Reviews

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

Michael Curtis Nelson

Sexuality is more provocative than class in the Underworld series.


Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

Director: Patrick Tatopoulos
Cast: Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Rhona Mitra
Distributor: Sony
Rated: R
Year: 2009
US DVD release date: 2009-05-12

What is it about the pairing of vampires and werewolves?

Both species of the night figure in Charlaine Harris¹s Southern Vampire Mysteries novels (adapted by HBO as the series True Blood) and Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga. A millennium-long struggle between the two races forms the basis of the Underworld film trilogy: Underworld (2003), Underworld: Evolution (2006), and this year’s Underworld: Rise of the Lycans.

Part of the appeal seems to be the ease with which vampire-werewolf discord plays as class warfare and thus provides a ready-made plot conflict. In the Twilight series, lycanthropy manifests itself among marginalized Native Americans, while better-heeled European Americans fill the vampire ranks. Underworld presents lycans (a subspecies of werewolf in the films’ rather pretentious parlance) as an underclass yearning to break free from their vampire masters.

That conflict, however, isn’t enough to carry the series. In fact, devolution is a better word to describe this trilogy, whose quality falls off with each entry: the films get shorter, the revelations become less startling, the star power dims.

At the start of Underworld, set in the present day, a truce is in place between vampires and lycans, (im)mortal enemies since the time long before when lycans were enslaved as daylight guards for vampires. Clad in black leather and armed with automatic weapons, “Death dealers” like Selene (Kate Beckinsale) cruise an unnamed city for rogue lycans, with whom they engage in scenes of slow-motion gunplay and acrobatics that recall The Matrix.

Soon the status quo is broken by the appearance of Michael (Scott Speedman), whom the lycans have identified as a descendant of Alexander Corvinus, the man whose sons became the first vampire and werewolf nearly a millennium before. (Stay with me here.) The lycans want his blood and the power it will bring them.

Another surprise: Lucian (Michael Sheen), the lycan leader thought to have been defeated centuries before, may be alive. Selene awakens vampire elder Viktor (Bill Nighy) from a centuries-long sleep to clean up the mess, then falls in love with Michael, who ends up infected by both lycan and vampire. Mayhem ensues.

Over the course of the film, we learn of several key events in vampire-lycan history. Lucian, while enslaved by Viktor, carried on a secret love affair with Viktor’s daughter Sonja, whom Viktor sentenced to death when he discovered the relationship: whence Lucian’s hatred of Viktor and his subsequent leadership role in the lycan revolt. The relationship prefigures the liaison between Michael and Selene, who has become Viktor’s surrogate daughter.

Underworld: Evolution finds Selene and Michael on the run, hunted by ur-vampire Marcus. Michael slowly discovers his powers, which exceed those of either vampire or lycan; he has a particular knack for ripping the lower jaws from the heads of lycans. Alexander Corvinus (Derek Jacobi) makes an appearance—yes, he’s somehow still alive—as does Marcus’s brother William, the first werewolf, who, it turns out, has been imprisoned for centuries. Marcus releases him.

Events lead to a showdown between Selene and Michael on one side, and Marcus and William on the other. It’s a gruesome finish. Let me just say that it involves a helicopter rotor.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans takes us back to the early 13th century, when Viktor has stumbled upon the birth of the first lycan (Lucian), a mutant werewolf who can assume human form. After training him in the arts of combat, Viktor forces the adult Lucian to turn human slaves into a lycan chain gang, by starving him until he can’t help but feed on the hapless mortals.

Meanwhile, the original werewolves roam the countryside beyond the vampires’ walled refuge, besieging them, and terrorizing the human population. Lucian and Sonja’s affair leads to the inevitable conclusion, and the enraged Lucian foments a lycan revolt.

Both Underworld and Underworld: Evolution provide explication upon explication of vampire-lycan lore and history—via voiceover, flashback, lecture, and monologue—so much so that Underworld: Rise of the Lycans provides little in the way of further elucidation. Successful prequels reveal origins and explain motivation for behaviors and action on display in the “later” films in a series, while adding enough plot twists to maintain dramatic tension despite the audience’s knowledge of what happens later. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans does neither.

