Reviews

Underworld: Extended Cut (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

Such contrasts make Underworld an especially good-looking vampire-werewolf-action film, even if it is over-the-top.


Underworld: Extended Cut

Director: Len Wiseman
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Shane Brolly, Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Robbie Gee, Kevin Grevioux
Distributor: Columbia
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Screen Gems
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2004-05-25
Call it deconstructivist vampirism.
-- Producer Richard Wright, "Making of Underworld"

Kate Beckinsale: I always sound so depressed.
Scott Speedman: Well, you are depressed.
-- Commentary track, Underworld: Extended Cut

"Weapons had evolved but our orders remained the same: hunt them down and kill them off, one by one. A most successful campaign, perhaps too successful. For those like me, a death dealer, this signaled the end of an era. Like the weapons of the previous century, we too would become obsolete. Pity, because I lived for it." As sleek bloodsucker Selene (Kate Beckinsale) laments the passing of her 1000 years of killing lycans (werewolves), you don't feel very sorry for her. Standing atop an urban rooftop, she scowls and bares her subtle fangs before she leaps many stories to the rainy, black street below.

Grim and gothic, this first scene in Underworld reflects Selene's inner turmoil. Seething with vague memories of her family's slaughter by a pack of werewolves, she doesn't recall that she was turned by an Elder, that is, a pureblood vampire named Viktor (Bill Nighy, whom Beckinsale says she adores every time he appears on screen). Since then, Selene's been on the hunt, and she's learned to like it. Beckinsale recalls her stunt work for Underworld: Extended Cut's commentary track (also featuring her director/new husband Len Wiseman and Scott Speedman, who plays Michael, the human caught in the middle of this conflict). She notes, "In those heels, I could run but I couldn't stop, so I always had to have three or four stunt men waiting by the camera to launch myself at."

Selene's action scenes are often stunning: Beckinsale hauls ass down a long corridor or engages in wirework (or the stunt person does even more elaborate work). Watching this second coming of Underworld to DVD, Wiseman recalls the difficulties of shooting on a low budget: "All that stress," he sighs, "because we really didn't have a chance to resquib things." When reminded they were in fact given a few extra days to shoot, Beckinsale cracks, "We have to give our firstborn son over, though."

Wiseman is careful to distinguish that this is an extended cut (not a director's cut), restoring what was missing from the original film, specifically, about 12 more minutes initially cut for "pacing." As Speedman and Beckinsale both note, the differences between this cut and the theatrical release are not always obvious, though some are striking: a vampires' sex scene, a lengthy kiss between Selene and Michael, an extended last battle (with various characters "wandering" about, as Wiseman puts it), and a scene showing Michael in the throes of a horrific collective werewolves' flashback (which Wiseman, having just mentioned that Speedman has left the commentary booth to audition for an Olsen twins' project, calls "just showing Speedman dreaming about the Olsen twins").

Disc Two includes seven featurettes, three new to this "extended" edition. The new documentaries, in addition to the first DVD's "The "Making of Underworld," "Creature Effects," "Stunts," and "Sights and Sounds," begin with "The Visual Effects of Underworld," which demonstrates the intersections of effects and editing, as these blend effects with stunts and close-ups. The crew also discusses their innovative (and relatively on-the-cheap) uses of CGI; miniature work (the car sinking into the river); and morphs of animatronic wolf heads with CGI, men in costumes, and stilts.

For "Designing Underworld," production designer Bruton Jones discusses his construction of a "consistent history" via locations and those incredible whips during the showdown at film's end. Wiseman adds that he was "really picky" concerning the famous catsuit, designed by Wendy Partridge. "I'd seen a lot of leather costumes in the past, and if they buckle too much or there's too many wrinkles, or if it looks too plastic, it can just look trashy. And I think a woman's shoulders and neck are really sexy and can be really cool, but it has to look just like glass."

The third new featurette, "The Look of Underworld," reports on the film's cinematography and visual aesthetics, with some overlap from the previous DVD's "technical commentary." Wiseman's vision (he's an artist, and used to make rent by storyboarding) shapes the film, certainly (he uses his graphic novelish cels to pitch his work, and learned after the fact that his wife-to-be took the project because she was impressed by the drawings). Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts recalls that "We had lightning virtually in every scene," an idea that first seemed overkill to him, but then became part of the "fabric," since "the only way you can define darkness is by putting highlights into it."

Such contrasts make Underworld an especially good-looking vampire-werewolf-action film, even if it is over-the-top. During a scene when a couple of werewolves, fighting for the entertainment of their fellows, transform back into human form -- as in this version of the legend, they can change at will -- the three commentators can't help but bluster into laughter at the sight, with Speedman gasping, "What to say?"

The entire commentary track is rather like this, full of good memories (the best production they've ever been on, even when the Budapest sets were cold) or jokes about vague difficulties ("This was the day you were mean to me, babe," pouts Beckinsale, endearingly; and when Wiseman suggests she might have been slowing down the day, she declares, "You can slow down your own damn day!" At which point Speedman interjects, "I feel like the child of divorced parents").

The film's newfangling of monster legends accelerates everyone -- the wolves speed through their from-human transformations with an alarming violence, and the vampires carry automatic weapons filled with 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. Selene's own story has its own throbbing, mostly forward motion. Sneaking upon a lair somewhere in a subway, she overhears that her sworn enemies are building numbers and strength, and that their leader, Lucian (Michael Sheen), has a plan for destroying the vampires.

She zooms back to the vampires' hideout, a grand, gated mansion on a hill where it is, apparently, always nighttime. Striding through a parlor room where her compatriots sip blood from wine glasses and smoke cigarettes in holders, she scoffs at their arrogant, effete complacency. When her warning is unheeded even by Head Vampire Kraven (Shane Brolly), preoccupied with an upcoming bloodsucker ritual, she's really upset.

And so she begins her own investigation and preparation. Looking through surveillance camera footage, Selene notes the reason for the lycans' current congregating. They're hunting a specific human (the middle race), the medical intern Michael who will serve, apparently, as a sort of "savior" for both monster races. This initiates a wrenching self-examination on Selene's part, leading to her discovery of 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. (When the fact that Lucien has bitten Michael is exposed, a vampire hisses, "He's not a human at all," whereupon Speedman chimes in on the commentary track: "He's Canadian!")

While Underworld occasionally allows its culture and race differences to lapse into literal-seeming 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.

And, as the film ends, so does Selene's voiceover, setting up the sequel currently in production: "Differences will be set aside. Allegiances will be made. And soon, I will become the hunted." And with that, Wiseman and Beckinsale talk about how much they loved the experience of making this film. "It was like a family, in a way," he says. "Like making a student film, where everyone was so passionate." It's easy to appreciate their nostalgia, when the project led to their still-happy marriage and a well-funded sequel.

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