Foreword: The “Underworld” franchise began in 2003 and technically continues to this day, although its future is a little uncertain considering how much they’ve slowed down. While never a critical darling, each movie has been profitable and the series has developed a surprisingly dedicated fanbase, even if I can’t say I’m part of that demographic. I missed the first “Underworld” when it arrived in theaters, but was able to catch it on PPV and experienced every one of the sequels on the big screen. The only reason I bothered revisiting any of them though was for the sake of this review series.
The Vampires have been waging war with the Lycans (werewolves) for centuries, with both sides embracing the advanced technologies of the modern era. Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is a ‘Death Dealer’ (Vampire assassin), but she notices a rise in Lycan activity, all surrounding a (seemingly) normal human named Michael (Scott Speedman). She investigates and even bonds with Michael, but they discover they’ve wandered into a conspiracy that will put both in the line-of-fire between the two warring factions. Can the pair survive against the werewolves AND the vampires? I respect “Underworld”, even if I can’t call it a ‘good’ movie, or even one I particularly like. I admire effort and for all of its many faults, you can tell that the filmmakers genuinely cared about this project- whereas by the time they reach the latter sequels, they’re just milking a dead cow and are seemingly miserable while doing so. What does the first film do well? For one, it boasts a great cast and the majority of them excel in their roles. Kate Beckinsale (Selene) showed a little more personality when compared to her characterization of the sequels, although her accent was inconsistent. The camera loves her though and I find her mysteriousness to be alluring. Bill Nighy (Viktor) had presence and could either be sinister or inspiring, depending on what the scene called for and he even shows some nuance. Michael Sheen (Lucian) is surprisingly intimidating. I’ve always loved the guy, but never thought I’d find him threatening. Scott Speedman (Michael) does fine, but the character…well, what character? He’s a walking and breathing plot device and a major problem with “Underworld” is that it’s supposed to be a supernatural spin on “Romeo and Juliet“, yet the core relationship is underdeveloped and they’re never given any time to develop chemistry. Was this even a romance? At no point did I recognize attraction between either of the parties. Back to the acting- some of the supporting cast is weak, but the primary players all do very good and often kept my interest anchored when the rest of the movie was failing to do so.
The filmmakers rely on practical effects when bringing the werewolves to life and they look awesome, which is good because the CGI on display hasn’t aged very well. Thankfully, computer generated imagery is only used when the action requires it, but it’s still incredibly awkward by todays standards- especially when placed next to the impressive prosthetic effects. Nevertheless, Len Wiseman was smart to keep the werewolves in the shadows, because that’s where they’re at their creepiest. When they do emerge from the darkness, their appearances are a lot more impactful and frightening. This is why I prefer practical effects over CGI, as the former forces the director to use them sparingly, making every second they are on screen count. CGI has no limitations as to what can be shown, so it seems like directors don’t feel the need to hold back, unveiling CGI effects without any buildup or fanfare, using the tool so excessively that the mind becomes numb to the visual. This would be a problem that contributed to the death of my interest in this franchise, as it’s also a lot easier to develop atmosphere from practical effects, since they interact a lot more with the lighting, cast, sets, etc. “Underworld: Awakening” might be a lot more polished looking, but gone is the moody lighting, the seeds of unease planted by the actors and the patient pacing, drawing us in and letting us feel the anticipation for what comes next. Now they just bombard you with an abundance of CGI effects, so “Underworld” was at least produced during a time when CGI was too expensive to be used recklessly for modestly budgeted genre flicks. Ugh, I’ve become that cantankerous old dude who whines about how much better things were in ‘my day’. That was back when dinosaurs ruled the world…because they were still making “Carnosaur” movies…*Ahem*. Where was I? Oh yeah, the first “Underworld“. I had actually forgotten that there was a time when we thought Len Wiseman would be the next big thing and “Underworld” was a strong display of his skills as a director. I wouldn’t describe “Underworld” as a horror flick (it’s a hybrid of multiple genres), but it does contain a lot more suspense than the sequels. This is at least partially because the action is somewhat grounded in reality, with most of the confrontations being normal shoot-outs and the occasional mauling. I prefer this over the CGI heavy super-hero inspired battles of the latter sequels, as the restraint gives dramatic weight to the confrontations. There is some cool Gothic imagery, but the blue filter was over-used to the point of cramping the visuals. It got exhausting after awhile, although it didn’t ruin the experience for me. Finally, I’m a sucker for ‘world building’. There are a lot of interesting tidbits about this setting and I found myself intrigued by the creative weaponry and the intricate back-stories. Sometimes the exposition is forced and awkward, but “Underworld” conveyed a lot of information without spending all of its time conveying information. Ahem “Blood Wars” Ahem. There are still some plot holes though, such as how even though Michael is experiencing someone else’s memories, he’s not seeing those memories from the correct perspective. Whoops!