It doesn’t explain Lucian’s hatred of Viktor, for example, or his motivation for the war against vampires, all of which has already been explained in Underworld. The film simply puts a rather flimsy narrative container around Sonja’s sentencing and punishment, already told in flashback in Underworld. The Romeo and Juliet forbidden love plot, because it echoes the one in Underworld and Underworld: Evolution, makes the film even more derivative.

The relative dullness of the prequel also shows how much Underworld and Underworld: Evolution rely on their modern settings, and on Beckinsale and to a lesser degree Speedman, for success. (I will grant that Nighy’s performance as the arrogant and cold Viktor is a high point of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans.) The Underworld series posits that vampires and werewolves are the result of mutation and contagion, not supernatural phenomena, a concept that plays much better in films set in the age of centrifuges, microscopes, and medical experimentation.

Also, if gore and body counts are your aim, Glocks and shotguns make for better action sequences than crossbows. And finally, because no lycans aside from Lucian emerge as well characterized individuals, we don’t really care whether or not they win their freedom.

Finally, though, in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, and the other two films as well, sexuality is much more provocative than class. According to the history that emerges in the trilogy, vampires and lycans alike insistently force women out of reproductive roles, and promote male homoeroticism at the expense of heterosexual intimacy.

Lycans appear to be exclusively male (unless, with all the fur, I managed to miss something), in keeping with their origin in Viktor’s profile of the ideal slave: male (also ripped, and generally shirtless). Yet Lucian clearly had a werewolf mother, whom Viktor dispatches with his crossbow immediately upon discovering the child.

A more circumspect eugenicist might have kept mom around, just in case the mutation didn’t carry over through transformation via infectious bite. The lone female elder, Amelia, figures little in the series, while the appearance of Alexander Corvinus in Underworld: Evolution reasserts the preferred patrilineal version of vampire and lycan origins.

When Lucian turns to the local vampire population for female companionship, there’s a suggestion that at least part of his hubris in Viktor’s eyes is his heterosexual predilection, not just his trans-species desire for his master’s daughter. After all, though he managed to father Sonja (we never see Viktor’s mate, the girl’s mother), Viktor shows no sexual interest in females, of any species, in either Underworld or Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. In fact, with few exceptions, lovin’ is left to the vampire-werewolf pairs: Sonja and Lucian in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans , Selene and Michael in Undeworld and Underworld: Evolution.

Even if we ignore the fact that the metal collars Lucian and the other enslaved lycans in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans are forced to wear make them look like male strippers, the obsession shown by lycans in the first two films in swapping fluids with hunky hybrid Michael (Scott Speedman) should let us know that both species take the brotherhood thing very, very seriously.

Viktor’s punishment of his daughter effectively stifles the only female libido on display in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. It also corrects Lucian’s sexual orientation. The only other intimacy we see him perform is withdrawing blood from Michael, then injecting it into himself, in Underworld. “You are one of us”, Lucian tells Michael portentously. Beckinsale herself seems to hint at the homoerotic dimension of lycan life in an outtake from Underworld in which she refers to the werewolves, as if conjuring their polar opposites, as “dyke-ans”.

So maybe the whole vampire-lycan war, and the obsession with all those guns, is one big self-loathing, homophobic diversion from openly grappling with the love that dare not speak its name, or acknowledging a plurality of sexual preferences. If so, then, to paraphrase Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, a plague o’ both their houses.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is sold separately, or packaged with the unrated extended cut version of Underworld and Underworld: Evolution as Underworld Trilogy.

Underworld comes with an outtake reel; two TV spots; and a made-for-TV featurette “Fang vs. Fiction”, a cheesy look at werewolf and vampire “subcultures” and the “science” of how real vampires and werewolves might function, intercut with scenes from Underworld.

Underworld: Evolution includes six featurettes on various production aspects of the film, including visual effects and sound design and score; as well as a music video. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans offers three production featurettes, and a particularly dreadful music video.

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