[8 February 2009]
PopMatters Features Editor
There is nothing in director Len Wiseman’s braindead saga to demand, even to suggest, the need for a prequel. But for some reason, which I don’t want to think too hard about, people have been pouring into theatres across North America these past few weeks in order to see Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, a film which under no circumstances should exist. Not only is this film the third in an unwatchably boring series starring exactly neither of the two principle stars of the first two, but it is a prequel.
A prequel. As in: just in case the backstory wasn’t quite elaborated upon enough in the ponderous and near-constant exposition that made watching the first two installments akin to reading the Cliff Notes of the damn film we were already watching, here is a full-length feature live-action version! (In which prequel, presumably, there won’t be any honest consideration of the huge, like unfathomably enormous, hole in the series’ flimsily constructed mythology. But, more on that later.)
The Underworld saga appears to rely on precisely two core ideas. The first, which is admittedly fun and campy, is to pit Vampires against Werewolves in a battle that rages below the radar of regular human life on Earth. The second idea seems to be to remake The Matrix without all the pesky clever stuff. So in combining these two ideas, we have a series defined by gorgeously wrought art direction (these cityscapes are awash in shades of blues and greys, all stylized and shadowy rainswept nights) and a vastly convoluted and vaguely coherent plot devoid of any real reason to give a damn. Whereas The Matrix relied on hyper-cool outfits and the beauty of stylized action sequences to help tell its weird little story, Underworld relies on them to try to make us forget that we are watching a story this insipid.
The story? Okay, here goes. Once upon a time, a man survived the plague because he had a genetic mutation which allowed him to live forever. His two sons, who were also immortal, were bitten by different animals. One a wolf, one a bat. The wolf one became a Werewolf, and the bat one became a Vampire. They each went on to father races of immortals who, though tied together by their common blood ancestry, came to hate each other and would face off in a millennium of clan warfare. (For those playing the home game, yes, this does sound sort of like the Isaac and Ishmael story from the bible, where Abraham’s sons have a falling out and Isaac founds Judaism while Ishmael founds Islam. And, yes, that’s kind of a clever parallel. But, stick around because I sort of think that’s just a coincidence.)
Now this warfare is protracted but lopsided, as the Vampires seem capable of really sticking it to the Werewolves (a.k.a. Lycans, for some reason), and so have come to the point where they are almost all wiped off the face of the earth. But, wait – actually, the Lycans have been hiding out, waiting for their chance to strike. Meanwhile, we discover that while the bigwigs sleep in their crypts, the erstwhile Vampire leader (named, I am not making this up, Kraven) has made a secret deal with the Lycans for power, fabricating a story about killing their leader when he actually hadn’t. (Because he’s craven, get it?)
Anyway, they all fight each other a lot. Also, Scott Speedman plays a human who is descended from that first immortal and he becomes part werewolf and part vampire, which is cool, except nothing really interesting ever comes of it. Except that maybe he’s unkillable, but even this is only hazily explored. The other star here is Kate Beckinsale who does her best Lara Croft accent while pouting and generally looking sexy as all get out while wearing amusingly shiny black leather outfits and shooting her guns a lot.
Oh yeah! These Werewolves and these Vampires – these immortal creatures of the night with their superhuman powers and all – use guns. Guns! That’s the second dumbest thing about these movies. Can you imagine the high concept pitch for this film?
Werewolves x Vampires + The Matrix = gun-wielding monsters!
So now: what’s the number one stupid thing about these movies? The authors have written in a little conceit which they use so that they can cut back on the already overwhelming amount of endless backstory – every time a werewolf or vampire bites someone/thing, tastes their blood, they learn all of the memories of that person/thing. So we can watch someone catch up on the plot in like, five seconds. This is kind of a neat idea, for sure – it’s a play on the power of blood and history, of ancestral wrongs carried through bloodlines, the way our ancestors pay for the sins of their fathers, etc.
But here’s the rub: both movies are all about mysteries being revealed to the Kate Beckinsale character. She is searching through the dark corners of the chronicles of the war between the Vampires and the Lycans, and discovering yucky truths about her favorite Vampire leader (played by a very game Bill Nighy). We watch her spend two whole movies trying to learn these apparently hard-to-figure-out and filmworthy secrets.
Ummmmm, Kate? If you’ll learn everything that they know when you taste their blood, why don’t you just bite someone who knows stuff? Not to be a backseat monster, but maybe you should put down the gun and act like a real vampire.