The editing is pretty sucky though. You can tell that “Underworld” is struggling with its meager production values thanks to awkward cuts that actually draw attention to the limited budget. Some of the simpler effects look bad due to some transitions, while occasionally the choreography will stumble thanks to blatant continuity errors. They try to do some flashy, music video type of cutting, but it didn’t mesh with the grim tone. The movie is also surprisingly slow paced, with a few segments standing out as particularly choppy. But above everything- “Underworld” doesn’t deliver any satisfying pay-offs. The filmmakers build up the ‘Vampires Vs Werewolves’ gimmick, but most of the screen-time is dedicated to the tensions amongst the vampire coven. The filmmakers build up some sexual tension amongst the leads, but they don’t even share a victory smooch at the end! They build up various EPIC confrontations, only for them to end abruptly. Characters would suffer anti-climactic fates, after so much time was spent on building up their threat. I realized that by the time two hours had passed, we hadn’t been given a real fight between the vampires and werewolves! They always ended just before they started getting exciting or worse, they occur OFF-SCREEN! RAWR! The finale finally gives us what we want, but it plays out like a conventional fist fight. What happened to all of that…teleporting (?) that the hybrid was doing? I think he’s supposed to be moving faster than the eye can see, but…he just…stops doing it, so there would be a more even fight…I guess…It’s underwhelming, but I have to assume the limited budget is the reason why the battles were restrained. I would’ve been fine with being patient, if the pay-off was worth the wait…but it wasn’t. “Underworld” is a product of its time, with the MTV style of editing, the leather fashion choices, emo dialogue and brooding tone, which sometimes was difficult to take seriously. Some actors don’t seem to realize that the film wants to be taken seriously, which makes it even funnier. Nevertheless, “Underworld” was a decent start that had potential to become an awesome franchise…except it didn’t…
UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION (2006)
The war between the Vampires and Lycans has ended, but Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and Michael (Scott Speedman) are now being hunted by the newly awakened Vampire Elder Marcus (Tony Curran), who wishes to free his brother William- who happens to be the ‘original’ and most dangerous Lycan. “Underworld: Evolution” is either a step up from its predecessor, or a step down, depending on what you liked or disliked about the first film. It does struggle through an admittedly flimsy narrative, where the characters travel from one location, receive or deliver exposition, participate in an action set piece and move to another location, rinse, wash and repeat. The story is pretty weak, but even worse, it’s told in a somewhat choppy and confusing way. Fans may be disappointed in the lack of world building, the reduced role of the Lycans, or the watered down Gothic atmosphere. Michael continues to be underdeveloped, despite implications that he was about to go through a character arc. These are valid reasons to dislike “Underworld: Evolution”, but I personally prefer it over the original. In fact, it’s my favorite entry of this franchise.
The action scenes are significantly cooler thanks to the stylish choreography and drastically superior editing. Selene, Michael, Marcus and William each have vastly different gimmicks, making their physical collisions more intriguing. Whereas “Underworld” was slow, tame and talky, “Evolution” is fast paced, violent and consistently exciting. The emphasis is more on action and horror, with the boosted production values allowing for better cinematography and special effects. The blue filter is used again, but it’s not quite as overpowering this time around, so I had an easier time appreciating the visuals. The creature designs were creative, with William looking far more menacing than the other Lycans, while the winged Marcus is arguably the most bad-ass creation in the entire franchise. I’m also thrilled they continued to use impressive practical effects, only resorting to CGI for filling in the gaps and the CGI holds up pretty well. They try to flesh out Marcus and while I wish they explored his motivations a little further, Tony Curran’s intense performance made him into my favorite Underworld villain. The relationship between Selene and Michael is explored a little further, at least to where they’re beginning to resemble an actual couple. Nevertheless, their romance continues to be a missed opportunity, especially as they’re finally showing some chemistry. It’s a shame that this is the last outing of Scott Speedman’s Michael, because he was just starting to become interesting. There are still other problems with the movie, such as that incredibly awkward sex scene and the anti-climactic ending. I’m not saying “Underworld: Evolution” is necessarily a good film and I agree that it’s pretty shallow, even when compared to its predecessor. I completely understand why someone would dismiss this, but I was thoroughly entertained.
UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS (2009)
This prequel to “Underworld” surrounds the doomed romance between the Vampire Princess, Sonja (Rhona Mitra), and the Lycan slave known as Lucian (Michael Sheen), which took place during the dark ages. This is the point when the “Underworld” franchise began its downfall, even though “Rise of the Lycans” isn’t really bad as much as it’s just…really, really, really mediocre. From a story perspective, the film is fine, if a bit ordinary. We’ve seen plenty of slave rebellion tales and ‘Romeo and Juliet‘-esque romances before and this script goes through the motions, relying on every cliche that accompanies these stories and dressing them up with the “Underworld” setting, without offering us anything unique or interesting. You can argue that I’m not being fair, as even though “Rise of the Lycans” is borrowing from other formulas, the addition of werewolves and vampires gives the film its own distinct flavor…except “Underworld” already kind of did this first…So it’s the same ole shit to me. But do you know what? The narrative was steady and there weren’t many instances of stupid writing or inconsistent characterizations. At least this time around, a lot more time is spent on developing the core relationship, without taking away from the spectacle or ‘world building’. You can even argue that “Rise of the Lycans” is superior to “Underworld“, as the writing is less convoluted, the pacing is more balanced and the love story is…well, an actual love story. The acting is good, with Michael Sheen and Rhona Mitra having solid chemistry, although Bill Nighy (Viktor) steals the show (again). I still can’t say I was invested in the romance itself though, nor did I really care about any of the conflicts or situations. The biggest flaw haunting “Rise of the Lycans” is that this entire story was told to us by Lucian in the first film. We know how it will end and the movie never really gave us anything else to chew on.
The special effects, which balance CGI and practical, range from average to solid. I can’t complain about the choreography for the fight scenes, although I sometimes wondered why the Lycans wouldn’t transform- ignoring the obvious budget limitations. The editing was acceptable as well, but all of these minor achievements ultimately drown in HORRIBLE lighting. Special effects wizard-turned-director Patrick Tatopoulos tries to imitate Len Wiseman’s aesthetics, but there is a distinct lack of style that made Wiseman’s blue filter whoring tolerable. We do get another overdose of blue, but it doesn’t mesh well with the dark and murky lighting, ensuring that you’ll only be able to see a little bit of everything, but not a lot of anything. Even the cast sometimes struggles with it, as they can’t emote to their fullest in the darkness, reducing the impact of the drama. Finally, the whole period piece gimmick is probably a bit too high concept for such a modestly budgeted feature, although this didn’t stop the studio from making this a little cheaper than its predecessor anyway. The limited amount of sets was very distracting, even though what we got was…fine…”Rise of the Lycans” is watchable, but it’s overall a very underwhelming experience that didn’t really need to exist…and the franchise would only continue to sink further. I think a large part of the problem is that at this point, the studio didn’t view the “Underworld” brand as a mainstream property, even though the first two entries did respectable business. Neither broke the $100,000,000 mark though and the critical reception was mostly negative, so the financing had to rely on its cult appeal. They figured that if you’re going to watch “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans“, you were probably an established fan who would check it out regardless of what the critics said, how much it cost or how good the final product was. This is understandable, but showed the studios willingness to both cut corners and take advantage of the fanbase. “Rise of the Lycans” is hardly the most egregious example of such a mindset, but this would arguably derail the quality of the franchise later on. For those who question my logic, you should know that there was once talk about this being released straight to DVD, so there was never a whole lot of faith in “Rise of the Lycans“.
DISCARDED MATERIAL (The Original Review)
-Note from Author: This is my old review from my freewebs domain and I find to be as mediocre as the movie itself, so it’s only here for those interested or feeling nostalgic for my old works. I can’t stand my attempts at humor here.
Before I begin my review on this origins story, you should know my feelings on the “Underworld” series. I’m simply not a fan. I can understand why many people like the first movie, because it was pretty ambitious and they tried to make something great. I simply felt it was bland. I actually prefer its sequel, “Underworld: Evolution”, for simply bring more entertaining. However, even that has it’s flaws. Hence, I can’t say I was stoked when I heard of this prequel. It seemed like a bad idea, not helped by the fact that Len Wiseman wasn’t even directing this time around. But you never know, maybe it would turn out to be good.
