Underworld: Awakening Review
Has it really been nine years since Underworld first ravaged our screens?
I’ll admit to having a bit of a soft spot for the Underworld films. Ever since Kate Beckensale shot through the floor in her tight fitting leather outfit, took on werewolves and her own vampire kind for the sake of love, the films have a dumb kind of fun attached to them – far more action than horror they (well the first two films, at least) nevertheless have a unique take on two of cinemas most endearing monsters and scored the most points of all by pitting them against each other. Original director Len Wiseman and co. produced some terrific vampire/werewolf lore; by casting the net far and wide to encompass a lot of ‘established rules’ about these supernatural creatures, there have been a few changes to what they can and can’t do in this particular universe, which makes for some very compelling monsters, the best of which being that these two iconic forces are at war with each other, hiding in the ‘underworld’ of the Humans in a bitter struggle for supremacy.
The original film established Selene (Kate Beckinsale) as a Death Dealer, essentially a killing machine employed to eradicate any werewolf, or lycan as they are known in this universe. She is pitiless and devoted to the vampire that turned her and for hundreds of years she was the yard stick to be measured by. That is until she fell for Michael, a descendent of the very first immortal, who, during the course of the film, is turned into a hybrid vampire/lycan with attributes common to both species; this causes an inconsolable rift between her and her vampire clan which results in her killing the coven leader. In the second film, which picks up directly where the first finished, we get to explore the origins of the species and two horrifying monsters, the original vampire and lycan, ravage the world and Selene discovers her past. The two films very much work together, both being written as one film, but being split due to budget and time, there is thus plenty of over the top action, gore which tips the scales towards true horror. The third film, made during the writer’s strike of 2009, was a retelling of the subplot of the first film (that of Viktor killing his own daughter rather than have her pregnant with a lycan child) and is very much the weakest of the films at that point, there being nothing new to really deliver to the universe, despite a valiant effort from all involved in the project.
As such tonight’s feature, Underworld: Awakening, totally ignores the third instalment and picks up pretty much where the second film finished. But as it has been some six years since Evolution, the makers decided to give this one an extended prologue (much as I have done above) to re-introduce the characters, and the world, to the audience. Then, via a streaming news video footage the next events of the timeline are unravelled – it appears that due to the events in Evolution humankind is now fully aware of the ‘underworld’; it has united the human race like never before and gives them the determination to exterminate this 'new' threat with extreme prejudice in an ethnic cleansing spree, termed the ‘purge’. The film picks up as Selene tries to escape this purge and reunite herself with Michael who is poised ready to escape on a trawler. The opening is, I’ll admit, very dramatic and action orientated, with Selene using her considerable skill to cut a swath through any human resistance. One thing that irks me, and quite a lot in this film actually, is the reliance that the vampires have on weapons, particularly guns. It has been shown that they have superior strength, agility and speed, so why does Selene need so many weapons to escape from humans, bullets wound her, but do not kill her, and so she could simply walk through them all. Indeed in a later attack on a coven it is shown that the vampires have a veritable arsenal and ‘suit’ up when their base is under attack – surely if it were simply humans they would be no match for them, no? However, these are the rules that the film itself sets. To create tension Selene is unable to reach Michael due to the number of humans who are out to exterminate her; she gets to within inches before a vast explosion pulls them apart. But does it?
Here is where the film sets itself further apart from the previous instalments, no longer are lycans the ‘enemy’ but mankind is. (Or is it?) A close up of Selene’s face pulls back to reveal that she is hung naked and frozen in a chamber within a laboratory somewhere. Alarms are going off (way too many flashing lights, how could you work in a place that constantly has alarms and flashing lights going off?) as Selene breaks free from her coffin and struggles to regain control of her body. Fortunately her skin tight leather outfit has been stored in a glass cabinet in the same room, so it doesn’t take her long to don her duds and take bloody revenge on her captors as she seeks to escape. Interspersed with these action sequences we are privy to the machinations of the lab staff, the sinister looking lead scientist Dr. Jacob Lane, who, coincidentally, was lead scientist for the world on discovering a ‘cure’ for the virus that makes the supernaturals, and the softer spoken lab assistant, Lida, who has the demeanour of someone out of her dept and just following orders.
During her escape, Selene, is plagued by visions, as if she is seeing through someone else’s eyes, she assumes this is Michael, since they were so close. However, when she is cornered by a vampire, David, intent on taking her back to his coven recognising, as he does, who she is, the pair discovers that the source is actually that of a twelve year old girl, a girl that has the same phenomenal speed, strength and body characteristics of Michael, i.e. she is also a hybrid. Once back at the coven, Thomas, the leader of this particular vampire clan, and David’s father, recognises Selene, and who the child is and prophesises doom for everyone as no longer will they be able to hide away, but be forced either on the run or to stand and fight.
