“Whether you like it or not, you're in the middle of a war that has been raging for the better part of a thousand years. A blood feud between Vampires and Lycans. Werewolves.”
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Bill Nighy, Shane Brolly, Michael Sheen, Kevin Grevioux
Screenplay: Danny McBride, based upon a story by Kevin Grevioux, Len Wiseman and Danny McBride
One glance at the trailer for Underworld was enough to make me think an evil thought of it, namely, “This looks like a chick flick disguised as a horror film; and if that’s what it is, I’m going to be mightily ticked off.” Under normal circumstances, this thought alone might have been enough to keep me away from the film. However, Underworld just happened to be the first genre film released here in 2004; and since I had promised myself that this year I was going to get my lazy butt off the couch and back into the cinema, I refused to allow myself to be dissuaded even by the looming threat of chick-flickery – or for that matter, by a remark from a fellow mailing lister, re: the upcoming Van Helsing, made the very day I intended seeing Underworld: “Hey, maybe Kate Beckinsale can be in a vampire film that doesn’t suck!” As it turned out, my pre-judgement of the film was inaccurate. Despite its pre-production pitch of “Romeo and Juliet with vampires and werewolves”, Underworld isn’t a chick flick. It’s something even worse: an all-style-no-substance action movie that really, really, really, really, really wants to be The Matrix. Really. The level of referencing is nothing short of embarrassing: coloured filter photography, endless wire fu, actors more intent upon modelling their wardrobes than giving a performance, and – oh, yes, how could I forget? – bullet-time. Sigh. (To be fair – fair? – I’m told that Underworld rips off Blade almost as much, but I haven’t seen Blade yet, so I’ll have to take that on trust.) It’s so intent upon looking cool that little details like a plot that makes sense, logical behaviour on the part of its characters and the creation of a credible fantasy world are allowed to fall by the wayside.
Underworld posits a centuries-old war between vampires and werewolves--- Ooh, sorry, I mean between Vampires and Lycans – although why one of the clans should have had its name gussied up and not the other, I can’t imagine. As the film opens, it seems that the Vampires are on the verge, not just of victory, but of wiping their ancient enemies from the face of the planet. This we learn via the voice-over of Selene (Kate Beckinsale), who belongs to the warrior class of Vampires known as the “Death Dealers”. (I say “class”, which would seem to suggest a variety of options, but truly, from what we see of the Vampires, the only alternative to hunting werewolves seems to be sitting around on your duff for centuries looking bored and sulky, so it’s little wonder that Selene opts to spend her immortality offing the enemy.) Selene and another of her ilk follow two Lycans into an underground railway station, and in a scene that unfortunately sets the tone for much of what is to follow, a lengthy, noisy, confusingly choreographed gun battle ensues. Yes, that’s right, I said “gun battle”. What we have here is a story about two families of supernatural beings who fight by shooting at one another – and they do it a lot. By about halfway through the film I was so bored with the endlessly repetitive shoot-outs that I could have dozed off – if only the combination of incessant gunfire and the relentlessly pounding soundtrack had made such a thing physically possible. Anyway, in a turn of events whose significance we realise only subsequently, the opening gun battle catches in its cross-fire the unfortunate humans that are trying to catch a train. One of them is a young intern called Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), with whom Selene exchanges a lingering glance immediately before pulling out the twin handguns that she wears like fashion accessories and blasting away at her enemies. Much bang-bang later, Selene pursues what’s left of the Lycans through a series of tunnels beneath the railway line, and pulls up stunned when she hears what sounds like a very large gathering of Lycans – more Lycans than there should be, considering the attrition rate of the war. She carries this startling news to Kraven (Shane Brolly), current leader of her particular Vampire clan, but is brushed aside. Undeterred, and certain that she has stumbled across something of great importance, Selene continues to pursue the matter, examining video footage of herself stalking the Lycans – and realising that they, in turn, were also stalking someone: Michael Corvin.
The opening sequence of Underworld is of unexpected importance inasmuch as this is almost the only time that any humans, Michael excepted, appear in the film. In fact, only one more human, a colleague of Michael’s, will appear at any point in the story – and that’s only because Michael needs someone, briefly, to exposit to. Although we see a familiar world of railway stations, hospitals, cars, taxis, computers, security cameras and, oh yeah, guns, never at any time are we given a recognisable human reality against which to measure events. Vampires, werewolves and humans are held to co-exist in this world, yet we are expected to believe that the latter are wholly unaware of the existence of the other two – although given the propensity of the warring clans for huge, noisy, bloody gun battles in public places, and the fact that they seem to just leave their dead lying around, how could that be possible? The opening sequence of Underworld also provides the meeting between Selene and Michael that will drive its plot. Actually, it’s not really a meeting; more like “their eyes met briefly across a crowded railway platform; and then she started shooting people”. Romeo and Juliet pitches notwithstanding, the amount of weight given to this fleeting eye-lock between the two leads in Underworld is simply ridiculous. Ol’ Bill S. might have been able to get away with this kind of stuff, but then he was, as you might say, a slightly better writer than Danny McBride; and he was also writing about a boy and a girl kept apart by nothing more than human stupidity. Selene and Michael, on the other hand, aren’t even the same species. Moreover, despite passing references to feeding on livestock, and to the recent development of artificial blood, Selene must for untold years have regarded Michael’s kind as nothing more than her natural prey. (As author Suzy McKee Charnas’s vampire put it so contemptuously, “Would you mate with your cattle?”) And then, just to complicate things even more, Michael is bitten by Lucian (Michael Sheen), leader of the Lycans, and turned into a Lycan himself. And although she has dedicated her immortality to exterminating the race, and unconcernedly participates in the torturing of Lycans to get information from them, even this doesn’t bother Selene. On the contrary, she will shortly not just risk her own life for Michael’s sake, but defy the laws and traditions of her people for him. How nice to know that the prejudices of centuries can be overcome with so little effort.