The story starts off with voice over exposition about how werewolves are enslaved and killed by vampires. But then Lucian is born, the first Lycan, someone who can control his bestial transformation. Viktor, the elder vampire of the time, knows he should kill him. But he doesn’t, and makes him into his favorite slave. In fact, he then makes MORE lycans just like him. Uh oh…….Cut to present day. A warrior rides through hordes of mindless wolves. But they are persistent and are catching up to him. As he rides to the vampire castle, we see Lucian (now an adult), quickly take action and use a crossbow to kill off the attacking wolves. The warrior arrives safely and removes his helmet to *gasp*, reveal he’s a she. She’s Sonja, Viktor’s daughter. She doesn’t seem very grateful for Lucian’s help, but we quickly learn they are having an affair. Oh crap, another Romeo and Juliet love story. At least this one uses that romance! The first movie completely falsely advertised it’s Shakespearean love story. What follows is a surprisingly unintentionally funny love scene. Anyway, Lucian wants freedom. But Sonja is too scared of the consequences of running away and is probably comfortable with their current life. I won’t spoil the rest, but what follows is basically something the first Underworld movie tells us, so it’s not really surprising.
The main issue is that we know from the first movie what will happen. Of course, that isn’t necessarily going to be the case for everyone. I actually had to be reminded of this, but that’s because I could barely remember the first two films. Hell, I just watched this movie two days ago and I can barely remember this one. Hence, either it’s all going to spoiled for you or you probably won’t care.“Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” never goes beyond being a serviceable film. It’s never scary, nor is it as stylish as the other films. I mean, over-the-top, shaky camera movements DOES NOT COMPENSATE FOR STYLE. Now, I won’t say the movie is completely worthless. In fact, I’ll even say that it’s not really bad. I really dug the character of Viktor. In the first two movies, he was just a typical villain. Here, we get to see his character fully developed, even though he is still just as evil and a villain. The special effects quality varies between fake looking CGI to better CGI, to almost “The Howling”-esque effects(which is a good thing! Kill the CGI!). The sets aren’t bad either.
The acting is also pretty good. Michael Sheen (Lucian) is intense and shows lots of range. He gets to do more this time around and that’s a good thing. Bill Nighy (Viktor) is the best part of the movie.This is the 2nd time that Rhona Mitra(Sonja) fooled me into thinking that she was Kate Beckinsale (the first being “Doomsday”). Seriously, she does well, but get your own personality dammit! Watch “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” if you liked the other movies. If not, you’ll just be like me: Uninterested.
UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING (2012)
The former ‘death dealer’ Selene (Kate Beckinsale) wakes up after being comatose for 12 years in a human laboratory and discovers that the war between the Vampires and the Lycans had ended when humans discovered their existence and sought to purge them both. Selene also discovers that she has a daughter (India Eisley), whom both the Lycans and humans want for mysterious reasons. I remember being indifferent to the arrival of “Underworld: Awakening”, as I had never really connected with the franchise and found its various ideas rather uninspired. Humanity discovering the supernatural war taking place underneath their noses sounds original, but “Blade III: Trinity” had already covered this territory, so it’s not a novel concept. The futuristic visual style was reminiscent of “Daybreakers”, some action set pieces felt derived from “Resident Evil: Afterlife” and the new vampire-werewolf hybrid was already done in…well, the first two “Underworld” movies. I will admit to being intrigued by the Lycanzilla monster, just because it’s a giant f@cking werewolf, but I had entered the theater more out of obligation than interest and left eager to pen my negative review of the movie. I chose not to revisit “Underworld: Awakening” for this marathon though, as I found my original review to be salvageable and… the movie sucks…It’s an unfocused mess that wastes all of its potential and strips away everything that made its predecessors interesting. But I’ve polished and updated my critique, so I have you enjoy it!
“Awakening” had four different screenwriters and…that makes way too much sense, as it seems like four different stories are battling for control within the movie, without any of them emerging victorious. With an approved $70,000,000 budget, the filmmakers had more resources to bring their collective vision to life, which might be the reason why everything feels so disjointed, as the majority of these ideas are high concept and they might not have the opportunity to use them again. But they should’ve asked themselves: “Does it really matter, if we can’t properly explore any of these possibilities?“. I was surprised when I first heard of the increased production values, as “Awakening” seems much smaller than it really is, as if the filmmakers are still cutting corners, making all of these ‘high concept’ ideas feel insignificant- as if a low budgeted movie could’ve easily replicated the same material. I believe this is because the movie introduces these concepts, but never really follows through with them, nor does it give any of them a satisfactory pay-off. Let’s check off each one, so I can explain why-
- Humanity enters the War– This sounds intriguing until you remember that in the “Underworld” lore, vampires are presented as super human. They’re faster, stronger, more durable and possibly more technologically advanced, but they resort to using weapons to fight the Lycans…just like humans, so we’re only a threat because of sheer numbers. I personally would’ve been more excited if zombies, cyborgs or Frankenstein entered the fray, as they would provide a different dynamic. But “Awakening” wastes what little potential this had by practically dropping the storyline once our heroes escape the lab. The Lycans promptly resume their place as the antagonists, with humanity being reduced to a plot device. Wouldn’t it have been cooler if we saw Vampires and Lycans forming an uneasy truce, where they battle waves of soldiers? Apparently the filmmakers disagreed, as we never saw that many humans at the same time and they’re ultimately revealed to be mere pawns. I actually remember speculating that this idea was only conceived so they could have a new outsider played by Michael Ealy deliver exposition. Telling us what we need to know seems to be the only purpose of the character…and yet he’s also the only one who’s (somewhat) fleshed out.
