So the other day I'm in the company of some "friends" and I casually mention "Yeah, I just saw the movie Underworld for the first time the other night". For the next five minutes they treated me like an eighty-five year old shut-in who's idea of entertainment was televised Bingo.
I think I avoided watching this thing up until now because it always looked like a cheap pastiche of The Matrix meets House of Dracula. It's also at least partly to blame for inspiring wardrobes for an entire legion of disaffected, pasty-faced suburban goth kids as well as kick-starting a slew of crappy Vampire: The Masquerade RPG campaigns.
But, alas, I can't ignore something that's had such an undeniable impact on pop culture for the last eight years, so I broke down last weekend and watched it.
Over four separate sittings.
Now, that kinda sounds as if watching this movie a chore, but it wasn't. Having said that, the film's unrelentingly monochrome and bleak visuals kinda wore on me after while. Every half-hour or so I felt the urge to stop the movie and then go and sit under a U/V lamp just to stave off some sort of cinematic seasonal depression.
Also, watching the film, I felt that the whole vampire/werewolf rivalry thing had already been done to death. But then I had to remind myself that Underworld was actually somewhat of a victim here; having been duly ripped off by everything from True Blood to main-offender Twilight.
The film kicks off with a pretty hairy (pun intended) action sequence/extended prologue which sees a pair Death Dealers on the trail of their werewolf...er, sorry, lycan quarry. The two-vampire team is led by the intense, beautiful Selene (Kate Beckinsale) who seems to enjoy her job a bit too much. We soon learn, however, that she has a personal stake (pun not intended, I swear!) in hunting the shape-shifters because *surprise!* they were responsible for the death of her family.
Turns out the war between vampires and lycans has been grinding on for a bit. Hundreds of years ago it was believed that the bloodsuckers managed to finally Ol' Yeller the Lycans when they managed to kill their leader Lucian (Michael Sheen). Now Selene and her kin spend their nights trying to hunt down and dispatch what's left of their furry kind.
The skirmish with the lycans doesn't go well and two of Selene's kin are dispatched by some pretty advanced firepower employing UV radiation bullets (!). She pleads with the ineffective leader of the vampires, the appropriately named Kraven (Shane Brolly) for retribution but he's hesitant to act. Selene keeps digging and discovers that the lycans are after a human named Michael Korvin (Scott Speedman). She managed to get to him just as he's attacked and bitten by a seemingly rejuvenated Lucian.
Troubled by their old rival's re-appearance and suspicious of Kraven's complacency, Selene awakens the slumbering elder vampire Viktor (Bill Nighy). Pissed by what must surely be the vampiric equivalent of a cold shower, he sides with the current undead administration and chides Selene for her impudence. Soon she seeks solace in the company of her human guest, who is slowly turning into an enemy bark n' howler.
The plot continues to wrinkle. Soon Kraven reveals his true colors (hint: it's black), the reason behind Michael's importance becomes apparent and the genesis of the schism between vampires and lycans come out courtesy of convenient flashbacks. Throughout it all, the film consistently rises above expectation, primarily by keeping audience members guessing as to the loyalties of its players.
In fact, despite the potentially goofy premise, screenwriter Danny McBride continues to pile up the innovations. Selene's origins get knocked off kilter, the actions of her supposed foes becomes somewhat justified and by the end of it, established allies suddenly seem very nefarious.
Director Len Wiseman brings a suitable amount of gloomy panache to the proceedings, despite the fact that he's clearly stealing shots from the Brothers Wachowski playbook. The low-angle, tracking shots of Selene stalking into the vampire coven's mansion and the slo-mo concrete fragmentation during the frequent running gun battles are blatantly cribbed from other sources.
And those aren't the only thefts. In the action-packed prologue, Kevin Grevioux's Raze behaves less like a werewolf and more like the love child of the T-101 Terminator and Lieutenant Worf from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Also, when lycans start scampering along the walls and ceilings I chuckled to myself as James Cameron's Aliens was invoked. But unlike a completely uninspired rip-off like Neil Marshall's thoroughly miserable Doomsday, Underworld at least tries to contribute something new and unique to vampire/werewolf mythos.
Needless to say, in a flick like this, decent special effects are a must. Despite the fact that I wasn't exactly getting optimal picture quality while watching the film (Curse you, Netflix!) the film-makers did a pretty good job fooling my eye when conveying the body-warping surreality necessary to depict lycanthropic transformations. Indeed, with a clever interchange of CGI, practical effects, and costuming, it's often difficult to tell where the film-makers drew a line with digital trickery.
I quite liked the cast. Kate Beckinsale, in addition to being extremely easy on the eyes, actually invests so much gravitas and sincerity in the role of Selene that she ensures the viewer stays grounded during all of the insanity. Admittedly, she doesn't always seem as self-assured during the many action sequences but she still handles herself with enough aplomb to complete the illusion.
Scott Speedman is sympathetic enough as the human piece of meet that these two tribes are grappling over in their supernatural tug of war. Although he does a solid job portraying fear, confusion, anger and rage I can't help but feel as if the role might have better served by someone who didn't look like Chris Hemsworth's understudy in Thor or the lead singer for Creed. For some reason, a dude that ripped never seems to be in peril.
Michael Sheen as Lucien is tremendous. He always appears sweaty, frantic and thoroughly put-upon: like a twitchy dog that's been kicked too much. Shane Brolly is appropriately slimy as Kraven but in a sea of English accents, his Irish brogue is oddly distracting.
The best word, however, needs to be reserved for Bill Nighy, who is truly awesome as Viktor. When he's first resurrected he's pretty nasty looking: dessicated, gnarled and almost snake-like. We get the impression his state of existence is pretty miserable and he alternately pants or spits out all of his snarky lines. Despite being buried under a pound of makeup, Nighy still has the ability to invoke a withering glare that can strip the shellac off a coffee table.
Despite its obvious inspirations, Underworld is still a serviceable time-waster. One of the stronger testimonies I can give to a film it to confess my willingness to see it again. And frankly, I wouldn't be totally opposed to revisiting the world of Underworld once again.
And please, I want the record to clearly show that this estimation has nothing whatsoever to do with Kate Beckinsale's skin-tight black leather outfit. *Ahem*