(By the way, there is a scene later on when we see Selene practising her marksmanship by firing at a target range consisting of – busts of William Shakespeare! It’s an amusing moment, but under the circumstances, it does rather smack of sour grapes.)
Underworld never does bother to define its immortals for us; we’re simply left to figure out “the rules” as we go along, and they’re just as contradictory as you’d expect. One of the film’s revelations is that vampires, werewolves and certain humans are all descended from a common ancestor. The immortality of the Vampires and Lycans is due to the presence in their blood (and/or saliva) of a particular virus, which they transmit via their bite; while related humans carry certain critical genes in their DNA. Yet having provided this essentially “scientific” explanation, Underworld proceeds to have it both ways by making its immortals supernatural as well. The Lycans were once controlled by the moon, as per standard lore, but latterly have learned to transform at will. The Vampires can leap from great heights or climb walls and ceilings, but they do not transform at all. They have reflections, and are unbothered by running water; yet they can drown, and bleed to death, and be killed by serious physical injuries. Both clans, meanwhile, are vulnerable to their traditional nemeses: sunlight and silver, respectively. One good idea offered by the screenplay (which, as tends to be the case with films like this, is raised once and then all but forgotten) is that of designer bullets. The Lycans produce a bullet that encloses a small UV tube – “sunlight”, get it? – while the Vampires retaliate with bullets with a liquid silver nitrate centre. Notably, there is a complete absence of religious iconography in Underworld – and this, very indirectly, brings me my main problem with the film.
For some reason that escapes me, there is a distressing tendency for screenwriters to take big issues and make them small. Perhaps they’re simply not capable of dealing with the big issues in the first place; or perhaps they think that by bringing everything down to the lowest common denominator, they’re making those issues “accessible”. The backstory of Underworld is a brutal, bloody, genocidal war that has been raging for centuries; but the section of the story we see serves up little more than petty personal feuding and intrigue. The various clans of Vampires, we learn, are collectively governed by a council of Ancients, each of whom takes a turn ruling while the others sleep in desiccated form. While Viktor (Bill Nighy), one of the Ancients and the leader of Selene’s clan, sleeps, a lower ranked Vampire is appointed to look after things – and just as you’d expect, the slimiest, sleaziest, most patently untrustworthy Vampire in the whole clan is chosen for the job. Not only is Kraven (Kraven, get it?) busy betraying his people by making deals with the Lycans, he’s also intent upon getting his undead mitts upon Selene, who gives him the standard scornful rejection routine and goes off to pine at Viktor’s tomb. The relationship between Viktor and Selene is extremely confusing. He is the Vampire who “turned” her, hundreds of years ago, and her passionate fervour about him in the early stages of the film suggests that, well, she expects to rule with him some day. Conversely, Kraven seems to want Selene chiefly because she’s Viktor’s girl. (The Prisoner Of Zenda, anybody? There’s even a subplot about a female Vampire encouraging Selene’s relationship with Michael, so that she can have Kraven for herself.) Yet when against all Vampire law, Selene dares to wake Viktor from his sleep ahead of schedule, he sums up their relationship with, “I love you like a daughter!” And this is, in a nutshell, much of what’s wrong with Underworld: its immortals talk like humans, act like humans, think like humans, feel like humans. There’s no distinction about them, no otherworldliness. Everything they do is because of some all-too-recognisable motivation. For instance, it is eventually revealed that, contrary to popular legend and what we, the audience, have been led to believe, it was the Vampires who started the war, after Viktor’s daughter dared to marry one of the Lycans, who at that time were the Vampires’ slaves. How exactly the Lycans became enslaved is never explained – and nor, for that matter, is how (apparently for the only time in Vampire history) a Vampire managed to produce offspring of the usual biological kind.
Another thing left unexplained is how – not to mention why – a vampire and a werewolf would go about getting married!? (Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes once wrote a story about this very thing, and made a point of mentioning that his undead couple had to go to a registry office, because, well, you know….) This is exactly what I mean by saying that the immortals in Underworld behave just like humans; there is a thoughtlessness, a lack of imagination in all this that’s really depressing. Anyway, Viktor was ruthless enough to execute his daughter – “burning” her alive by exposing her to sunlight – and then declared war upon the Lycans, swearing to wipe them from the face of the planet. He also managed, somehow, to propagate a lie to the effect that the Lycans started it – even though a lot of the Vampires that were living then must still be living now.