- The Futuristic Settling– Of all of the proposed ideas, this was probably the most promising. After all, “Rise of the Lycans” took place in the past, so why not follow that up with a sequel which takes place in the f@cking future. You don’t see that very often, well, other than with “Jason X“, “Hellraiser 4: Bloodline“, “Critters 4“, “Leprechaun 4“- okay, it turns out you see this a lot more often than you realize. But not only would an upgrade in the science fiction department give the ‘Vampires Vs Lycan’ feud a much needed boost of energy, it could also continue the bizarre trend of the third sequels taking place in the future. Dare we say…franchises IN SPACE!? “Awakening” emphasized its futuristic setting during the marketing campaign, but in reality, the ‘near future’ in this setting looks…pretty much identical to the present. Selene at one point says she know longer knows this world, but…why not? Everything seems the same! There aren’t any floating cars, mechs, laser guns, space ships, post-apocalyptic landscapes, experimental architecture or any indication that this takes place in a year that is not 2012- ignoring the dialogue cues. They didn’t take advantage of the setting at all, which is unforgivable as this should’ve been easy from a creative standpoint.
- Lycanzilla– When I saw Selene battling a giant f@cking werewolf in the trailer, my jaw dropped and I was like: “Whoa…That is a giant f@cking werewolf“. I like the design and the CGI involving this monstrosity is actually very good, but couldn’t they have made a more memorable villain out of this gimmick? As of 2017, I had forgotten who this character was and had to research on wikipedia, but I still can’t remember who he was! He more-or-less functioned as a henchman to a villain who was even more forgettable than he was.
- Eve– Selene wakes up and discovers that she gave birth to Michael’s child, but the real revelation is that this girl- named Eve- is a hybrid, just like her daddy. Of all the ideas, this one is probably the most competently executed and by ‘competently’ I mean…it’s cliched as f@ck and really boring, but at least the filmmakers seem to vaguely know how this kind of story is supposed to work. I should warn you that I hate tumultuous parent-child dramas, as they all follow the exact same formula. The parent will be aloof and harsh, while the kid will be bratty and stupid for the sake of plot convenience. “Awakening” seems about as uninterested in developing this subplot as we are when watching it, as even though Eve and Selene spend most of the movie together, it’s participating in action set pieces. They don’t really interact much, so the movie is asking us to care about their plight, instead of giving us reasons to care about their plight. It doesn’t help that Eve is annoying and Selene is even bitchier than usual. Eve’s hybrid transformation is awful, and her shrieking and growling is f@cking hilarious, only matched by her funny one-liners…which made me laugh because of how lame they sounded. The fact that she’s a hybrid could’ve been interesting if Michael was merely a werewolf, but we’ve already seen the hybrid gimmick done before…the novelty is gone, why are you doing this again? Len Wiseman must love the hybrid concept though, as he does it once more in “Blood Wars“, but if you’re going to recycle your own material, at least give us a new and cool design. Michael’s hybrid form still looks the best and that was three f@cking movies ago!
I guess there are a few neat details to be found, such as the silver werewolf grenades, but those little additions aren’t going to hold your attention for more than one or two scenes. David (Theo James) is introduced, along with his Father, Thomas (Charles Dance). When I first saw this in 2012, I complained that their characters were dull, Dance was wasted in his limited screen-time and their scenes lead absolutely nowhere. You’d think that one of them would return for the finale, considering all of their build-up, but their storythreads are seemingly dropped. As of 2017 though, you can argue that this is the ONLY idea they follow through with, as both return in more prominent roles for “Blood Wars“. I’m not sure why they bothered with David, as he’s arguably the most boring character in the entire “Underworld” franchise, but at least the sequel makes use of him. Every other wasted concept to appear in “Awakening” is either ignored or written off in “Blood Wars“, showing how little Len Wiseman or his underlings cared about this entry. Can you blame them? When the narrative seems to be comprised of many different subplots in place of a real plot, the final result is going to feel plotless. Furthermore, they wrote themselves into too many corners with these subplots, ensuring that none of them could be expanded upon in the future. If “Blood Wars” continued the conflict with humanity, it would no longer feel fresh, as we’ve already seen it and “Awakening” doesn’t really present humans as a credible threat anyway. If it gave us the futuristic setting that “Awakening” should’ve had, then this would create problems with continuity, because “Awakening” was too lazy to do anything with it. If Eve played a more prominent role in the next one, what would be her dynamic with Selene? I guess she could potentially pull the former Death Dealer out of her shell, revealing a softer side to her personality…which actually might be good…but that might also derail the characterization a bit too much. Plus, it would certainly get in the way of the action set pieces, which has become the priority for this franchise. Of course, when I ask “Can you blame them?“, your answer should be a definitive “Yes“- for “Blood Wars” ended up being even sloppier and lazier than “Awakening“…but there is a reason why this one feels like it’s the most irrelevant of all of the sequels, even moreso than the inferior “Blood Wars“. It teased too much and there was no way in hell “Blood Wars” was going to be able follow through on any of these storythreads with its meager resources, so the filmmakers HAD to distance themselves from “Awakening“.
