[20 January 2006]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Not much has changed since you last saw the Death Dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale). Still trussed up in black latex and still icy-eyed mad at her lot in life, Selene and boyfriend Michael (Scott Speedman) have left the site of their apocalyptic mêlée in Underworld (2003). As the sequel starts, they’re rummaging around for information and weapons to use against the surviving vampires who are bound to come after them. Selene, after all, killed head vampire in charge Viktor (Bill Nighy), which means the young lovers are a little bit on the run.
At this point, Michael and Selene have gotten past their initial “issue,” namely, they’re sworn enemies by race, she being a vampire and he a werewolf (bitten and so contaminated on her watch, by the way, a trauma never quite addressed). She’s still performing like she’s wholly officious and knowledgeable, telling Michael what to do and where to wait for her, while she goes off thinking she can handle all the death dealing on her own—even though he saved her more than once during their previous adventure. (He disobeys, tries to regain his humanity by eating a plate o’ potatoes at a local tavern, ending up in a state of vomitous chaos, then pursued by automatic-weapons-toting Michael hunters, who chase him through the woods in a scene that calamitously recalls old Wolfman movies.)
In fact, the plot of Underworld: Evolution resembles that of the first film quite egregiously. Nothing that happens this time will surprise anyone. Except, perhaps, the fact that Derek Jacobi has agreed to play the oldest immortal ever. Mostly, this role—Alexander Corvinus—involves wearing an impressive brocaded coat while scowling in shadows, as he directs his S.W.A.T.-style team from aboard a hyper-teched-out ship. Like everyone else in this blue-black insular world (no humans here, just immortals, who keep dying), he’s looking for Selene and a key and his sons, William the werewolf (Brian Steele) and Marcus the vampire (Tony Curran). As the film’s hectic prelude sequence has it, the brothers were bitten by different creatures and so became the first of each race, instantly deemed enemies forever.
In this prelude, Marcus and a few other vampires, including the ever-cadaverous Viktor, wear armor and ride horses as they hunt William and his fellow werewolves. Coming on a village destroyed by the werewolves, the vampires start burning corpses, but not fast enough: “They’re turning!” comes the alarm, and indeed, the bodies start that speeded-up American Werewolf in London-style transition, growing furry snouts and fangs just before they begin leaping from rooftops and ripping into anything with flesh. Though Marcus means to save his beastly twin brother’s life (the first generation of werewolves cannot resume human form, only snarl eternally), Viktor decrees William’s “imprisonment for all of time.”
This leads directly to the hole-filled present day plot, wherein Marcus seeks Selene (and Michael, just because he’s along), as she has a “blood memory” (rendered in erratic flashbacks) of the location of his brother’s sarcophagus. Again, it’s all about the hybrid: if the first of whatever race can combine blood with another first, or if a mixed breed like Michael can be a first, well, somehow, the powers granted are “limitless.” This tends to boil down to incessant, repeated regeneration—no matter how sliced, spiked, speared, and shot up the lycan/vampire fusion Michael may be, he comes back. While the bloody violence effects are surely piled on, the plot is left rather stuck in a loop: this guy will never be killed, so his several moments of seeming so only mean you’re waiting to see when and how he’ll rejuvenate.
The film is primarily comprised of fight scenes, almost all initiated by the original vampire Marcus, himself resuscitated by the soon-dispensed-of Kraven (Shane Brolly). Marcus flies around with gnarly bat-wings that sprout from his back with a grisly sound, providing him not only with mobility not granted the mundane-truck-driving Selene, but also with a ferocious spearing apparatus, which he uses frequently, slamming and pinning his victims into walls as he stands or hovers or sits back, observing the twisty misery on their faces. (That said, Selene makes her mundane-truck-driving over snowy, vaguely eastern European roads look like quite the super-feat, her pale visage set in absolute determination as she crashes into mountainsides while trying to dislodge Marcus.)
While his gargantuan cruelty surely makes Marcus the bad guy to beat, it also makes the plot rather regular. Selene and Michael again try to sort out their identities (she gets a bit of hybridity herself), and Marcus tries to reunite with wolfy William, in hopes that he’ll be able to “control” his brother and with him, run the world, or something like that. It’s never quite clear what world he wants to run: for Marcus, humans are food, yes, but unseen and seemingly irrelevant here (except when Alexander announces that this world is “for humanity,” while he and his monstrous sons are “oddities”); werewolves are enemies, except when they’re William; and vampires are enemies too, because Marcus betrays everyone.
More interesting and never quite examined is this notion of “infectious” race. The vampires see the werewolves as odious for just this reason—anyone they bite becomes a werewolf. And yet, of course, the vampires are in the same sort of boat: when they’re not leeching victims dry in feeding frenzies, they’re “turning” them, adding to their ranks of bloodsuckers. Their similarity is vaguely instructive, races generally being cultural and political concoctions, their myths and backstories functions of power-grabbing and territorial squabbling. But their infectiousness offers provocation and perception: race here is not an inherent or stable identity, but mutable and mutating. All the generic, frankly tiresome bloody war stuff in Underworld: Evolution doesn’t quite obliterate this insight.