Benjamin has been reviewing films online since 2004 and has seen way more action movies than he should probably admit to!
What's the big deal?
Underworld is an action horror film released in 2003 and is the beginning of the film series of the same name. The film is centred around a secret war raging for centuries between vampires and lycans (werewolves to you and me) and one vampire in particular, the death-dealing Selene. The film stars Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Michael Sheen and Bill Nighy and was directed by co-creator of the series Len Wiseman. The film was the subject of a copyright dispute with the publishers of the role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade, White Wolf which was settled out of court. The film received mostly negative press from critics but went on to gross $95 million and has since developed a cult following. It has been followed by a prequel film and a number of sequels, the latest being Underworld: Blood Wars in 2016. A sixth film and a TV series are rumoured to be in development.
What's it about?
In the shadows of society, a secret war has been raging between vampires and Lycans for generations. For one vampire specially trained for combat, the war is about more than mere superiority; Selene seeks vengeance for the deaths of her parents 600 years ago. With the apparent death of the lycan leader Lucian centuries ago, vampires like Selene continue to pursue lycans to eradicate them once and for all. Pursuing two such creatures, Selene uncovers a terrifying new weapon developed by the lycans—a UV bullet capable of killing a vampire outright.
Returning to her coven, Selene attempts to warn senior vampire Kraven of the danger but he is having none of it. Determined to prevent a genocide, Selene believes that the lycans she was hunting were following a human medical student named Michael Corvin so she tracks him down herself. As Selene and Michael become attracted to each other, it soon appears that Lucian isn't as dead as previously thought and has plans to end the war permanently.
What's to like?
I'll say one thing: Underworld isn't afraid to wear its influences like a badge of honour. It may be more like The Matrix than silent vampire classic Nosferatu but the movie's Gothic stylings make it an appealing picture to watch, especially with all the action and CG thrown at it. It's also nice to see vampires look like actual vampires with traditional costumes and Baroque lifestyle—none of that glowing Twilight claptrap here. The Lycans are also suitably fearsome, despite the occasionally dodgy CG.
The story might not be that original but you can tell that plenty of thinking is behind the film. There is plenty of backstory going on which doubtless would come in handy for the sequels and the action is well thought-out and choreographed. For a debuting director like Wiseman, it actually shows a high level of confidence to even attempt a movie as flashy as this.
- The attack dogs outside the vampire mansion were actually a bit too docile. During the chase sequence, the sounds of barking dogs had to be superimposed over the footage and you can even see them wagging their tails!
- Not only was Beckinsale in a long-term relationship with Sheen at the time of filming but she would later go on to marry Wiseman in 2004. The three of them remain close friends.
- A remix of David Bowie's track Bring Me The Disco King appears on the soundtrack. Wiseman originally wanted Bowie to play an unspecified role in the film but it never came to pass.
What's not to like?
However, Underworld does have some pretty major flaws. For all the depth and history on show, there doesn't appear to have been as much spent on the film's plot which feels confused and muddled as though two separate stories had been clumsily forced together. The same can also be said for characterisation which seems to have been replaced by fancy slow-motion and wire-work. Beckinsale, while looking every inch of smoking-hot femme fatale, isn't known for her action roles in the way Milla Jovovich was before she started the similarly violent adaptations of the Resident Evil videogames. Hate to say it but she just doesn't feel right in the role.
There are some problems with lighting. I know it's got to be set at night but some illumination would have helped to follow the story. I also found it difficult trying to keep up with who was vampire and who was werewolf. In short, I found Underworld too confusing. There is enough here to convince me that a good film exists but perhaps a bit of script polishing might have been useful as well as a more experienced director to get the most out of the material. Ironic, when you think about it. Editorially, it's one of the most polished films I've seen in years but a bit more focus was required.
Should I watch it?
If you prefer your films with the emphasis on action over horror then Underworld is an entertaining slice of Gothic mayhem as vampire and werewolf dance together in a slow-motion ballet and bullets and blood. It might not make much sense but it does enough to keep you interested. Veteran horror fans, in contrast, will wonder what all the fuss is about...
Great For: fans of The Matrix, Goths, vampire role-players
Not So Great For: the visually impaired, anyone who hasn't seen any of the other films in the series, people scared of the dark
What else should I watch?
Vampires and movies have been inseparable ever since the German silent film Nosferatu in 1922, an unlicensed knock-off of Bram Stoker's book Dracula. There are countless vampire films to watch and frankly, it depends on what sort of film you're looking for. Twilight is a teen romance with a blood-sucking twist (and has werewolves thrown in for good measure), Bram Stoker's Dracula is a sweeping historical epic from Francis Ford Coppola, the Blade trilogy features Marvel's own vampiric anti-hero while Vampires Suck is an alleged comedy parodying the genre as a whole.
Werewolves, by contrast, haven't had the same historical level of interest from film-makers but there are some films out there well worth considering. Your first port-of-call should be An American Werewolf In London which, despite its age, has some truly mind-blowing effects and is still highly regarded today. Other efforts include the action flick Dog Soldiers and the more conventional horror Ginger Snaps which is a lot better than its pun title suggests.
Danny McBride *
Release Date (UK)
19th September, 2003
Action, Fantasy, Horror
© 2017 Benjamin Cox