The directors do provide a few good shots and the build-up to Lycan-zilla was somewhat suspenseful, but their visual style feels like a watered down version of Len Wiseman’s. The cinematography is nice and polished, but it’s not particularly interesting to look at. The previous films might’ve been rough around the edges, but they did make a valiant attempt at creating a Gothic atmosphere, mixed in with a lot of blue. Maybe they overdid the color scheme, but at least those films’ were distinct. The direction here is sometimes awkward, such as the transformation scenes, which look silly. The camera likes the linger on the characters bestial mannerisms and facial expressions, but they look so overblown and weird. The editing also occasionally caused me to facepalm, especially during the prologue, where they use clips of the previous movies for the recap. We see Michael (Scott Speedman), but Speedman doesn’t reprise his role for the new footage, with an obvious body double being used for his cameo. They should’ve tried harder to exclude Speedman from the recap, as it only drew attention to the change. There are also some very awkward transitions, which hurts the flow of the feature. The action scenes sucked too, despite the big budget, as the battles are too tightly edited, the lighting is too dim and the camera always seemed too close. They combine practical effects with CGI, but once again despite the increased production values, I thought the CGI mostly sucked. Lycanzilla was well done, but the rest struggled to look convincing, as the weak CGI was constantly being spliced in next to good practical effects.
“Underworld: Awakening” was just a bad experience for me. It has a shallow script that doesn’t follow through with any of its ideas to the point where the film’s selling points almost feel like filler. The characters are all boring, from the newcomers to the returning Selene- whose personality has receded to the point where her only attribute is her brooding. The acting isn’t really bad, but despite this being an impressive cast on paper, they’re all phoning in their performances. The films aesthetics can be summed up as “what you’ve seen before, but with crappier CGI”, which made me wonder a few times where the hell the budget went. I didn’t like this movie. I didn’t like its look, its story or its action scenes. My guess is that Len Wiseman no longer cares about the franchise and if he continues to make these movies, it’s only because he wants more money. Yet strangely, “Awakening” doesn’t appear to be held in low esteem by fans and even the critics seem to concede that it’s one of the ‘better’ entries within the franchise. I attribute the milder reception to “Awakening” to it being the least…cult-ish (?) of all these movies. “Underworld“, “Evolution”, “Rise of the Lycans” and even “Blood Wars” are all obviously designed for cult appeal, which can be alienating for those who aren’t enchanted by this world, these characters or the odd visual style. “Awakening” tones down those elements and feels a lot more…normal, even if to me, this translates into ‘blandness’. I guess I can see why casual viewers might prefer this though, even if I think it’s still a bad movie. But say you what you will, “Awakening” is also the highest grossing “Underworld” film to date, reaching $160,000,000 worldwide. Was it profitable though? I have to imagine that its grosses were divided amongst multiple parties, meaning very little money was made off the project, as why else would would “Blood Wars” only have half of its budget? Meh, in short, “Awakening” sucks and its legacy is that it left the franchise creatively bankrupt, leaving us with the void known as “Blood Wars“.
