There is a reason why so many films, particularly action films, stick to the same basic concepts. The cop placed in a situation that’s far beyond his normal line of duty, the soldier who has to become a one-man army, the getaway driver who ends up going on a war of revenge against those who betrayed him… these are familiar themes because as implausible as they may be, they are nevertheless — with a certain allowance for Hollywood invulnerability — vaguely possible. They are therefore slightly believable, and the recurring use of them makes them more believable as we come to accept them. Incorporating different themes — particularly into a film that otherwise still adheres to the conventions of action films and a modern day setting — creates a basic risk vs. reward scenario. The reward is that the film will stand out from the pack, and if done well may earn a major following. The risk is that the less familiar something is, or the less plausible it is, the greater the chance of it looking ridiculous.
Underworld posits a version of today’s world — or 2003’s, which is still recent despite being ten years gone now — in which there is secretly a war going on between vampires and werewolves. It is supremely ridiculous.
It’s also supremely blue.
The vampires and werewolves in Underworld are at war over some perceived wrong centuries ago; each side blames the other. The werewolves, incidentally, are called “Lycans” for no immediately apparent reason; apparently “werewolf” wasn’t cool enough and “lycanthrope” was deemed too obscure? Or perhaps just not trademarkable enough. Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is an assassin/hunter for the vampires, obsessed with tracking down and destroying the werewolves. She runs into trouble with her superior (Shane Brolly) when she becomes convinced the werewolves are hunting an ordinary human, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman) and takes him under her protection. None of the other vampires believe her; why would a werewolf hunt a human for anything but food? But it kicks off a guns-blazing action fest with a dash of Romeo and Juliet thrown in.
The potential is here for a very good film. The concept is a bit goofy, but many action films are, and the film has a definite sense of style. While it’s unrelentingly dark and blue-lit, it’s never hard to see what’s going on, and it’s a fitting aesthetic choice. It bridges the classical meaning of Gothic design with the modern Goth sensibilities. Combined with some colorful action sequences involving acrobatics and creative gunplay, and it comes close to being a very stylish film with a lot of visual appeal, and not just because Kate Beckinsale is practically vacuum-sealed into her clothes.
Not just because of that.
Its potential is held back by a few things, however. The biggest factor is the dialogue. Most of the actors do a reasonable job with their characters, but it’s difficult to do well when given lines that alternate between corny and flat. The main characters, Selene and Michael, are arguably the least developed; we are told some elements of Selene’s backstory, but her personality is essentially “ruthless hunter”. If we’re being generous we can assume this is due to her walling off her emotions and gradually letting them out, but this isn’t conveyed particularly strongly — it’s about the same level of emotional development that Neo goes through in The Matrix. Michael gets even less than that; he’s essentially a mobile MacGuffin for the duration of the film, and the romantic angle feels contrived. The leaders of the two warring factions actually feel more developed, even though they aren’t the main characters, with Michael Sheen’s Lucian in particular showing a range from dangerous lunatic to sympathetic antagonist as we find out more about his character.
The other thing that limits the film is that even what it really sets out to excel at — being a stylish action film — is a little bit beyond its grasp. When the special effects fail, they fail hard. This is most problematic when the werewolves are in their transformed state; the transition, the appearance, and their movements afterwards are all very awkward and unconvincing. Even ten years ago, it’s hard to think they couldn’t have done better.
And yet despite its flaws, Underworld is not exactly a bad movie. It’s not a smart movie, by any stretch, and it takes itself too seriously to be a masterpiece of cheesy cinema. But if one is willing to go along with it a little ways, and accept the goofiness of the rest, it is at least possible for it to fall into “guilty pleasure” territory. It has enough of what it does well to be an entertaining film, if not a classic one.