The pace of the film is quite furious and there is a gaggle of new characters introduced into the universe each, in common with the previous films, played by well established (British) actors which helps to bring some credibility to the film, even if it plays out as nonsense. Dr. Jacob Lane is played by the instantly recognisable Stephen Rea whose list of credits far exceeds the word count of this review. He has mastered the ‘is he good or bad’ persona to such excellence that you really can’t tell on which side of the fence he will fall, this is especially true of the case in this film when you first meet him. His true motivations do, however, come clear very early on due to predictable filming techniques. Thomas is played by the wonderful Charles Dance though he never manages to convey the awe of menace that a vampire coven leader should display, probably because ise scenes are nearly blink and you’ll miss, but moreover his character is fearful of the humans; preferring to run and hide, or give up a hostage, to ensure survival than stand up and fight – i.e. he want to exist, not to ‘live’. It is an interesting slant on an ancient foe, but one I’m not sure I buy into. Vampires are malevolent and nearly all powerful, even one that has been nearly hunted to extinction, they are still top of the food chain, feeding on humans, so to simply want to hide from them, whilst it might work in terms of the narrative of the film (creating conflict between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’) it somehow doesn’t ring true. Dance nails the impotence of the character in this department though. David, representative of the ‘new’ vampires as one eager to follow Selene into bloody battle, is played by Theo James, who we have seen recently in the TV series Downton Abbey, Bedlam and the feature film The Inbetweeners Movie, none of which prepare him for this film. He comes across as a hungry for victory vampire, foolhardy but loyal and whilst he doesn’t really have any sort of story arc save the blindingly obvious one, at least he can hold a gun and look menacing. But perhaps the most significant new role is that of India Eisley who plays ‘Subject 2’, or Eve, the hybrid girl. I don’t think it gives much away to say that she is clearly Selene and Michael’s daughter, thus she has inherited her father’s attributes and her mother’s looks. Having been brought up in total captivity and scientifically experimented upon, she holds the key to Selene’s captivity and indeed the whole plot of the film. As such the characterisation of a scared child, despite phenomenal power, is somewhat accurate. She doesn’t really have much to do, there is no overwhelming mother daughter bond shown (à la Aliens) for Selene to risk all to rescue her, even though hints are added in to try and humanise the Death Dealer.
So what of Beckinsale in the leather clad suit? Well she has had to deal with a number of issues over the past three films; falling in love, betrayal, discovery of her past, fighting against all she holds dear and against the only family she can remember as well as loss, heartache and now the discovery of a daughter that has grown up while she has been frozen. Thus, Selene has, believe it or not, matured from a blood thirsty killing machine to a heart broken mother. Personally I’m not one for humanising vampires. There is just too much of it, from Angel to Twilight (ach ptew), vampires with feelings weakens their very essence. Brian Lumley had their personas right in his Necroscope series of books (if you’ve not read them, I urge you to seek them out, vampires as vampires should be); horrific monsters, nearly unstoppable, nearly all powerful and only ever out for themselves, even against each other. And if you think about it why would a creature that is nearly unstoppable and nearly all powerful listen to anyone? Thus when I see Selene reduced to tears because she has lost her lover and has woken to an alien world, where she has become the hunted and then confronted with a child that has no idea of her capabilities, I think, “Pull yourself together. You are a vampire, you are immortal, go out and kick ass; just leave the guns behind you don’t need them!” That and the fact that it has been eleven years since we first saw Selene, Beckinsale, despite the best intentions of diet and make up has altered in appearance; her face has changed shape. It doesn’t matter that she can switch in and out of character in the blink of an eye (if you believe the making of features), she is clearly aging meaning that there can only be a limited number of outings for Selene – and that can only be a good thing. Underworld the franchise should not be about one character; it should be about the ‘world’. The first two films, and indeed much of the third, deal with the world in which the supernaturals live, the eternal struggle between the vampires and the lycans, but it seems with each successive outing the scale is reducing until this fourth instalment when we are concerned with Selene’s survival. The drive of the film has become rescue revenge. The overall world is the major twist of this film (and it's not that unexpected to anyone with the slightest inclining of filmic narrative) which hints that Underworld 5 may once again spill out to the ‘world’ it has itself created and could be all the better for it.
The film is credited with an astonishing nine writers as well as the two directors, and incredibly this doesn’t impact on the film narrative to heavily. The Swedish directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein keep the pace furiously high (this is a trademark of the film franchise whole) lest you realise that not a lot is really happening. The action is kept high with plenty of bullets being shot. The stylisation takes the lead from the other Underworld films, being blue and black heavy, and, understandably still has stylistic links back to The Matrix. Once again there are some terrific lycan costumes and these practical effects look so much better than the CG abominations which stick out like a gigantic werewolf in a car park. Oh was that one of the climatic scenes?
But, despite all the films drawbacks, and my not exactly enthusiastic writings up until this point, I didn’t hate it. It might be my indissoluble soft spot for the franchise, it might be that ‘big dumb fun’ badge it so gleefully wears, or it might even be like returning to a comfy chair after a long walk. Underworld: Awakening is not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, indeed it sits only just above the abortive third instalment, but what it does have is an unabridged enthusiasm when pitting vampires against werewolves and these filmmakers are distilling the formula to, hopefully, bring us the single malt we’re all waiting for. Raaaarhhh!