[23 January 2012]
Early in Underworld: Awakening—following one prologue featuring clips from the first three movies and another explaining how the vampire-werewolf battles from those movies now faces human intervention—Kate Beckinsale emerges from an icy chamber, near-frozen and discretely naked. Her character, vampire warrior Selene, makes some technical changes following her emergence, but essentially remains in that moment. She unfreezes, but doesn’t quite thaw out. She puts on clothes, but they’re the same skintight (yet somehow unrippable) outfits that show off her well-preserved curves.
The Underworld series, too, makes some technical adjustments while remaining in a chilly stasis. Awakening picks up 12 years after the events of the second movie (the third was a prequel, without Beckinsale), where vampires and their sworn lycan enemies have been revealed to the public, and then near-eradicated by a human-led “purge”. Yet despite the shift in status quo, the movie’s aesthetic remains more or less the same. That is to say, vampires and lycans have been driven into hiding, but they both still want to dominate and kill each other, and they all see Selene as a key figure toward this end.
For the scientists, Selene has value as a specimen. When she first wakes up and tears apart their lab, she assumes her liberator is Michael (Scott Speedman), the vampire-lycan hybrid she loves, whom the humans captured in that second prologue. But Selene hasn’t closely examined the cast list for Underworld: Awakening, which doesn’t include Speedman; his fleeting appearances are fudged via CG and clips. Instead, she has been freed by Eve (India Eisley), a little girl engineered as another vampire/werewolf crossbreed, the genetically designed daughter of Selene and Michael.
Selene, for her part, remains pragmatic, even in motherhood. As in the other movies, she’s a practiced ass-kicker who regards throat-slashing and werewolf-shooting as a fair day’s work. She doesn’t relish her kills, or even work herself into righteousness like David (Theo James), an underground vampire who extols the generic action-fantasy value of “stand and fight”. Beckinsale’s default action expression is still a kind of haughty annoyance.
Selene’s constant chill lends the familial revelation an odd but interesting tension: “I’m not good with feelings,” Selene admits, believably. But she does attempt to care for her monstrous offspring, which leads the movie, however briefly, into We Need to Talk about Lycans territory. Mother and daughter do bond, which Awakening translates to saving each other from double-sized super-lycans. The tussles between creatures have always been a strength in the series (especially when Selene’s silver-firing guns fail her and the fighting becomes more tooth-and-nail). Creepier, more potentially emotional sights like Eve cutting and recutting her forearm, which keeps healing with super-speed, are kept on the movie’s sidelines.
Still, a greater emotional connection never develops because the Underworld series isn’t built for it. The movies trade on ever-shifting allegiances: the vampires turned against Selene in Underworld: Evolution, while Underworld: Rise of the Lycans revealed the shabby treatment that led to the original lycan uprising, and now Awakening adds antagonistic humans to the mix. No one forms what you’d call a rooting interest: most of the vampires besides David come across as craven and cowardly, while the historically wronged lycans are murderous brutes in this movie’s present. The poor, barely-glimpsed humans seem outmatched by Selene and everyone else. Detective Sebastian (Michael Ealy) is the token non-creature with lines, entering the fray with flimsy motivation for endorsing Selene’s vengeance.
Whether this moral murkiness registers as intentional, lazy or nihilistic probably depends on your affection for vampire-werewolf battles, ridiculous mythology, and the reserved sexiness Beckinsale still summons on her breaks from semi-serious acting. Genre aficionados may be pleased that co-directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, making their US feature debut, have a decent visual sense, never cutting the mayhem into incoherence and maintaining the shiny blue-black color palette.
It might also help to enjoy the other Screen Gems signature franchise, Resident Evil (delivering a part five in the fall), evoked in this Underworld‘s apocalyptic overtones, creepy Antigen corporation, and set-up-heavy sequel-mongering. Despite the feeling that Awakening‘s 88 minutes exist to bridge the characters into part five (and probably six, and seven), it’s brisker than the first film and about as enjoyable as the first pulpy sequels. And just as unlikely as any of them to move forward in a meaningful way.