Reviews

Underworld (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

Underworld has more on its mind than matching its throbbing rock soundtrack to action sequences.


Underworld

Director: Len Wiseman
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Shane Brolly, Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Robbie Gee, Kevin Grevioux
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Screen Gems
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2009-01-13
We based everything on science.
-- Kevin Grevioux, commentary track, Underworld

It looks absolutely real.
-- James McQuade, commentary track, Underworld

Watching the beginning of Underworld on Columbia's DVD, director Len Wiseman articulates his intentions: "I was always out to make a comic book... a living, breathing graphic novel come to life." Selene (Kate Beckinsale) stands atop an urban rooftop, scowling before she leaps many stories to the street below. A pale, lithe vampire with a centuries-old vendetta against the lycans, also known as werewolves, she is stunning, the ideal graphic novel protagonist. Indeed, Wiseman and his buddies, writers Danny McBride and (the strikingly deep-voiced) Kevin Grevioux note first scene's extreme beauty, watching the excellent blue-and-black color scheme take shape with wind, rain, and a horde of black umbrellas, noting the terrific look and the moment's utter, fantastic grimness. And then McBride blurts out, "Kate looks fantastic!" He's right.

Over the course of the commentary track, you learn that she also proved to be an able stunt girl, adept shooter ("Kate picked up the gun thing so well, I think it kind of shocked a lot of people"), and a good driver, to boot. And that, as much as they had great, or at least other, themes in mind, "There was much talk about her outfit, at the press junkets," recalls Wiseman. "What are you gonna do? She looks fantastic in the thing." McBride chimes in, "It sounded like a giant condom when it came off, she told me."

The DVD offers a second commentary, "technical" crew, with creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos, executive producer/visual effects supervisor James McQuade, and sound designer Claude Letessier. Extras include a Finch music video, a storyboard/film comparison, and featurettes: the pedestrian "Making of Underworld" and the more interesting "Creature Effects" (in which creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos and director Wiseman describe their attention to artistic detail and "practical" designs, using humans in animatronic heads, "catlike" suits, and dire-looking leg extensions, and wirework more than CG), as well as "Stunts" (highlighting coordinator Brad Martin's clever designs and former ballet dancer Beckinsale's wondrous fitness) and "Sights and Sounds" (essentially a series of here's-the-crew-on-the-set footage).

While the documentaries are conventional, both commentary tracks are informative and insightful. All participants observe the limitations of the production -- a 57-day shoot (what Wiseman calls a "music video schedule"), a budget under $22 million, and shooting in Budapest (Wiseman still has trouble pronouncing location names) -- but they also take rightful pride in their efforts. They also remember efforts to include backstory -- the medieval roots of the war, Selene's personal history, the vampires and werewolves' genetic memories -- within their limits.

As they say more than once, it looks like it cost much more money and was made over scads of time. Some of this is "found" (McQuade remarks the carving on the vampires' colossal staircase, and other extraordinary locations in Budapest), and some is built, like the frankly stunning crypt -- the commentators love to give props to one another, from music to sound design to lighting to stunts (when a werewolf chases and keeps up with a speeding car, he runs on a mat dragged by the car, so as to capture the effect "in camera"). Even the canine performers get some love, though they were apparently too nice, when Wiseman was, he says, hoping for "vicious dogs from hell." Their good experience on the film is reflected in its terrific look and sound (Letessier notes that he worked to make the lycans' underground sound "intestinal").

All of this darkness and wildness mirrors the inner turmoil of Selene. Originally written by Grevioux to focus on the human Michael (Scott Speedman), the film evolved (with the help of rewriting by McBride) so that Selene is its main protagonist. She seethes with vague memories of her family's slaughter by a pack of werewolves. And on that very night, she met and was turned by an Elder, that is, a pureblood vampire named Viktor (Bill Nighy). Since then, as long as she can remember, Selene's been on the hunt, determinedly finding and killing off the lycans, as she puts it, "one by one."

Of the several digressions from standard vampire lore (they can see themselves in mirrors, for instance), Wiseman explains his disinterest in such silliness like this: "There's fantasy vampires and what I consider more like reality vampires. I can get my head around something that is developed from a blood disease. Anything that has any kind of sort of mysticism in it, I can't really get into. The fact that you can put up two fingers and make a cross and a vampire backs off, it's just kind of cheesy to me."

And so, the legend here is newfangled, accelerated with automatic weapons. The primary point is the look -- the drenching rain, the blazing gunfire, the plastic catsuit. Selene's story has a certain forward motion, or more accurately, a descending motion. She heads from the first rooftop underground, to loud, fast-cut encounter in a subway, and then to a dire discovery: the lycans are gathering, building numbers and strength. She overhears them as they engage in a favorite entertainment, a WWE-ish knockdown between beasts, ripping one another up for a roaring, slavering audience, at least until they're interrupted by their more enlightened leader, Lucian (Michael Sheen), who strides purposefully into close-up. "You act like a pack of rabid dogs," he snarls, "And that, gentlemen, will not do." (Wiseman says he wanted them to fight literally like dogs, on all fours, but the technical issues were too awesome to overcome, and so they stand up, "like Rock'em Sock'em robots").

Selene does some striding of her own, on her return (in a speedy expensive vehicle) to the vampires' hideaway, a grand, gated mansion on a hill where it is, apparently, always nighttime. She strides through parlor room where her fellows sit around sipping blood from wine glasses and smoking cigarettes in holders. Aside from the battle-focused warriors, called Death Dealers, like Selene, the vampires are a supremely self-interested lot, the effete upper class of monsters. Still, her announcement that the lycans are amassing hardly alarms Head Vampire Kraven (Shane Brolly), who's preoccupied with an upcoming bloodsucker ritual, the joining of two covens and the resurrection of an Elder. This leads to lots of sitting around waiting for "the Awakening."

But if Kraven is not paying attention, Selene certainly is. Looking through surveillance camera footage (accessed by her very fancy laptop), she notes the reason for the lycans' current congregating. They're hunting a specific human (the middle race, mostly forgotten in this film), the medical intern Michael. For Selene, their pursuit of Michael (as a sort of "savior" for both races) initiates a wrenching self-examination, as she discovers centuries' worth of betrayals and deceptions. And, as she figures out the bizarre morality of this ancient blood feud, she also -- no surprise -- falls for the human, who has his own fall to perform.

Luckily, she has a comrade, Kahn (Robbie Gee), who sees to her weapons needs, including a new set of liquid silver nitrate bullets that seep into wolves' bloodstreams as soon as they're hit, producing dark rivulets of pain pulsing just beneath the skin. It's worth noting that this effect occurs when the werewolves are still in human-seeming form, which they maintain even though several can "will" themselves into big menacing wolf form (these transformations tend to take too long on screen, since, like most werewolf movies, this one is rather in love with its transformation effects).

Underworld has more on its mind than matching its throbbing rock soundtrack to action sequences. While the film occasionally allows the race differences to lapse into feline-canine behavioral differences (or worse, sets up a heavy-handed Romeo and Juliet plot), the political premise -- the artifice of race -- is intriguing, as the coming together of these races -- through miscegenation -- is posited as a most terrifying and revolutionary act, thoroughly alarming the Elders who, in their infinite wisdom, regularly turn humans into faux versions of themselves, properly propagandized minions to perpetuate the hate and do the hard work.

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