UNDERWORLD: BLOOD WARS (2017)
Elite Vampire Selene (Kate Beckinsale) rejoins the Vampire Coven ranks when the Lycans (werewolves) become the dominant species in their never-ending war thanks to the rise of the intelligent and charismatic Marius (Tobias Menzies), but predictable betrayals ensue. The “Underworld” franchise obviously wants to die, as I have never seen a series so uninterested in itself. For one, the ‘werewolf vs vampire’ gimmick has become so watered down that they might as well move on from that concept, as most of the fighting here takes place between vampires and other vampires, or vampires against werewolves in their human forms. They try to justify this in-universe by claiming that their war has become based around their competing technologies, rendering the Lycan transformation a liability, but then what’s the point? I want vampires fighting f@cking werewolves! Obviously the dwindling budget is responsible and the explanation is just an excuse because they can’t afford too many effects, but they should at least find new ways of keeping my interest instead of resorting to the same ole shit. Once again, the ‘plot’- despite accidentally stumbling upon some intriguing possibilities- is treated as an afterthought or a chore. “Blood Wars” carelessly rushes through its exposition and I mean this literally, as the actors deliver their lines unnaturally quickly whenever they have to discuss anything story-related, because the filmmakers just want to hurry to the next action sequence. This might be OK if I felt the fight scenes or special effects were exceptional, but the hand-to-hand combat and gun-fighting choreography were mediocre and unimaginative, not helped by the choppy editing. The CGI isn’t convincing at all and the new monster design is offensively dull. Marius is supposed to be some sort of hybrid, but he just resembles a Lycan with a humanoid face…BORING! “Resident Evil” might’ve also given up on the storytelling side of cinema, but at least you feel like the ‘creative’ minds involved are enjoying themselves when it comes to the monsters and set pieces. Even the worst of them has a certain amount of energy thanks to their enthusiasm, but “Underworld” just feels so…sad, as if it knows it has become a shambling corpse of its former self. The murky, dreary cinematography is an adequate replication of its predecessors, but gone is any sense of style or atmosphere- which I believe this franchise used to have. I honestly felt like the dim lighting and washed out color scheme now only function as a way to cover up the budget cuts. They failed though, as you can tell by the limited sets, the assumed time skips, the rushed ending and the subpar, spaced out effects that corners were obviously cut in the production value department. I also had difficulty taking a lot of this seriously, such as the costume designs of the Nordic Coven or how some of the confrontations are staged. I laughed when Marius and David had their stare-down, complete with snarling and mugging.
The script doesn’t even follow its own logic, as a lot of time is spent on building up the vampires’ main fortress as ‘impenetrable’. When the Lycans finally arrive and come across this major obstacle, they overcome it by…barging in…Huh? That’s it? Also, why don’t the Lycans just use the heavy artillery before charging in and suffering all those casualties? It seems like all they have to do is bombard the place from the outside during the day and they’d win easily. I would’ve assumed that the place was fortified to withstand such firepower, but then the Lycans start successfully blasting holes in the walls (after getting mowed down for awhile), letting sunlight in- drawing attention to this oversight. When Marius and Selene first clash, Marius is clearly overpowering her in his human form, but then she puts up a better fight against his super powered hybrid form…What? So the transformations make them weaker now?… Oh boy and for you long term Underworld fans, you’re going to be SO pissed by how they resolve the Michael storyline. Even as someone who has never cared for this series, that really got under my skin. I was angry for the fanbase that I’m not even apart of, which is a very new feeling. I’m not even sure I understand the whole…other world…thing. They bring it up for a scene, use it as an excuse to give Selene an even bigger upgrade, because why the f@ck not? Selene was at her most interesting when she was an underdog who used her wits and experience to overcome more powerful foes, but she’s become so powerful that it has become impossible to relate to or fear for her. They try to flesh out David (Theo James) a bit, but it’s only to upgrade him as well, making him even more boring than he already was before. Michael (originally played by Scott Speedman) was better, if only because he functioned as an audience surrogate/wish fulfillment character, which “Blood Wars” lacks. Tobias Menzies does fine as Marius, but the character is so underdeveloped that it’s hard to either hate or sympathize with him. I don’t understand why the Lycans have become the villains, as they’re only hostile because the vampires have tried to enslave/exterminate them over the years, but Marius is sometimes shown to be a good leader and other times shown to be an abusive one. He has a love interest, but does he genuinely care for her or is he using her as a pawn? We never find out. “Underworld: Awakening” might as well be erased from the continuity because all of its ideas were more-or-less discarded. The humans never even make an appearance (have we become extinct?) and Selene’s daughter has been sent away ‘to protect her’ because the writers obviously lost interest in that subplot. Weren’t the Lycans naturally drawn to her presence in the previous movie? Yeah, let’s send a little girl off into this crapsack world alone where everyone and everything will hunt her ‘for ‘her protection’. That’s a very good idea and by good, I mean f@cking stupid. I will give credit to the cast for trying their hardest to make it all work, with Lara Pulver stealing the show as the villainous Semira. Even Kate Beckinsale seems invested in the role once more, but the movie is bad. The franchise is bad. This would be a shit conclusion to the overarching story, but on the other hand, Len Wiseman has allowed it to deteriorate so much that I just wish it would end. Put the “Underworld” franchise out of its misery, because “Underworld: Blood War” is about as bored with itself as I was of it.
