Judge Eric Profancik is Lord of the Underoos.
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 (published May 22nd, 2009), Underworld / Underworld: Evolution (published January 23rd, 2009), and Underworld: Extended Cut (published December 3rd, 2004) are also available.
The less you can see, the worse it is.
Kate Beckinsale wrapped in latex. That sounds like a pretty good pitch to me. Take an extremely hot woman, put her in a skintight cat suit made of latex, and watch all the demographically vaunted boys come running. Toss in a few vampires and werewolves and you have a hit. Underworld is now a full-blown trilogy, with a definite story arc and Kate in lots of latex. Sometimes it's the simplest things that bring people, err, boys to the theaters.
Facts of the Case
Underworld, Underworld: Evolution, and Underworld: Rise of the Lycans form the Underworld Trilogy. The three movies comprise an arc hundreds of years in the making detailing the war between vampires and Lycans (werewolves).
In Underworld we meet Selene (Beckinsale, Click) a vampire and a death dealer who is hunting Lycans. She soon uncovers a secret plot by the leader of the Lycans, Lucian (Michael Sheen, Frost/Nixon), to kidnap a human, Michael (Scott Speedman, xXx: State of the Union), whose special blood may lead the way to end the centuries-long war.
In Evolution, with the vampire and Lycan clans in chaos, the last of the vampire elders and the first vampire, Marcus (Tony Curran, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), sets out in revenge to free his brother William, the first Lycan, from imprisonment. Selene and Michael find themselves on the run and eventually end up in the middle of Marcus' hunt.
In Rise of the Lycans we go back in time to shortly after the birth of Lucian and William and see the events that led to the great war between vampires and Lycans. Lucian is in love with Sonja (Rhona Mitra, Boston Legal), daughter of Viktor, the leader of the vampires. When Viktor learns of this abomination of a coupling, his actions spark the notorious war.
Much to Chief Justice Stailey's thoughts when he reviewed the extended cut of Underworld in 2004, I must agree and say that I just don't get the fascination with this movie. I've watched Underworld numerous times, and I'm a guy that loves mindless action and women in ridiculously tight clothes; but I just find myself drifting and bored by the end of the film. It just doesn't completely click for me. And I am stumped as to why. Why don't I like this movie more? What's missing? This movie and Men in Black both vex me for my distaste of them. It just doesn't make sense. But knowing that I am not alone, at least with this film, I feel somewhat less exasperated.
Still I never give up, I keep on plugging away and end up seeing most sequels anyways (again, both here and MIB2). Luckily I find Evolution a better, more enjoyable film. Perhaps it's the fact that it's 40 minutes shorter, maybe it's that the back story has been set, maybe it's the kicked up gore level, or maybe it's something else; nonetheless, the sequel works better for me. It starts immediately after the first one, not quite making sense; but it soon degrades into a mindless action/gore film. And, honestly, who really cares about plot? Good times!
And then things come back to the beginning with Rise of the Lycans. When I saw the trailer earlier this year, I have to admit that I didn't even realize that Beckinsale was no longer in the move and that she was "replaced" by Mitra. I attributed it to franchise fatigue and Kate moving on to bigger and better things. Imagine my surprise to realize that Mitra plays a different character, one that canonically is supposed to look like Kate, so it all made sense in the Underworld universe. I gave it points for being clever here. On the flipside, I would have sworn on a bible that two different actors portrayed Lucian between the two films, yet it was one in the same. So, with all that said Rise of the Lycans works from the perspective in rounding out the story, explaining the beginnings of the vampire/werewolf war, and why we call werewolves "Lycans" in this universe. Beyond that, in the trilogy rankings, I put this one middle of the pack, having the original being the worst in my book. It isn't the greatest film, but the history lesson coupled with decent acting, an interesting plot (though we already know how it ends), and continued beautiful set design works for me. (I'm a big Gothic fan.)
