Judge Patrick Bromley has since filed down his vampire fangs.
Our reviews of 3 Silent Classics By Josef Von Sternberg: Criterion Collection (published August 25th, 2010), Underworld (published January 6th, 2004), Underworld (Blu-Ray) (published September 27th, 2007), Underworld: Evolution: Special Edition (published July 24th, 2006), Underworld Trilogy (Blu-Ray) (published May 18th, 2009), Underworld / Underworld: Evolution (published January 23rd, 2009), and Underworld: Extended Cut (published December 3rd, 2004) are also available.
An immortal battle for supremacy.
Finally, the review that asks the question: is it better to have seen all three Underworld movies or none of them?
Facts of the Case
Underworld tells the story of an ancient war between Vampires, led by the centuries-old Viktor (Bill Nighy, Sean of the Dead) and Lycans, a clan of werewolves able to change shape at will led by Lucian (Michael Sheen, Frost/Nixon). At the center of the war is Selene (Kate Beckinsale, Van Helsing), a vampire tasked with killing off as many Lycans as possible. But when a human (Scott Speedman, Dark Blue) with a very special ancestry gets caught up in the conflict, Selene is forced to reevaluate what all the fighting is about.
In Underworld: Evolution, Selene and her Vampire/Lycan boyfriend Michael are back, this time on the run from the newly-awokened Marcus (Tony Curran, Gladiator), the original vampire on a hunt to free his Lycan brother William.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans takes it all the way back to the beginning of the war, showing how Lucian was once the slave of Viktor and carrying on a secret affair with Viktor's vampire daughter, Sonja (Rhona Mitra, Stuck on You). Sadly for Lucian, secret love affairs between two warring families seldom end well. That's how wars get started.
Look, I'm pretty honest about my own dorkiness. I like horror and science fiction. I like stuff with monsters. I should love a movie about a war between vampires and werewolves, right? And, yet, I do not love any of the Underworld movies. I don't really even like them. What happened?
Despite its many DVD incarnations, I come to the series with fresh eyes. I had not seen any of the Underworld films prior to viewing the entire Underworld Trilogy for the purposes of this review. On paper, I should have wanted to. I guess there was something about the trailers that kept me away; the movies looked like some Eastern European version of The Matrix, and I'm still no fan of star Kate Beckinsale. As intrigued as I was by a movie promising loads of vampire versus werewolf action, Underworld just didn't look like very much fun.
Wouldn't you know, I was right. Underworld is no fun at all. It's dark and somber, incredibly slow and entirely too long (the "extended cut" included in this collection runs 2 hours 13 minutes). Director Len Wiseman knows how to make a good-looking movie, but to the detriment of everything else; story and character and logic are all sacrificed in favor of what looks "cool." The production design is dark but detailed and elaborate; the characters are all very ornately dressed in leather trench coats and skin tight suits and other gothic attire (it's never explained that the vampire clan has their own costume designer on staff, but I have to believe that's the case). There are lots of shots of characters walking in slow motion (because it looks cool) or entering doorways (looks cool) or generally posing while waiting for something/nothing to happen (cool). Even the action—arguably, what many of us come to a movie like Underworld for—never really takes off, either because it's slowed down (for coolness' sake) or because it's utterly hollow.
There it is. In addition to being no fun, Underworld is totally empty. It's filled with its own silly mythology which we're supposed to care about, but we don't. There are characters on screen, but I defy anyone to tell me one characteristic about one character other that "this one's a vampire" or "that one's a werewolf" (not surprisingly, British actors Michael Sheen and Billy Nighy fare the best; the movie almost comes alive when they're on screen). Kate Beckinsale's Selene is the perfect face of Underworld: good-looking, but with nothing behind it. She has fewer speaking lines than much of the cast and acts without motivation. And what, exactly, do the vampires and werewolves hope to gain with this war? They've been at it for centuries, we're told, but we don't know what's at stake. They're not fighting for world domination or over a territory dispute. Nothing's really at stake if either side wins, so why are we supposed to care? Because they don't like each other? So what. I don't like them, either.
