Underworld: Rise of the Lycans – DVD Review

The third film in the UNDERWORLD franchise is a prequel that takes us back to the origins of the feud between vampires and werewolves that fueled the previous two films. UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS offers a “Romeo and Juliet” affair between Lucien (Michael Sheen), a werewolf slave, and Sonja (Rhona Mitra), daughter of the vampire elder Viktor (Bill Nighy), but the love story ignites few sparks, because it is overwhelmed by the obsessive need to stage as many bloody battles as possible. These are staged for maximum “coolness” effect, which means that the sight of sliced flesh and splattering blood outweighs any consideration for emotional impact. The result is an emotional vacuum at the core of the film, which renders UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS unengaging except to hardcore fans of the franchise, who want to see even more vampire-versus-werewolf mayhem.
Patrick Tatopoulos, production designer on the previous films, takes over the directorial reigns from Len Wiseman. Perhaps predictably, the big strength of UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS is its visual look. The period setting is less an accurate representation of history than a wonderfully sinister and serious evocation of a grim fairy tale setting, including a monumentally imposing castle hewn out of a mountainside and a tremendously spooky forest that falls somewhere between Mario Bava and Tim Burton (think BLACK SUNDAY and SLEEP HOLLOW).
Unfortunately, that’s the most UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS has going for it. The scenario fails to capture the sense of a powder keg about to explode, because it offers only the most thumbnail sketch of the conflict between vampires and werewolves, instead prefering to focus on the doomed love story. At least the speeches by the lycanthropic Lucian strike a pleasantly Marxist tone as he exorts his fellow werewolves to throw off the chains of oppression and overthrow their vampiric masters.
On a conceptual level, UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS falters because no one seems to have bothered to think through the implications of a society of vampires. The blood-drinkers all act pretty much like humans – nasty, blood-drinking humans, to be sure, but they’re basically not much different from any movie depiction of a decadent aristocracy exploiting the poor. You would think that immortality and near invulnerability – resulting in a static society where you see the same unchanging faces for centuries – would have some kind of impact on society.
The biggest problem the film poses for non-fans is that it barely bothers to fill the audience in on necessary exposition, such as how the collars warn by the lycan slaves prevent them from changing into wolf form. Uninitiated viewers will find themselves wondering what makes weapons effective in a battle between two races of immortals, and exactly how much damage needs to be inflicted to cause fatality.
Without this clarification, UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS comes across like just another typical action movie, in which peripheral characters dies immediately while the heroes receive an exemption that allows them to recover from their wounds and live to fight another day. It’s hard to get worked up about the numerous fight scenes when the vulnerabilities are so unclear.
Mitra and Sheen strive to generate some heat, but the script doesn’t give them enough to work with. Nighy is great, reprising his role as the vampire overlord. The music by Paul Haslinger (formerly of Tangerine Dream) sets the right mood, and Ross Emery’s cinematography lends a beautiful sheen to the characters and settings.
The special effects are nice, though a bit overdone. Computer-generated imagery enhances the practical makeup work, greatly expanding the scale of the film, but the effort to impress the audience with the sheer number of monsters suffers from the law of diminishing returns, with few individual scenes standing out in memory. There is also the old problem of the cartoony look of CGI, but at least in this case it is subsumed into the overall fantasy look of the film.
The ending makes a nice effort to tie the continuity in directly with the first UNDERWORLD film. And that pretty much tells you all you need to know: this is a film for the fans who recall every detail of the preceding two films; no one else need apply.

DVD DETAILS

Screen Gems DVD release of UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS offers good sound and a great widescreen transfer that renders the film’s visuals in impressive detail; even if the story disappoints, it is easy to enjoy looking at the backgrounds.
These are the bonus features:

  • Audio commentary with director Patrick Tatopoulos, producer, Len Wiseman, and others.
  • Featurette: Underworld: Rise of the Lycans – From Script to Screen
  • Featurette: The Origin of the Fued (notes Romeo and Juliet parallel) – promo piece that fills in exposition not made clear in film and fills us in on the characters
  • Featurette: Re-Creating the Dark Ages – The Look of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
  • Music Video: “Deathclub”
  • Previews (including Sky Crawlers, Quarantine, Blood: The Last Vampire, 2012)

The featurettes are mostly standare promotional pieces, shot and edited before the film’s release. “Script to Screen” doesn’t reall focus on the titular subject, instead offering generic making-of info. “The Look of Underwold” is a bit better, as it focuses on the film’s storngest element. In way, the most interesting  featurette is “Origin of the Fued.” Although it consists mostly of cast and crew describing their characters (especially recurring characters whose back story is being explained in the prequel), there is some useful exposition provided that does not appear in the film itself.
The audio commentary is a bit chatty and mostly not too informative, with the filmmakers mostly patting themselves on the back for their accomplishments. A few remarkable details do emerge, such as the fact that the surreal forest that lends such atmosphere to UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS is not a set but an actual location. We also learn that Lucian’s revolutionary speech (one of the film’s dramatic highlights) helped get more money for production when it was cut together as part of a promo film.
During a werewolf-transformation scene, Patrick Tatopoulos mentions that old-fashioned transformations (in films like 1936’s THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON) were achieved by having the actor walk behind pillars, allowing the editing to disguise cuts that allowed the camera to stop while makeup was applied. Computer-generated imagery renders this form of trickery unnecessary, yet for some reasonthe scene in UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS still has the werewolves walking behind pillars as they shape-shift.
Most interesting is a story told by producer Len Weisman, who directed the previous two UNDERWORLD films. Wiseman addresses continuity problem with first UNDERWORLD, which included a flashback depicting Viktor’s daughter Sonja as a blond – even though the script expressly stated that she was supposed to resemble Selene, the dark-haired character played by Kate Beckinsale. When it came time to make UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS, the filmmakers were faced with a dilemma: maintain continuity with a scene that was compromised by budgetary restrictions (they couldn’t afford a wig or a dye job for the blond actress), or simply shoot it the way they thought it should be. Having opted for the later, Wiseman expresses a wish to replace the UNDERWORLD flashback with footage from UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS, and one of the producers says he is working on it for future edition.

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