The war beneath our streets: Underworld (2003)
I’m not sure this series is a good idea at all, to be honest. Still, I have recently rewatched them, and it is an 18 rated horror franchise, so I suppose it does fit my MO. Underworld is, on paper, a really great idea for a schlock series. It should, actually, be solid gold dumbhouse. A battle raging below the streets between two underground armies of Vampires and Werewolves should automatically be both incredibly cool and highly entertaining, and should promise blood by the barrel, tits, horror, graphic violence and a lead actress strapped into something ridiculously skin tight. Sadly, Underworld mostly wastes this premise, and all they manage to get right is spraying a catsuit onto Kate Beckinsale.
May contain a bemused cast of British Thespians and spoilers below
This should be gold. It really should. In fact, that it isn’t gold is a touch irritating, and a waste of what should be a hilariously entertaining premise. Underworld opens with an absolutely cracking image: a leather clad Beckinsale crouching over the city Batman-style preparing for battle. This is inordinately strong, but simultaneously it gives a little clue as to what’s going to be one of the overwhelming problems of the film- the direction: it’s trying to hard to be cool, is shot using a blue filter so it can be “moody”, and is overly stylized.
Anyhoo, Selene (Beckinsale) is a “Death Dealer”, captain of a team of Lycan hit-vampires who have been ruthlessly exterminating the wolves. The war has almost ended apparently, with the Vampires standing mostly victorious due to the heroic murder of Lucian (Michael Sheen) by Kraven (Shane Brolly). However, the Lycans are up to something, frantically pursuing Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman). In the meantime, there’s intrigue amongst the Vampire clan, and Selene finds herself outlawed and on the run with Corvin, who turns out to be the last descendant of Michael Corvinus and therefore has the potential to carry human, Lycan and Vampire DNA simultaneously. The film goes through a series of gunfights, there’s lots of expositing, and then it builds into the climactic battle between Selene and Corvin v a resurrected Viktor (Bill Nighy).
Looking at that plot synopsis, it seems pretty apparent what one of the big problems here is: Underworld is overly complicated. The concept of a war between Werewolves and Vampires is naturally cool, and the idea of leather-clad Death Dealers duking it out with giganti-wolves below ground is also cool. However, the extraneous material simply sinks the film. It’s OK for Kraven, for example, to have been in league with Lucian from the start of the film, that’s fine. Furthermore, t’s also OK for the whole Human/ Hybrid as the Lycan’s final throw of the dice, again that’s fine. In theory, it’s also OK for there to be a dark secret at the core of Vampire society, and for Viktor to have massively betrayed Selene in the past, which she’s unaware of. Again, fine. What isn’t cool, is to try to mash all of these concepts together into one overarching film. That’s not fine, and not cool in the slightest, because it places a massive burden on the schlocky premise, and is frankly needlessly complicated. If you dropped, say, the Corvinus storyline and played it as a straight war between the Lycans and Vampires with the Viktor reveal then you’ve instantly got a better film (and no Speedman).
Furthermore, the film doesn’t know who the villains are. I’d argue that this should be a fairly simple little movie- Selene v Lycans in an orgy of bloodshed and asskicking. Fine, throw in a bit of betrayal from the Vampires, if you like, that’s also fine in this context. When the film goes haywire with the extraneous plot details it becomes hard to follow and more than a little bit boring. Moreover, character motivation isn’t properly worked out- why, for example, is Kraven helping out Lucian? He can only ever rise as high as deputy to the elders and therefore there is no reason at all for him to betray his coven. To compound matters, the film goes miles out of its way to paint Lucian in as sympathetic a light as possible. Yes, the twist is that Viktor is the actual villain, we know that, but the lengths the film goes to paint Lucian as some kind of tragic hero are absurd.
The cast are all basically OK. Beckinsale, as has been oft-noted here, is a terrible actress, but she was born to play the emotionally stunted but stunning in skin-tight leather Selene. Frankly, her arse puts in an Oscar worthy performance by itself and is probably the greatest redeeming feature of the film. The rest of them, Sheen, Nighy et al are a tad confused, but Nighy does at least chew some scenery. The film also wastes Sophia Myles in a minor role, which isn’t really worth commenting on. Nevertheless, the whole acting effort is thrown into disaster levels by Speedman, who is a human plank of wood at the best of times, and sucks balls something fierce here. He’s dreadful actually, and doesn’t seem to be having any fun at all.
I started with a dig at Wiseman’s direction, and to continue on in this note, it’s obvious that he’s seen the Matrix far too many times to be healthy. It’s all shot to look “cool” and there’s overuse of a blue colour scheme that makes it difficult to distinguish the various locations. There are some show stopping action effects (Selene’s drop through the floor was the trailer choice), but they’re overly stylised, and as such feel artificial. That, in a nutshell, is what is basically wrong with the whole film- it doesn’t feel organic, there’s no heart to it and it genuinely seems to have been made by committee.
Overall, this is a bad film and an unauspicious start to a series. However with a production budget of only $22m and a worldwide box office take of nearly $100m, a sequel was always going to be inevitable. When I rewatched it recently I was just stunned by what a waste of a golden premise it is, being a boring, convoluted and over stylised mess that managed to leech any sense of fun out of the idea. I clearly don’t recommend this for any reason other than Beckinsale’s arse, and as such it can narrowly duck an Orangutan of Doom. However, by no stretch of the imagination is Underworld a good film, being, in fact, shite.
Next up is Underworld Evolution where surely Wiseman went on to right the mistakes he made here…