What doesn't work for me, and this is my great quarrel with all three Underworld movies, is the look of the film, the movie itself, as set forth by director Len Wiseman (who would go on to fame for marrying Beckinsale and directing Live Free or Die Hard). As I sit watching the movies, I am not enjoying myself because they are all too dark. The color palette is nothing but a combination of blues and blacks, and the contrast/brightness is "set to zero." You can barely see what's going on. I think that's one of the reasons I just can't get into the first movie. Fortunately, about halfway through Evolution, somebody decided to turn the lights on and some brightness moves in, showing more colors and hues; and I started to enjoy what I saw more. The last movie is also very dark but is forgiven as it is set in the Middle Ages—it shouldn't look bright. I know; I hear you all yelling that it can't be bright in any of the movies because vampires live at night. Yeah, so what? It's still a movie and an incandescent bulb isn't going to kill a vampire. All in all, I just don't like how dark the movies are.
Let's use the darkness issue as a springboard to the technical discussion. With a purposeful slathering of blue in post-production, any nuance and detail is lost; further, grading colors, hues, saturation, and the like is quite difficult. Overall, I did not find any problems with the transfers on any disc. I didn't detect any significant errors, and it was a clean and "pleasant" viewing experience. They aren't perfect, as there's an occasional sprinkling of noise and I thought I caught a quick glimpse of artifacting during one of the many fight scenes; but all in all, you'll like what you can see. So why do I have such "low" scores for the video across the discs? It's the darkness. I know it's not the transfers fault, but I find the reduction of natural colors to be highly distracting across all movies, taking away a significant part of the viewing experience.
On the audio front, it's easy to see how things changed with the last movie as it has different audio options. While the first two have uncompressed PCM tracks, the last moves to a TrueHD mix. Again you may notice low scores for the audio as well, and the problem here is twofold. First, I had to turn up my center channel to hear the dialogue better. It was lost in all the music, effects, and other ambience throughout the movie. To me, it's a less than optimal balance. Second, while I love bass, I found all three movies had far too aggressive a bass mix, making the movies too muddy at times. Too much reliance was place on the lower registers, and it hurt the movie. And, again, I found myself turning down my subwoofer to make it a more realistic experience. Once I found a better balance, the audio is mighty impressive. Every channel is ridiculously active, pulling you right into the middle of the ever-present action. I heard no hiss or distortion and was able to understand the dialogue (once I balanced it all out).
The bonus features on the trilogy are both excellent and awful. Starting with the bad news, the first two discs are an exact port of the DVD materials. There isn't one scrap of new material. On the good side, if you haven't seen any of the bonus material, it is impressive with tons of background information on every movie. Even the audio commentaries are interesting. Here's an overview of the special features:
• Audio Commentary with Len Wiseman, Kate Beckinsale, and Scott Speedman: In addition to being a funny, chatty, snarky, and informative chat, it also comes with its own subtitles!
• Outtakes (3:43): Lots of flubs but nothing funny.
• Featurettes (2:13:38): Over two hours of material though the first is really a TV special. You can watch them individually or use the play all button. Again, these include subtitles:
- "Fang vs. Fiction" (47:18): "Real" documentary on vampires and werewolves; it takes itself too seriously.
- "The Making of Underworld (13:02): Just a wee bit too self-congratulatory.
- "The Visual Effects of Underworld" (9:56): I'm already bored of obvious explanations. I think I'll stop now unless something special pops up.
- "Creature Effects" (12:30)
- "Stunts" (11:43)
- "Designing Underworld" (10:46)
- "The Look of Underworld" (19:12): It's all Wiseman's fault, the horrible lack of light and color!
- "Sights and Sounds" (9:07)
• Music Video "Worms of the Earth" by Finch (2:45): Death metal presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. What is the studio's aversion to giving these crappy music videos a 5.1 mix?
• Audio Commentary by Len Wiseman, Patrick Tatopoulus (production designer), Brad Martin (second unit director and stunt coordinator), and Nick De Toth (editor)
• Featurettes (1:13:05): Though an hour less than the first disc it's still an excellent overview of the movie. You can watch them individually or use the play all feature:
- "Bloodlines: From Script to Screen" (13:26): The making-of feature.
