Underworld: Awakening Review
By popular demand, here’s a second bite at Kate Beckinsale’s cherry.
Following on from our look at the 3D release of this movie (you can read Simon’s review here), and after the feedback questioning whether there are any overt differences in picture quality between the US 2D standalone release and the 2D/3D release of the movie, the latter of which is the only release available in the UK, we now turn our attention to the US 2D standalone release.
However, before we get to the technical stuff, let’s take another look at Kate’s latest PVC performance and see whether the Underworld franchise still has any of the magic that made it such a refreshingly fun watch back when it started, the best part of a decade ago.
Well a good deal has changed in the realm of Underworld, and a good deal has stayed the same.
After an interesting first movie – which made the most of a fairly restricted budget and gave us an expansive look at a distinctly adult world of vampires and werewolves (lycans), fighting an age-old war beneath our very streets, unbeknownst to the human population above – things were developed in the sequel as we learned more about the origins of the characters, whilst also exploring the third race, the vampire-lycan hybrids, and the threat that they posed to both species.
The main protagonist was a so-called death-dealer called Selene, one of the vampire clan’s top assassins, who fell in love with a hybrid called Michael and betrayed her elders to be with him. Over the course of the first two movies we learned that she, in fact, was betrayed by them first, and therefore, despite their might, we championed her fight to stand up to them. Things would simply never be the same in the world of vampires and lycans.
Following the dramatic events of Underworld: Evolution, the human race has discovered the existence of the two deadly species, and has consequently set about trying to eradicate them from the face of the Earth, conducting a ‘purge’ which will cleanse the planet of both vampires and lycans. Selene and Michael are on the run, and it is not long before they are torn apart by encroaching enemy forces that outnumber them. In a blinding explosion, Selene loses consciousness, and wakes up to find herself in suspended animation, frozen in a glass tomb. Fighting her way out she finds that 12 years have passed since she last saw Michael, and that vampires have been largely forced underground, and lycans have been reduced to little more than diseased, starving vermin.
Searching for Michael she instead finds a young girl – who happens to be 12 years old – and, realising that there is something different about this girl, decides to save her from the human forces who are looking for them both. Regrouping with a coven of a few surviving vampires, and with hunters on their trail, Selene and the last remaining few must figure out why she – and the girl – were kept alive by the scientists for over a decade, and what truly happened to the lycans, knowing that the time to make a last stand against the humans is fast approaching.
Once again produced by original Underworld 1 & 2 director Len Wiseman, and directed by relative newcomer Swedish duo Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein, this latest Underworld instalment does everything a proper vampire/werewolf movie should do: none of that glitter-in-the-sun “I love you more than anybody has ever loved anybody ever before ever” schmaltz that makes the painfully eternal Twilight saga useful for little more than drinking games – this is all ripping open jugulars, headshots and UV disintegration; the vampires are as deadly as they are emotionless, and the werewolves are as vicious as they are beast-like. With corridors, covens and military facilities-full of cannon-fodder, we are also back in full-on action territory and, although the story is pretty lame – borderline incomprehensible – it’s more than enough excuse to jump from set-piece to set-piece with brutal efficiency. Underworld: Awakening is 89 minutes of above-average, entertaining, vampire vs. werewolf vs. human action/horror – pretty-much exactly what you would expect from an addition to the series; no more, no less. But even fans of the first two movies must have been surprised that it even came into existence: I certainly was.
You see, whilst the first two movies were reasonably successful – largely through the winning combination of Director/Producer Len Wiseman, his wife, sexy lead actress Kate Beckinsale, and writer Danny McBride – and despite the firm plans by all three that they would make a trilogy of movies, the third instalment dropped both the director and the main star, opting instead to put the always-intended prequel story (again written by McBride, although now with further drafts by new scribes, including Wiseman himself) in the hands of a certain Patrick Tatopoulos.
Known more for his production design work on the creatures in the Underworld movies (including Awakening), Rise of the Lycans was Tatopoulos’s first film as director (it may also be his last, as he hasn’t gone behind the camera since). Although Rise was still a fairly entertaining yarn, filling in a great deal of background into the age-old grudge match between the vampires and lycans, it told a tale that we already knew the ending of, and did so – in spite of a fairly good cast of supporting actors – without a strong enough script or a decent enough lead. Rhona Mitra, who is probably best known for being one of the models to the Lara Croft / Tomb Raider video games, is to Kate Beckinsale what Paul Walker is to Keanu Reeves. And whilst Beckinsale isn’t exactly known for her acting chops, her presence was still missed in Rise of the Lycans.
