Watching the first movie in a franchise — when the series has moved on to having several entries by the time you first check it out — can be an odd situation. You’re aware the film was successful, and that several of its sequels were, but the quality of those sequels can be a mystery. This is particularly true when the original film occupies that tiny little quality tier which consists of films that aren’t great, but aren’t bad either, and which show the potential for both improvement and deterioration. Such was the case when I watched Underworld a few weeks back. I enjoyed the film, but it was unquestionably a flawed and in some ways stupid film. But it was fun, it had style, and the concept had some potential for an interesting, if not fantastic, action series.
So I decided to watch the second film, Underworld: Evolution, while it was available to me. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from it, but was hoping it would take the good points of the first film, and bolster the weak points, even if only slightly. The first film had entertaining action sequences, but when it came to plot and characterization it was rather thin. I felt that if Underworld: Evolution showed improvement in those regards, it would be a better film overall. This was a fairly low bar to step over. Underworld: Evolution gracefully limbos under that bar.
Kate Beckinsale’s outfit is only good enough to salvage one middling action movie.
The biggest problem with the film is that the plot and the characters, which weren’t the first film’s strong suit, are even weaker this time out. Kate Beckinsale and Scott Speedman reprise their roles as the leads, but although Beckinsale’s Selene gains a little bit more backstory, it isn’t much, and she doesn’t undergo much character development either. Meanwhile, Speedman’s Michael is essentially a waste of screen time. In the first film, he was essentially a living MacGuffin and not all that interesting as a character in his own right; he doesn’t get any more fleshing out here, and as he’s no longer the thing everybody is after, he’s lost the only thing that made him halfway interesting. He’s only here to be Selene’s love interest, and frankly, the romance angle isn’t that interesting and the chemistry isn’t very believable.
Aside from the leads, the film is hurt by the inability to bring back any of the other interesting characters from the first film. The replacements don’t really measure up. Tony Curran plays the main antagonist, the eldest vampire, Marcus. He has an interesting visual design, suitably grotesque, but that’s about all he’s got going for him. His goal is simply to free his werewolf brother; there’s a bit of a rigamarole about keys in the form of lockets to justify stretching this out to most of the movie, but that’s pretty much all there is to Marcus’s motivations. The motivations of his brother William (Brian Steele) are essentially to stand around and growl a lot. The two are supposed to be this big global threat, but the movie doesn’t do a very good job of selling this point when the confrontation comes.
The most interesting characters, once again, are side characters. Derek Jacobi turns in a classy performance as a third party invested in the conflict between the werewolves and vampires, and Steven Mackintosh has a colorful role as a lecherous vampire historian who has been living in exile. It’s possible Jacobi’s character could have salvaged the film, but neither of these two is on screen long enough to really be anything but boxes on the plot’s checklist.
The other problems with the film have to be laid at the feet of director Len Wiseman. There isn’t much down time between action sequences, but the action sequences themselves aren’t as good as in the first film. They sometimes seem to happen just because an action scene is declared — you know the type, the sudden attack out of nowhere that doesn’t flow naturally from the setup. And the fights are shot in a frenetic style with a lot of quick movements and jump cuts — a lot more than I remember being used in the first film. This has two significant effects. First, it makes the werewolves and less humanoid vampires look even less believable than in the first film; the special effects actually look less special. Second, and more importantly, it makes it that much harder to keep track of what’s going on. It is difficult to be impressed by a powerful punch if the swing for that punch is skipped over. As the film features a lot more hand-to-hand combat than shootouts, this renders large sections of the film hard to watch, especially with the series’ trademark midnight blue camera filter.
Wiseman did, however, expand his color palette to include orange.
Or perhaps he just couldn’t figure out how to make fire blue.
As the film adds its own new issues to the continuing issues of the first film, it is not only a film that is to difficult to praise for its quality, but also just as a piece of entertainment. Underworld: Evolution has actually devolved from its predecessor’s level.
I think I’m done with this series.