Its hard for horror and action fans not to have a soft spot for the Underworld franchise. For a fairly simplistic, straightforward popcorn horror/actiongasm, it’s produced plenty of fans with the original generating three follow-ups and even a comic book mini-series.
It’s also deeply formulaic although, mostly at least, it’s a formula that’s a lot of fun. Although backgrounded by a fairly elaborate mythology about a centuries long war between vampires and Lycans (that’s werewolves), it (almost) never turns dialogue into discursive footnotes that we don’t are about. Most of the series (with the exception of Rise of Lycans) has centered on Kate Beckinsale’s character Selene, a vampire assassin known as a “death dealer.” She kills Lycans… kills them really, really well, in fact.
In the logic of these things, she falls in love with what she’s dedicated to destroying (Oh, the irony!). In the first Underworld, she fell for a hybrid vampire/lycan named Michael Corvinus, the contemporary end of an ancient bloodline with a dormant gene that offers the powers of both vamps and wolvies. The first three films pretty well rang all the changes on this theme but packed in plenty of truly brilliant action sequences.
Underworld: Awakening starts off promisingly by introducing the conceit that the public became aware of the supernaturals living among them, leading to a government initiated “purge” of both bloodsuckers and moon-howlers. Selene and Michael Corvinus are caught in the crossfire and end up in secret laboratories that are up to all sorts of underhanded naughtiness.
As in past entries to the series, the narrative exposition remains lean so that we can get on with the creature effects and Kate Beckinsale in a cat suit shooting, stabbing and blowing up things. New to this outing, we meet the daughter of Selene and Michael, a hybrid child herself experimented on by evil government-funded white coat types (sorry scientist friends!). She has all her dad’s hybrid powers and goes all Exorcist-faced in battle.
Ever since Aliens, female action heroes have been placed in narratives where they meet a young child (sometimes their own, sometimes somebody else’s, sometimes one they think is someone else’s but, you know…) and become its protector. These are troubling narratives in that they seem to suggests that biology really is destiny, that despite the katanas and machine pistols and throwing stars “she’s really just a mom trying to get by” in a tough old world. A tough old world made up of ravening hell-beasts.
You’d think that Selene would get a pass on having to discover her maternal side, being a death-dealing vampire and whatnot. To the credit of the screenwriters (one of which is J. Michael Straczynski of Babylon 5 and Amazing Spider-Man comic fame) they never compromise Beckinsale’s character in favor of sentiment. The film remains thankfully free from moments where Selene realizes that she’s learned to care for a small person and/or soliloquies on emotional attachment. The writers know that that’s not the character the franchise created and do nothing to ruin her.
The film is beautifully shot in the steel blues, grays and blacks that makes their aesthetic instantly recognizable. Beckinsale really does tear through the scenery. Nobody can make putting on a long black leather coat look quite so badass. The effects are passable to very good, with a couple of Lycan transformations that really do make these look like creatures out of myth rather than just CGI blobs. There are also, I have to add, a few moments where they look like CGI blobs.
Although deserving good marks for all of this, Awakening hobbles along to completion. In fact, it feels a bit long at its miniscule seventy-eight minutes (minus credits) running time. Watching the film just feels like listening to a person who’s pretty, talks a few decibels too loud and is awfully boring.
That said, if you’ve enjoyed previous entries in the series, you’ll likely get a kick out of this one. It gives you more of the same, actually a lot more of the same as Awakening somehow found a way to ramp up the stylized violence. The pretty brilliant bloodbath at the end is actually pretty satisfying for action fans though its capped by an “escape to the rooftop” that, frankly, makes no sense whatsoever.
The Blu-ray release proffers lots of extras. Franchise fans will enjoy some of the “Picture in Picture Experience” that splits your screen now and again to show you clips from previous films along with facts and trivia from the series. Several making of featurettes explore the new Lycan effects and shooting in 120-frames per second. Although I did not see the 3D theatrical release, word is that the faster frame rate made for a less schlocky 3D experience than we’ve come to expect (I’m looking at you with your head down, in the back of the class, Clash of the Titans).
Unfortunately, the “Picture in Picture” feature has some annoying elements. First, the “trivia” that occasionally flashes on the screen includes things like “a hybrid is formed from a union of vampire and Lycan.” and, “a vampire elder is usually older and more experienced than younger vampires.” Really? Who writes this stuff?
Second, the clips from previous films come with a caption reminding us that Underworld and its sequels are available on blu-ray. This gives the effect of watching an infomercial. Moreover, a bit like those trailers that advertise the awesomeness of blu-ray at the beginning of every blu-ray disc, it seems an example of preaching to the converted.
It’s perhaps a symptom of the often gratingly humorless nature of the film that the Bloopers reel is an immensely enjoyable special feature. Indeed, it’s kind of a treat just to see Kate Beckinsale smile and laugh. We see some scenes where her action moves didn’t exactly come off well and even a moment where didn’t look as congenitally cool as she always seems to when she throws on a cloak. There’s even a couple of Lycans having too much fun on the set. Like, way too much weird fun.
Taking all these elements together, I wouldn’t plunk down new release prices for this film. It has elements that should make it sexy, clever and just plain fun. But it takes itself too seriously, an emo adolescent of a film that suddenly transforms itself to an annoying loud frat boy. Lots of flash and lots of bang, but a leaden affair at the end of the day. Not even Beckinsale’s icy blue eyes can hypnotize us into having fun.