meets up with Alexander Corvinus (Derek Jacobi, I, Claudius), an immortal who has spent millennia trying to prevent the feud between his sons from spilling over into the mortal world. Corvinus knows that Markus is determined to find and release William, but can't bring himself to harm his own son in order to prevent the awful plan. Instead, he allows Selene to bite him, increasing her power exponentially so that she can stand against the brothers Corvinus.
The problem with Underworld and Underworld: Evolution is that they take themselves so damned seriously. The vampires are a bunch of navel-gazing Goths in frilly shirts and worn leather, while the Lycans look like a gang of metal-heads. Moments of the film play like a clique war at a local high school. I kept waiting for the jocks to show up and kick everyone's asses. Michael Corvin, the human character at the crux of the plot, is even more morose than the undead hipsters. A young widower, he seems perpetually ready to bring a dark cloud over the happy world of his friends and colleagues (okay, we really only meet one friend/colleague in Underworld, but it's no wonder: everyone else probably bailed on Corvin because he's such a downer). Imagine if Michael Corvin had been played by Justin Long in full Live Free or Die Hard mode. Rather than being an emo himbo, he would have reacted to finding himself in the middle of a preposterous war between vampires and werewolves with smartass disbelief, sarcasm, and self-deprecating humor -- and the movies would actually be fun. Instead they're dreary affairs, bogged down by deadpan reads of ridiculous dialogue and labyrinthine exposition. Their only saving grace is that all of the narrative nonsense is occasionally punctuated by a kickass action set piece.
Underworld is the more entertaining of the two pictures, though not by much. After a clunky and unnecessarily serious voice-over introducing us to the history of conflict between the two species of monsters, the movie kicks into high gear and stays there for the entire first act. Chases, gunplay, and werewolf attacks abound. Selene performs slow motion gymnastics in platform patent leather boots and rustling black duster, a pistol clutched in each hand. It's awesome (despite werewolf CGI effects that are far from seamless). Then director Len Wiseman and screenwriter Danny McBride start piling on with legends of monstrous star-crossed lovers, a convoluted rationale for two of the three vampire elders being in hibernation at all times (Why? The run-of-the-mill vampires are centuries old and they're all tight-bodied and sexy), and tragic back stories for Selene and Michael. It's the weight of the Corvinus family soap opera under which the movie truly buckles. The storyline isn't bad per se, but all of our efforts paying attention to the nerdtastic setup are paid off with a vampire-werewolf hybrid that looks like a Halloween costume thrown together by a lazy college undergrad. Since the entire movie steadily builds toward the revelation of the hybrid, the monster needed to be damned cool. Instead of a horrifying and intimidating ghoul with leathery wings, fur, fangs, and claws, the hybrid is a scrawny, shirtless doofus with long fingernails, black-gray skin, and greasy hair. What a let-down.
Underworld: Evolution is burdened from the outset with all of the worst elements of the first film. It offers two layers of introductory exposition -- a text-based preface rehashing the history of the monster war, followed by a prelude set in the 13th century that makes the text redundant -- before we arrive at the main action. The movie never quite gets going; it wallows in the Corvinus storyline, expanding and fleshing it out. Then it fails once again to offer a compelling payoff to all the exposition. Michael may be a badass hybrid in theory, but in practice he isn't particularly formidable, let alone scary. Underworld: Evolution is essentially a rousing extended chase sequence between a semi-trailer truck and a hideous winged vampire, surrounded by an hour and a half of tedious monster minutiae. Long stretches of the movie felt like Wiseman and McBride were nerd-raping my brain with the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. I didn't need to know all that pap about the Corvinus bloodline. I didn't want to know it. No means no.
Underworld & Underworld: Evolution's two discs repackage one-and-a-half previous releases: Disc One of the two-disc Underworld: Unrated Extended Cut DVD and the widescreen edition of Underworld: Evolution. The transfers and supplements are identical to the stand-alone packages. The good news is that the transfers are near perfect. Both movies sport a stylized color palette that is heavy on deep blacks, icy blues, pale flesh tones, and bright red blood. The transfers handle all of these extremes wonderfully. Detail is razor sharp. Digital artifacts are minimal. Being of newer vintage, Evolution is slightly more impressive than its predecessor, but only slightly. Underworld is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, while Evolution is 2.40:1.
Audio, too, is amazing. Quiet dialogue is clear as a bell, while action sequences will work your speakers out as mercilessly as a thick-necked physical trainer named Günther putting a noodle-armed milquetoast through the ringer just for the sport of it. Both Dolby 5.1 tracks are close to reference quality.
Since this release contains only the first disc of the Underworld: Extended Uncut DVD, it's relatively light on extras. There's an audio commentary by Len Wiseman, Kate Beckinsale, and Scott Speedman; an outtakes reel (3:43); a documentary about the history of vampires and werewolves called "Fang vs. Fiction" (47:07); and two Underworld TV spots.
For Underworld: Evolution, we also have a feature-length audio commentary, this time by Wiseman, production designer Patrick Tatopoulos, second unit director and stunt coordinator Brad Martin, and editor Nicolas De Toth. There are six making-of featurettes: "Bloodlines: From Script to Screen," "The Hybrid Theory," "Making Monsters Roar," "The War Rages On," "Building a Saga," and "Music and Mayhem." Each runs between 10 and 13 minutes. They can also be strung together via a Play All option. Finally, there's a music video for "Her Portrait in Black," performed by metalcore band Atreyu.
God bless Bill Nighy. The man's a fine actor who can also unashamedly chew scenery when called upon to do so. In Underworld (and, to a lesser extent, Underworld: Evolution) he tears through scenery like a woodchuck in a bushel of alfalfa. His performance is wickedly over the top, but he dominates every moment he's onscreen. His line reads are bizarre; his angular face is mesmerizing. Were Nighy the star of the shows, the Underworld movies would be as fun and entertaining as they ought to be.
Underworld and Underworld: Evolution aren't nearly as fun as a duology about a war between vampires and werewolves featuring Kate Beckinsale in a vinyl catsuit with a pistol in each fist should be. What a shame.
Guilty as charged.
Review content copyright © 2009 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice, Underworld
Perp Profile, Underworld
* 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: Not Rated
Distinguishing Marks, Underworld
Scales of Justice, Underworld: Evolution
Perp Profile, Underworld: Evolution
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Distinguishing Marks, Underworld: Evolution
* Music Video
* Underworld: Evolution