starring Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Shane Brolly, Michael Sheen
screenplay by Danny McBride
directed by Len Wiseman
by Walter Chaw Appearing to be based on two White Wolf role-playing games--"Vampire: The Masquerade" and "Werewolf: The Apocalypse"--introduced a while back (and indeed, the games company is suing Sony, Screen Gems, and Lakeshore for copyright infringement, citing no fewer than sixty points of unique similarity), Len Wiseman's Underworld may prove to be less "Romeo and Juliet" than much ado about nothing. The picture looks fantastic, Kate Beckinsale and Scott Speedman look fantastic, and that's pretty much all there is recommend about the piece, which is so boring, lifeless, and humourless that White Wolf would do well to distance itself from the thing toot sweet. This is gravid filmmaking at its worst, indulging in its twin cults' puerile wish-fulfillment fantasies with a sexless lust: the life of an immortal rock star in period garb thirsting for the blood of bullies for the one, of a raging man-beast thirsting for the blood of bullies for the other. In between are tons of rip-offs of everything from The Crow to The Matrix to the leather fetish and arms of Blade to the sweaty bodice-ripping of Anne Rice to the Alien3 wall-crawling monster views of David Fincher. Wiseman, in his hyphenate debut (he co-concocted the story), has scored big with a real-life engagement to the ethereally beautiful--and undernourished and anaemic--Kate Beckinsale, enough to take the sting out of the blah of Underworld, I'd surmise. And why not? Many would fail worse for less, but as a writer and director he proves himself to be a pretty good set designer.
Selene (Beckinsale) is a vampire and a werewolf hunter. She hates vampire leader Kraven (and so do we, because Shane Brolly is an awful actor), and werewolf leader Lucian (Michael Sheen, who lost girlfriend Beckinsale to Wiseman and whatever), but loves her mentor and creator Viktor (Bill Nighy, the only actor worth a damn here), and human Michael (Speedman), whom the "Lycans" are after and who is not all he appears to be. The plot unfolds with the grace of a long fall downstairs as interminable monologues are carefully enunciated to the effect of something about bloodlines, elders, councils, combining bloodlines, awakening/murdering elders, and consulting/assassinating councils. After the monologues trickle to an eventual stop, there come the sort of Matrix-inspired action sequences involving fast impact and slow-motion resolution, lots of guns in the John Woo tradition, and lots of water in the Adrian Lyne tradition. The aggregate sum of all this leaden exposition and gunmetal hullabaloo is a self-outsmarting genre masturbation session that doesn't answer key questions, contradicts itself fatally and constantly, and fails to elicit anything like interest or empathy in any of its great-looking characters.
Scored with a deafening thrum, for all the technical prowess of Underworld, much of the dialogue is swallowed whole by its soundtrack, and a few scenes--featuring Kraven, in particular--appear to have been looped in a tin bucket. The vampires are largely indistinguishable from one another save for Selene, who is, after all, cold water in a hot glass--the only glimpses we see of the others are either lounging around in velvet sitting rooms or marching around in leather. The only glimpses we see of the Lycans en masse is one shot in a grungy werewolf fight club or something, and then only now and again pre or post-transformation.
The film begins with a sort of promising shootout in a crowded subway (demonstrating the vamps' and Lycans' amazing marksmanship in only causing one bystander casualty while simultaneously demonstrating their amazing lack of marksmanship in their managing to fire ten-thousand bullets into walls minding their own business), revealing its centerpiece werewolf transformation to be fairly nifty before plunging into a tedious bit of business involving Kraven wanting Selene to be his bride. Lore is semi-established in the vampires physically aging and being able to see their reflection and werewolves abhorring silver, but the warriors on both sides seem all but impossible to kill, making the fight scenes seem arbitrary and endless. Worse, Wiseman is so desperate to fashion a cult picture that he robs the dual mythologies of their illicit joy; without a convincing foil (Michael becomes one of the supernatural too quickly), what we're engaged in is the sort of detached self-loathing of a pathological role-gamer--the only suture we're offered in the film is through the vehicle of believing oneself to be an imaginary superman. All Batman--no Bruce Wayne.
Underworld is a fantastic visual film with a completely hollow emotional and intellectual core. It will most likely fail as a potential cult phenomena because it doesn't fulfill any of the conflicts of J.G. Ballard's three pillars of science fiction (identity, space, time), nor does it satisfy a cult film's requirement to be knowingly awful or so meticulously, stringently detailed that much would be gained from repeat viewings. Underworld is too in love with its own niftiness to bother much with infusing itself with life and purpose, all this hollowness despite a late suggestion that the werewolves are some sort of slave class involved in rebellion (and Kirk Douglas does seem the prototypical werewolf, come to think of it: "No, I'm Spartacus!"). Weighted down with just too much highborn blather, Underworld collapses like the pretty origami it is. Originally published: September 19, 2003.
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