Wiseman and company came back for the first sequel, called Underworld: Evolution (this despite the fact that I don't think anyone or anything actually evolves, but maybe I'm just nitpicking). It is a far dumber movie. While Underworld at least gave the appearance of something that should be taken seriously, Underworld: Evolution throws common sense out the window fairly early on. I'm not even sure that I can tell you what it's about, except that the "original" vampire Marcus wants to free his "original" werewolf brother William (you know, the great villains Marcus and William? Throw in characters like Lucian, Selene, Viktor and Kraven and you'd swear you're watching an episode of Gossip Girl) and Kate Beckinsale has to stop him while making sure never to change her expression. Ultimately, I don't really care, as Underworld: Evolution is entertaining in a number of ways its predecessor was not. There's still a lot of ridiculous mythology (all told in flashbacks; there are a lot of flashbacks), but the movie is more tightly paced and ups the levels of sex and gore. There's no more character development than in the original, but there is a flying vampire and at least one nifty death by helicopter. If forced to rewatch just one movie in the Underworld Trilogy, I'd come back to Underworld: Evolution in a heartbeat.
Neither Beckinsale, Scott Speedman or director Len Wiseman returned for the unnecessary third film in the trilogy, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. Instead, visual f/x supervisor Patrick Tatopoulos takes the helm—ironic, since Lycans boasts the least impressive special effects of the entire trilogy. When your entire movie hinges on showing a lot of werewolves, you want to make sure we get our money's worth; instead, the werewolves in Lycans alternate between guys in furry masks and CGI cartoons, which are rarely scary or interesting. Rarely.
My big complaint with Rise of the Lycans is that it has no reason to exist. Yes, the first two films were successful and perhaps die-hard Underworld fans were clamoring for another film, but giving them this prequel is kind of pointless seeing as we've seen it all in the first two films. I don't mean that the third film copies the first two stylistically or thematically, I mean that it's literally filling in gaps that don't exist. The numerous flashbacks in both Underworld and Underworld: Evolution have already told the entire story found in Rise of the Lycans, making it more of a feature-length recap. How effective can a film be when it spends 90 minutes building to a climax that has already been shown in another film?
I will say that much of the acting in Lycans is better than the other two films, thanks to leading performances by Sheen and Nighy. Rhona Mitra (who already appeared in the much-better genre film Doomsday) is a fine substitute for Beckinsale (not really, but you know what I mean) in that she's equally blank and, to me, even prettier. And at least the character motivations make sense in this film, which plays out as a tragically doomed love story before morphing into a Braveheart rip-off in the last act (Sheen fills in as the much hairier William Wallace). Unfortunately, Tatopoulos adopts the same dark, steel-blue, day-for-night look of the first two films (perhaps for the sake of consistency). It does the movie no favors.
The DVDs included in the Underworld Trilogy are much better on a technical level than perhaps the movies deserve, but the presentation makes them quite watchable. All three are presented in anamorphic widescreen transfers that look very nice; despite the obsessively blue tint and overall dark photography, detail is sharp and colors (what little color there is, anyway) is strong. The audio tracks on all three films are powerful, too, with good channel separation and clean dialogue delivery.
All three films come with roughly the same extras, too. Each is accompanied by a commentary track with the filmmakers and various cast and crew. On the original Underworld, director Wiseman is joined by stars Beckinsale (also Mrs. Wiseman) and Speedman. Maybe it's just star power, but this track is easily the most entertaining of the three. The second two films are much more technical in nature: Underworld: Evolution finds Wiseman joined by production designer (and future Lycans director) Patrick Tatopoulos, stunt coordinator Brad Martin and editor Nick De Toth, while Lycans features Tatopoulos, Wiseman (who gets screenplay credit on the third film), producers Richard Wright and Gary Lucchesi and f/x supervisor James McQuaide. Devotists may enjoy these tracks for their behind-the-scenes info, but casual viewers are better off sticking with the movie star track on Underworld.
The three discs also feature extensive featurette galleries, typically showcasing the technical aspects of the film (which, to be fair, are the trilogy's most impressive qualities). They cover everything from the special effects to the stunt work to the production design to the creature design. Again, if you can't get enough of Underworld's world, you'll be a happy camper. If you're me, you'll be largely overwhelmed and a little bored.
Each disc also comes with a music video for a bad song from a band I don't like; it's that new generic hard-rock stuff that fits the Underworld films perfectly with its faux-edginess and manufactured darkness. I'm the wrong audience for all of it.
An interesting side note: the Underworld Trilogy doesn't come in three separate slim cases and aren't divided up in any way. It's literally a standard keepcase with three discs stacked on top of each other. I can't believe no one's thought of that sooner.
Let's call the Underworld movies what they are: Twilight for grown up fanboys. They offer a life of cool clothes and romantic anguish and at the end you get to date Kate Beckinsale. I know they have a devoted fanbase—there aren't three of these movies because no one likes them—but I have a feeling people are responding to isolated elements and not the films as a whole. Because as movies, they're not very good.
I'm glad to have finally seen the Underworld Trilogy, but I don't see
what all the fuss is about.
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• Official Site: Underworld
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