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.
The only reason to watch any Underworld (imho) is Kate Beckinsale in black leather.
I second that 😉
It’s definitely the only reason that doesn’t require any caveats.
Yes! Yes it is 😀
The verdict is unanimous!
I actually like the first movie. Beckinsale is quite an interesting choice as a bad ass vampire but she made it work somehow and my hubby likes her in her leather outfit, ahah. Plus her ex Michael Sheen is awesome as Lucian!
Michael Sheen is definitely one of the better performances in the film. Beckinsale isn’t bad, and certainly looks good in the outfit. As for the film… it’s all right. Not great, but I’m not regretting it.
I’m not ruling out checking out the sequels… at least, I know I have an opportunity to watch the second one for free before the end of the month. What’s your recommendation?
Hmmm, I think the first one is the best of the franchise. I haven’t seen the last one yet, not sure I want to.
OK, I shall keep that in mind. I think there’s someone around our circle of bloggers who’s a fan… might be Terrence.
It’s a good mindless action flick, but I have to say… I’d never before noticed how BLUE it is. It really is blue. o__O
Great review, as always.
(What did you think of the other films? The prequel was the first of the series I’d ever seen, and though I’ve not seen it in years, I recall it being pretty good. I think there’s a 4th one out, but I never watched it.)
It’s amazing how much your eyes adjust to something when it’s all you’re focusing on, isn’t it? I didn’t notice the blueness either until I was looking at the screenshots I’d taken, on my normal Windows desktop.
I haven’t seen the other films yet. I might be checking out the second one later this month. Have you seen it, and what did you think?
I saw it many years ago. If memory serves me well, it follows in the path of many other semi-plotless actions films, such as Transformers — the films decrease in quality as the sequels come, but it was still a decent showing for its genre.
I look forward to your review of it, if you happen to do one!
Ah. So I shouldn’t get my hopes up for an improvement. 😀 Thanks!
i wasn’t interested in it when it came out in theaters, but after it came out on dvd I gave it a shot and then really liked it because it gave me something I was wanting for a while…good fights between vampires and werewolves and the fighting was pretty tough. Kate, of course, looked great!
the series really appeals to me know, esp because of the continuity of the characters/cast in the next 2 films. have you seen them? I’ll be interested in your thoughts on the trilogy (you can avoid the most recent 4th installment) and see if it helps you like the 1st one even more! 🙂
So the fourth one isn’t even good for fans of the series, huh? I’ll have to remember that. 😀
So are these full-on enjoyment for you, or are they more guilty pleasures?
now I’d have to say enjoyment. I like the story, i like its continuing thread, I like how one picks up right where another ends. the 3rd being a prequel is also connected like that and is pretty well done.
perhaps its a mixture of both enjoyment and guilty pleasure! 🙂
yeah…but the 4th one: disappointment. http://thefocusedfilmographer.com/2012/01/22/review-underworld-awakening/
Oh yes… I remember you taking some shots at that now. Thanks for the input, T.
The first Underworld is a fairly decent action film. Michael Sheen tears it up brilliantly. A highlight of the film. It’s definitely one of those films you wait to see on DVD/small screen rather than lining up for the big event.
And you’re right, it’s very, very blue. Pick another colour palette!
Michael Sheen really was the highlight of the film, wasn’t he? I have to admit that’s one of the things making me wary of the sequels… it’s hard to picture the second one having as dynamic an antagonist.
This film is so blue 😀
It’s almost a study in monochrome… 😀
Hate it when stuff doesn’t show up in my WordPress feed, either that or I somehow overlooked it. I like this movie quite a bit though I was just talking over in Fog’s Beautiful Creatures review how silly it was to change such traditional terms to things like Casters, Lycans, Corpses, or Hemophages (and also thought it would make an interesting little trivia game out of them). I agree with Michael’s character, never really cared much for him, I much more enjoyed Lucien, Raze, and Selene. Fun fact, Raze (I think that’s his name) is also the writer of the film.
Yeah, I noticed the actor for Raze was also the writer. Pretty cool. I wonder if they decided to cast him after hearing his voice. 😀
I have to admit I seldom even use the WordPress feed… I just get it all sent to my email. It may get cluttered from time to time, but it lets me take it at my own pace.
He also does the commentary for the movie, so weird hearing him talk like that through the entire commentary track, I doubt it was just the voice, I mean he’s built like a truck! The voice may have just gotten him a few extra lines, which he could have written himself, nice how that works out that way, at least in my imaginary walkthrough of how it could have happened.
I don’t like my e-mail to get too cluttered, so I use the wordpress reader mostly since all the comments get linked, and I use Twitter to keep an eye out for other interesting things since I tend to forget to check my blogger/indpenendently hosted reader often.
I do like the reader for all the follow-up comments (at least, the light version of it in the header bar). That’s pretty convenient.