UPDATE: A new criticism- After watching the movie, I realized how similar all of these storylines are and Marius is a watered down Lucian. They are even introduced in a similar way, both criticizing other Lycans for their predictable, animalistic behavior. It’s possible that this was somewhat intentional in a ‘poetry rhymes’ kind of way, but it’s so badly executed that it just feels lazy and derivative.
Every fiber of my being wants to talk about ‘the fall’ of the “Underworld” franchise, but despite the steady decrease in quality, these movies have been inexplicably financially successful. So did it ever really ‘fall’? While I am hostile towards the lesser entries, I was never enthusiastic about the better ones either and the true fans seem to fine with the likes of “Awakening” and “Blood Wars“. But I do feel that you fans are being a bit too nice here, as the studios are going to continue taking advantage of your good graces. “Underworld” was flawed, but it was a film conceived of passion and imagination, the perfect base for an intriguing series. I was convinced that Len Wiseman would rise among the ranks of the most interesting genre filmmakers and that Kate Beckinsale would become an acclaimed leading actress and for awhile, they kind of were. Wiseman moved on to do “Live Free or Die Hard“, which was divisive, but popular enough to keep him relevant. He was even hired to direct the “Total Recall” remake and these offers probably secured the bulk of his attention, which was probably why “Rise of the Lycans” feels like it’s going through the motions. Beckinsale was already pretty successful prior to becoming Selene, but “Underworld” increased her name value and propelled her into a variety of projects, many of which were a lot more prestigious than “Underworld”. But it seemed like the ones designed to boost her career were failing and the increased exposure meant that the public noticed whenever she was attached to a flop. “Total Recall“- which involved both Beckinsale and Wiseman- was a high profile bomb, effectively killing their momentum. I suspect that they only continue making more “Underworld” sequels because that’s their only guarantee for a big pay-check. At best, they’re using it as something to fall back on. At worst, it’s all they have left. From a creative standpoint, I don’t think Wiseman has anything else to offer the “Underworld” franchise and where else can Kate Beckinsale take the character at this point? After “Awakening” was released, the next “Underworld” project was actually supposed to be a reboot. This was cancelled in favor of the sequel that would eventually become “Blood Wars“, but one has to wonder if the reduced budget was the condition for retaining this continuity. I do suspect that Wiseman and Beckinsale are the ones who pushed for the sequel, as the reboot idea implies that the studio would rather start from scratch. But despite “Blood Wars” being considered to be the weakest of the saga- even amongst the fans, it made money (albeit not as much as the others) and this should concern those interested in an “Underworld 6“. Why? Because now the studios know that the fans will pay to see the movie, regardless of its quality. They could continue to reduce the budgets, rush through the productions and recycle the same storyline and the fanbase will eat it all up. Hell, it might even get released straight-to-DVD, which had at one point been the plan with “Rise of the Lycans“.
I don’t think the franchise will get any better from here, but not all hope is lost. In my opinion, Len Wiseman should step away and maybe try something else, as his talents are being wasted here, or he should start directing the movies himself again. The actual directors are trying too hard to imitate his style, but they just don’t have a knack for it. I think there needs to be new blood in the creative process, giving us new visual styles and new stories, instead of just recycling the same shit over and over again. I think they need to bring back Michael, even if they have to recast him in the process, as his character is too important, was never properly fleshed out or developed and the resolution of his storyline left a bitter taste in fans’ mouths. I also believe the filmmakers should return to practical effects, as the makeup, suits and prosthetics made “Underworld” and its earlier sequels stand out amidst a sea of CGI-reliant genre flicks. The action scenes worked better when grounded in some form of reality, but that would be difficult to re-implement after the last two sequels. I also think it would be cool if they added zombies or killer robots, some new kind of antagonist to make up for the wasted opportunity of having humanity serve that role. I’m not sure if I want a reboot, but I guess that’s not the worst idea, as they could fix the problems which plagued the first one. Kate Beckinsale is great, but she’s in danger of being typecast, so maybe it’s time she moved on too. On the other hand, she’s probably the only reason I’ve stayed with this franchise and I’m sure many feel the same way, so it’s a tough call. As as bad as it got, the “Underworld” series is not even close to being the worst out there. But it started off on shaky ground and gradually deteriorated to the point where I wouldn’t mind if they just ended it. If “Underworld 6” happens, I’d probably eventually watch it, but I’d seriously consider just waiting until it’s available on netflix or hulu. I’m no longer going to throw my time or money at it indiscriminately, nor should you.