- "The Hybrid Theory" (13:00): The visual effects.
- "Making Monsters Roar" (11:56): The creature feature.
- "The War Rages On" (9:54): The stunts feature.
- "Building a Saga" (12:57): The production design feature.
- "Music and Mayhem" (11:50): The music and sound design feature.
• Music Video "Her Portrait in Black" by Atreyu (3:54): More lousy death metal in lousy Dolby Digital 2.0.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans:
And now that we are to a new release, we get new bonus materials. This disc follows the pattern set by its predecessors with an informative commentary and a good group of featurettes giving background into the movie. While I was remiss to mention it earlier, this third movie gives hope to all "the little people" in the movie-making process as Wiseman demoted himself from director to producer and let former production designer Tatopoulus take the helm.
• cinechat: Let me quote from the packaging: "Send on-screen instant messages to friends around the world while watching the movie together!" As I don't know anyone else who owns this movie, I did not try this feature. It could be fun, but I stopped it when it immediately went to install an update.
• Audio Commentary with Len Wiseman, Patrick Tatopoulus, Richard Wright (producer), Gary Lucchesi (producer), and James McQuaide (special effects supervisor and executive producer)
• "Behind the Castle Walls": Picture-in-picture commentary/behind-the-scenes footage that appears in a far-too-small box in the lower right portion of your screen. Fortunately its tiny size doesn't equate to poor quality.
• Lycanthropes Around the World Interactive Map: As the title says, this is an interactive map showing you "real" werewolf cases from around the world. It's a text-based feature, pretty corny, but I'll give it points for trying.
• Featurettes: Another reduction in length and lacking a play all feature, this group is a bit shallower than the other movies', but it's offset by the picture-in-picture feature. This time, the features are in HD:
- "From Script to Screen" (9:18)
- "The Origin of the Feud" (19:58)
- "Re-Creating the Dark Ages—The Look of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans" (13:01)
• Music Video "Death Club (Wes Borland/Renholder Remix)" (3:51): Still presented in a lame Dolby Digital 2.0 mix, at least it's not death metal again. This time it's Euro-punk.
• BD-Live: When I looked online, there were no movie specific features available, just promo material for other Sony movies.
• Last, and finally, a Digital Copy is included on a second disc.
Whew, I'm exhausted.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Underworld movies bring a fresh, new look to the old vampire and werewolf genre. By making them action films first, with a graphic novel flair to them, it breathes fantastic new life into stories told for so long. Wildly inventive, beautifully filmed, and breathlessly paced, the Underworld films are a fantastic viewing pleasure.
I wish I enjoyed Underworld more than I did. Truly, it screams to be a movie that I should love with all the action and craziness that goes on, coupled with Gothic design and interesting old-World European locales. I definitely don't hate it, and I'm still not ready to give up on it, especially in that I enjoy the Evolution and appreciate the arc presented in Lycans. I enjoyed the way in which the trilogy flipped back and forth between which side was the hero and which was the villain. It gets a couple more points for that. And since it's accumulated a few points along the way, I will give it yet another chance to sway.
Regardless of my feelings, what should you do as a fan interested in this set? Honestly, I can't recommend you shelling out a lot of money for the trilogy when the first two are simple ports of the existing discs. Yes, you get "quality" Blu-ray upgrades, but I even had problems with those. With all the problems I have with the films, the quality of the discs, and dearth of any fresh material, I simply can't recommend this set for purchase. Completists, feel free to ignore me. Just remember, sometimes it is best to wait. My beloved Star Trek movies just came out in Blu-ray but I won't be buying them as Paramount took the lazy way out on most of them. Something better will come down the line for me, and perhaps the same will happen for your trilogy. If you must have Blu, then treat yourself to Rise of the Lycans.
The Underworld Trilogy is hereby found guilty of plagiarism and
disturbing the peace.
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