Securing only a limited release, and suffering at the Box Office, I never thought that we’d see another Underworld movie. Although there are clear parallels with the Resident Evil franchise – a sexy superpowered woman, who is not known for wearing too many clothes, fights the evil hordes, both human and superhuman, using her kick-ass fighting skills and a plethora of infinite-ammo weapons – the Underworld franchise, whilst it arguably had the superior foundation, simply did not have the same fan base. However average the Resident Evil films are (although they occasionally rise about expectations), and however many zombie movies there are out there, there will likely always be a market for them – the name Resident Evil is still a known brand. Underworld arguably burned its bridges with Rise of the Lycans; nobody expected them to go back to the first two movies and continue the stories of the characters within. Which is exactly what Underworld: Awakening does.
It’s a clever tactic: effectively skipping over Rise of the Lycans and returning to the present, and the story of the characters from the first two movies. As can easily be summed up by what Simon said in his review of the 3D release, watching Awakening is like returning to a comfy chair after a long walk: there’s a warm familiarity to the tale of vampires vs. human vs. lycans, more easily disseminated through the presence of Kate Beckinsale, making a welcome return to take lead duty right where she belongs. Beckinsale is to the Underworld films what Milla Jovovich is to the Resident Evil series, and whilst both franchises should theoretically be broader in scope than merely the following the journey of one heroine, they are both still basically defined by the lead presence of these actresses.
Beckinsale returns to the character as if she never left it, slipping into Selene’s skintight PVC outfit (handily also preserved in a cabinet next to her for the entire 12 years that she was in stasis!) like a snug glove. It’s really no surprise: the Underworld franchise is pretty-much all that Kate’s been known for over the past decade (again, not wholly unlike Milla for Resident Evil). Discounting a couple of Box Office flops (including the immensely disappointing, frigid graphic novel adaptation, Whiteout) and a reasonable if largely insignificant turn in the lightly entertaining remake, Contraband, she’s largely been off the radar, and it’s nice to have her back.
Along the way she teams up with The Inbetweeners’ Theo James as a vampire freedom fighter whose father is the last remaining vampire elder, Thomas – played by veteran scenery chewer Charles Dance (recently excellent in Game of Thrones); opposition comes in the form of Stephen Rea (recently excellent in The Shadow Line) who plays the clearly evil doctor using Selene for one of his experiments; and India Eisley (The Secret Life of the American Teenager) puts in a decent enough supporting contribution as the young girl who was another test subject.
At the end of the day, however, this is Kate Beckinsale’s star action vehicle; a return to the Underworld tales as they were originally, continuing on in the saga of Selene, merely changing the setting within which she unleashes her bullet-spraying vengeance-driven fury to a more futuristic city-based one as opposed to the more rural East European predisposition of the first few movies. It’s both a welcome return to form, and a cleverly different environment, setting the stage for a conclusion far bigger than this movie could contain by itself; opening up the saga to at least one more instalment, if not a further two films to make this the second trilogy. And clearly the filmmakers have learned from the mistake of putting anybody other than Kate in the lead position; I suspect the actress has got her next decade mapped out too now.
With a reasonable enough budget behind it, some well-used effects, and a couple of pretty feisty set-pieces (including an excellent little tribute to the shooting-through-the-floor sequence in the first movie); as well as Kate’s Selene striding, crawling, sliding, leaping, kicking, punching and shooting her way through the entire near-hour-and-a-half runtime, there’s little time to complain, and certainly no time to be bored.
Never outstaying its welcome, perhaps the story here isn’t as strong as it should be; the mythos isn’t as rich as in the earlier chapters; and the supporting characters aren’t as well rounded as before, but it’s still nice to have Underworld back on track. Sure, this is more like just the start of what feels like a grander, perhaps Trilogy-worthy tale, but, fingers crossed – and likely contingent on the success of director Wiseman’s upcoming Total Recall remake (which, surprise surprise once again stars Beckinsale) – we will get to see the rest of the story unfold over the next few years.
As with the Resident Evil films, there’s a comfortable predictability to the Underworld films: you know exactly what they will deliver – and whilst you always hope that the next one will be better, you’re still quite content with whatever you get. So long as it involves cool vampires, beast-like werewolves, and Kate Beckinsale wandering around in figure-hugging PVC shooting and slashing just about anything that moves, it’ll do just fine.