Underworld (2003) – Film & DVD Review

This mostly mediocre movie is a painless enough time-waster, thanks to slick production values and some impressive stunt work, but it never lives up to the potential of its premise about a centuries-old war between rival clans of vampires and werewolves. The idea seems to have been to create a “Romeo-and-Juliet” narrative, with a couple (one from each clan) falling in love; instead, director Len Wiseman uses the film as an excuse to stage lots and lots of MATRIX-inspired shoot-outs that muddle the story. Fortunately, things pick up in the last twenty minutes, when the film finally gets around to revealing the essential details of what’s been happening – and why.
Kate Beckinsale stars as Selene, a “Death-Dealer” (i.e., a vampire trained to assassinate rival werewolves) who realizes that the “lycans” are hatching a new plot, which involves a young human doctor, Michael Corwin (Scott Speedman). Most of the early part of the film is devoted to various skirmishes and lots of back-and-forth running around, as Selene rescues Michael, takes him back to the vampires’ lair, from which he escapes, only to return, trying to find out what’s happened to him because he’s been bitten by a werewolf.


The romance between Selene and Michael never ignites because the film never provides any reason for it, except for the simple obligation Selene feels because Michael saved her after she was wounded by a werewolf. Instead, much time is taken up with intra-vampire rivalries and machinations that distract from the core story. They also have the unfortunate side effect of reminding us that depictions of vampire culture on screen are almost always dull: vampires are great loners, but they don’t make for interesting social creatures.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the screenplay portrays them essentially like ordinary people – living an immortal lifespan has done little to alter their personality or modify their behavior. This is particularly troublesome because so much of the plot’s back-story is clouded in legend – a condition that afflicts humans with a limited lifespan, who pass tales down from one generation to the next. For vampires, on the other hand, all of this should have occurred within living memory.
Along the way, numerous obvious questions are swept under the rug. The film is skimpy in its exposition about the relative powers of werewolves and vampires and how vulnerable they are to each other; the most we get is some explanation about the different bullets each tribe uses on the other. You would think that a film about immortals might come up with a more novel method of warfare than simple gunplay, but you would be wrong.
When the guns are put away, the action does get more interesting, such as a TERMINATOR-type scene in which a werewolf outruns a car and jumps on top, only to be knocked off and then rammed, his body flying through the air with ballet-style grace. Also impressive are Selene’s free-fall leaps from the top of buildings, quickly absorbing the impact upon landing and non-chalantly strolling away. (A similar visual gag was employed in BLADE 3, to much less impressive effect.)
Beckinsale cuts a striking figure as Selene (much more impressive than Charlize Theron in AEON FLUX), but the script does not explore the character in a way that lets her strut her stuff as an actress; she just gets to strut around in her cool black outfit. (Which raises an interesting question: she’s such a loner – apparently reluctant to ask anyone to life a finger to aid her – we have to wonder who laces up her lovely black corset.)
The rest of the cast are mostly young unknowns who deliver adequate but unexceptional performances. The exception is Bill Nighy, as vampire elder Viktor. He’s the only actor able to convey a sense of age bordering on immortality – you actually believe he’s been around for a few centuries, unlike the rest of the cast, who come across like posers dressed up for a night out at a Goth club.
The last act sees the film finally living up to its potential. Michael, we learn, can survive being bitten by both a werewolf and a vampire, turning him into a superior hybrid, and Lycan-leader Lucien reveals the flash-point in the centuries old vampire-werewolf conflict– which emerges as a melodramatic metaphor for race relations and class warfare. The final battle scenes are genuinely thrilling, and the conclusion is satisfying, even while leaving the door wide open for a sequel. We’re left with the feeling that the movie should have begun much closer to the point at which it ended, which makes the prospect of a sequel tantalizing.

DVD DETALS

The Superbit DVD of UNDERWORLD offers two audio commentaries: one by the director and the screenwriter, and another focusing on technical details. There are also four featurettes:

  1. “The Making of Underworld” is a standard promotional video, with director, writer, producer and actors uncritically extolling the film’s virtues. Much of the most interesting footage is re-used, to better effect, in the subsequent featurettes.
  2. “Creatures” examines the design and manufacture of the film’s monsters, focusing on designer Patrick Tatapolous. For some reason, there are favorable references toward designing werewolves with a “cat-like” appearance. There is also much talk about achieving the monsters with “practical” effects (i.e., achieved live, on set) — which is nice but ignores the fact that many of these shots ended up using computer-generated enhancement, lending them the very CGI look that practical effects are supposed to avoid.
  3. “Stunts” implies that most of the action was achieved with wirework rather than CGI, often with the principle actors instead of stunt men. Unfortunately, this effort is not always clearly visible in the final film.
  4. “Sights and Sounds” is a montage of B-roll footage, showing us a series of behind-the-scenes clips strung together.

Besides the Superbit DVD, there is also a double-disc DVD that offers an extended cut of the film, both restored and enhanced scenes. The film came out on Blu-ray disc on September 25, 2007.
UNDERWORLD (2003). Directed by Len Wiseman. Written by Denn McBride, from a story by McBride, Kevin Grevioux & Len Wiseman. Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Michael Sheen, Shane Brolly, Bill Nighy, Erwin Leder, Sophia Myles, Robbie Gee, Wentworth Miller, Kevin Grevioux.

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