The Underworld Series
Underworld (August 8/08)
There's little doubt that what should have been a fun and unapologetically tongue-in-cheek B-movie is instead a relentlessly unpleasant fantasy epic, as director Len Wiseman and screenwriter Danny McBride have infused Underworld with a dour sensibility that stalls the proceedings virtually from the word go. The impossibly convoluted storyline - which revolves around a centuries-old feud between vampires and werewolves - has been bogged down with meaningless blather concerning covenants, awakenings, and other such eye-rollingly meaningless elements, with McBride's efforts at establishing the epic mythology surrounding the warring factions subsequently (and thoroughly) falling flat. The film's problems are exacerbated by Wiseman's incredibly hackneyed visual choices, which effectively ensure that even the action sequences - generally the highlight in movies of this ilk - come off as dull and egregiously frenetic (enough with the post-Matrix slow-motion shoot-outs already). Charismatic performers like Kate Beckinsale, Michael Sheen, and Bill Nighy, are given little to do other than glower and strike serious poses, while the admittedly impressive set design is essentially rendered moot by Wiseman's irritating penchant for bathing every single scene in a James Cameron-esque metallic blue sheen. The final insult comes with an absurdly-padded out running time of over two hours, which is sure to test the patience of even the most ardent fantasy fan and cements Underworld's place as a sporadically interminable misfire.
Though a slight improvement over its woefully uninvolving predecessor, Underworld: Evolution suffers from many of the same problems that plagued the first film - with the hopelessly drab visuals and needlessly convoluted storyline certainly ranking high on its list of transgressions. The movie - which follows Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and Michael (Scott Speedman) as they attempt to trace the beginnings of the centuries-old war between vampires and werewolves - admittedly does boast a few relatively easy-to-follow passages that prove effective in temporarily boosting one's interest, though it's not long before scripter Danny McBride bogs the proceedings down with yet another hopelessly mundane expository sequence. The proliferation of such moments essentially brings the narrative to a dead stop as characters stand around explaining things, with McBride's misguided attempts at evoking a Shakespearean tragedy (ie there are references to royal bloodlines, sons murdering fathers, etc) only exacerbating matters. The relentlessly (and egregiously) morose atmosphere - coupled with director Len Wiseman's inability to effectively stage an action sequence - ensures that the series continues to squander its undeniably irresistible premise of vampires and werewolves duking it out, and while it does seem as though Underworld: Evolution will satisfy fans of the original, there's exceedingly little here to win over this ongoing franchise's detractors.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
With its predecessors having lowered the viewer's expectations to almost absurd levels, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans subsequently can't help but come off as an obvious high point within this progressively low-rent series - as screenwriters Danny McBride, Dirk Blackman, and Howard McCain effectively eschew the convoluted storytelling of the first two movies in favor of an agreeable emphasis on the soap opera-esque exploits of the central characters. The film, set hundreds of years before the events of Underworld and Underworld: Evolution, primarily details the forbidden relationship between werewolf slave Lucian (Michael Sheen) and aristocratic vampire Sonja (Rhona Mitra), with their love inevitably threatened by Lucian's decision to lead his fellow lycanthropes in an insurrection against their blood-sucking oppressors. There's little doubt that Underworld: Rise of the Lycans initially feels as though it's going to fall perfectly in line with its underwhelming forebearers, as director Patrick Tatopoulos has infused the proceedings with a look that's clearly been designed to echo Len Wiseman's woefully incompetent visual sensibilities - with Tatopoulos' use of computer-generated special effects and a myriad of needless camera tricks ultimately ensuring that the film's opening half hour is as mindlessly violent and hopelessly uninvolving as one might've feared. It's an atmosphere of mediocrity that persists right up until the exciting and impressively-staged werewolf uprising, after which point it becomes increasingly difficult not to embrace the unabashedly melodramatic happenings within the plot - as Sheen's undeniably strong work effectively forces the viewer to make an emotional connection with his character's plight. The tragic trajectory of Lucian and Sonja's coupling undoubtedly plays a significant role in the movie's mild success, and although the final battle is admittedly a bit of an anti-climax, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans manages to hold the viewer's interest in a manner not even remotely achieved by either of its antecedent installments.
The Underworld series hits a palpable low with this absolutely interminable entry, which follows Kate Beckinsale's Selene as she attempts to protect a mysterious young girl (India Eisley's Eve) from various evildoers (including, of course, nefarious lycans). Filmmakers Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein kick Underworld: Awakening off with a blisteringly-paced stretch that admittedly holds some promise, as the relentless narrative does, at the outset, disguise the complete and utter emptiness of the storyline - with the semi-watchable vibe heightened by Beckinsale's expectedly solid work as the less-than-captivating protagonist. It's only as the film segues into its increasingly tedious midsection that one's interest begins to flag, as scripters Len Wiseman, John Hlavin, J. Michael Straczynski, and Allison Burnett, generally speaking, eschew the mythology that has come to define these movies in favor of over-the-top set pieces - with this decision resulting in a pervasive lack of context that renders each successive action scene more underwhelming and dull than the last. (It certainly doesn't help, either, that Mårlind and Stein prove utterly unable to infuse any of the movie's high-octane interludes with anything even resembling excitement, as such moments have been suffused with an incoherent, needlessly frenetic sensibility that's nothing short of disastrous.) By the time the predictably lifeless climax rolls around, Underworld: Awakening has unquestionably established itself as a bottom-of-the-barrel endeavor that's been designed to appeal solely to pre-pubescent boys - with the film's pervasively slick and mindless atmosphere growing more and more wearying as time progresses.
Underworld: Blood Wars
Right in line with its awful predecessor, Underworld: Blood Wars follows Kate Beckinsale's Selene as she once again finds herself caught in the middle of an ongoing battle between vampires and werewolves. It's ultimately clear that Underworld: Blood Wars' biggest problem is its inability to even partially capture the viewer's interest, as the far-from-streamlined narrative contains scene after scene of underdeveloped characters plotting and scheming - with the heavy emphasis on such Shakespearean happenings paving the way for a midsection that is, for the most part, nothing short of interminable. There's simply nothing here to get invested in; scripter Cory Goodman delivers a storyline devoid of attention-grabbing moments and interludes, while the movie's smattering of action set-pieces are foiled by filmmaker Anna Foerster's inability to infuse such moments with excitement or even clarity (ie the director's decision to utilize shaky camerawork and rapid-fire editing proves typically disastrous). Beckinsale's charisma-free turn as the wooden central character doesn't help alleviate the hopelessly laborious atmosphere, while talented performers like Charles Dance and Lara Pulver are left floundering in roles that couldn't possibly be less developed. The climactic battle that closes the proceedings is about as tedious and uninvolving as one might've anticipated, with the ineffectiveness of this stretch compounded by a growing realization that there's just nobody to root for here - which is emblematic of the mechanical, by-the-numbers nature of the entire production (ie Underworld: Blood Wars never quite justifies its very existence, really).