Be that as it may, we are encouraged throughout the early part of the film to think of the Lycans as the Bad Guys; the disclosure of the truth is apparently meant to be as big a shock to us as it is to Selene. What this is really all about, of course, is justifying Selene’s ultimate betrayal of her people – as indeed is the film’s abrupt about-face regarding Selene’s own motives. In her opening monologue, Selene mourns the fact that when the Lycans have been exterminated, she and the other Death Dealers will no longer have to go out killing every night: “A pity, because I lived for it!” But of course, Our Heroine can’t do anything bad like killing for its own sake, even if she is a vampire, and even if her victims are werewolves; so later on she explains herself to Michael in much more personal terms: Lycans killed her family. Viktor saved her and turned her, and she has been taking her revenge ever since. And this, to me, is yet another overly human moment: after all those endless years, would Selene even still think about her family? – still less continue to mourn for people who did, after all, belong to the race which subsequently became her food source. (I am put in mind of the wonderful moment in Shadow Of The Vampire when Max Schreck marvels that after so many centuries of vampirism, Dracula could even remember how to set a table.) It comes as little surprise when we learn that it was Viktor himself – out looking for a midnight snack, presumably – who slaughtered Selene’s family, and who instead of killing her too, turned her because she reminded him of the daughter he’d executed. This revelation frees Selene to turn her back on her people, and to ally herself with Michael, just in time for the final conflict. The essential triviality of Underworld is nowhere better illustrated than during the closing section of the film, when a regenerated Viktor faces off against the new edition of Michael, who has (through a variety of plot twists) been turned into a deadly new creature part Vampire, part Lycan. Nothing, truly, sums up this film more completely than the fact that the final battle between these two all-powerful immortals is, I swear, a fistfight! One supplemented with lots of wire fu, granted, but basically this “ultimate confrontation” is nothing more than your standard back alley brawl. And just when you think that things can’t get any more anticlimactic, one of the two combatants is disposed of, not just disappointingly easily, but in a scene that looks like something out of a Monty Python sketch! (Actually, come to think of it, it really does; like the “tiger” sketch from The Meaning Of Life, as a matter of fact….)
When you get right down to it, Underworld is a film far more concerned about what it looks like and sounds like than with imagination or originality. It occasionally produces an interesting touch – like the shot of Selene sitting in a room in the distinctly Gothic manor that her clan calls home, and surrounded by ancient tomes, yet working away at her computer – but these moments are few are far between. The transformation scenes are visually impressive, but the use of CGI ensures that they lack any true visceral impact. The dialogue in Underworld is fairly undistinguished. There’s a faint attempt at giving the Ancient Viktor archaic speech patterns, but it doesn’t last; while the screenplay as a whole produces only a single truly memorable line, when Selene describes to Michael the interrogation of Lycans, which is preceded by the life-saving removal from their bodies of the silver bullets that have just been fired into them. (Michael: “What happens to them afterwards?” Selene: “We put the bullets back in.”) Nor is the acting anything to write home about – although only Shane Brolly is really bad. (The role of Kraven feels like it was written with Gabriel Byrne in End Of Days mode in mind; an impression strengthened by Shane Brolly’s occasional employment of what I was about to call “a very unconvincing brogue”, except that I’ve just learned that he actually is Irish. Whoopsie!) The biggest stumbling block in Underworld is that it asks you to accept willowy Kate Beckinsale in the role of action hero, kicking butt and blazing away with her big-ass guns at the slightest opportunity. Beckinsale does okay, actually, even if like everyone else in the film, she is more defined by her clothes than her actions. This is yet another of my “woes of being a heterosexual woman” moments. I’ve seen a number of male-penned reviews of Underworld whose authors were clearly sufficiently entertained by – in their own words – “Kate Beckinsale in a body suit….uhhhuhhuhhuhhuhh.” I, on the other hand, could only stare at her in bemusement and reflect that (i) if I spent all of my time running around and fighting and killing, I’d choose some outfit other than skin-tight vinyl and clunky high-heeled boots; and (ii) how repulsively sweaty it must be inside that thing! (Hmm….do vampires sweat?) Beckinsale’s second-skin-suits comes accessorised by a cape (get it?), which she flourishes dramatically at all opportunities – mostly while bursting through the room in which the rest of her clan likes to gather, while the other Vampires continue to lounge about in chairs and gawp at her. (Seriously, by the fourth or fifth time this exact same scene was repeated, I was getting the giggles rather badly.) And indeed, other than the Death Dealers, none of the Vampires seem to do anything with their immortality, other than model designer clothing and sip the occasional glass of artificial blood. We get no sense whatsoever of the reality of their existence. They’re not characters; they’re simply set dressing; as if the Vampires only recruit new members from amongst the winners of Search For A Supermodel. As for the Lycans, they’re not much better – just a bit scruffier. In the end, the single remarkable thing about Underworld is that it succeeds in making immortality seem like the ultimate in crashing bores.