After all these years, it really is quite surprising how Hollywood keeps trying to breath new life into vampires and werewolves. Considering the whole monster genre has been around since the early days of film, one can only imagine how excruciating the challenge must be to come up with something original. Not to mention, it is a genre that spans generations of fans of the culture who can be a tough crowd to please. After all, we've seen just about every possible way to portray these characters, and it seems almost impossible to elaborate on the genre any further.
In Sony Pictures 2009 "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans" ("Lycans" being werewolves, short for lycanthropes), we get a prequel story that explains the details of how the war between the Death Dealers (vampires) and Lycans began. It is a story with a dark backdrop of terrifying monsters blended with a "Romeo and Juliet" theme. Out of the three "Underworld" films, I found that at least this one had a more coherent story, even though it is a theme we've seen countless times throughout movie history. Therefore, the director, Patrick Tatopoulos, and producer, Gary Lucchesi, are tasked with trying to breathe something original into a theme that is all too familiar for most movie buffs. What we get is a film that looks remarkably detailed in special effects and makeup, but a story that overall leaves little room for surprise and is exceedingly predictable.
Returning to the cast from the first "Underworld" film is Lucian (Michael Sheen) as the enslaved Lycan who will free all the Lycans and begin a war with the Death Dealers. Then there is Viktor (Bill Nighy) as the vicious, coldhearted leader of the Death Dealers, who enslaved all the Lycans and used them as guardians of the castle walls. Then, of course, we can't forget our new addition to the cast, the attractive female lead, Sonja (Rhona Mitra). She is a daughter of Viktor's who engages in a forbidden love affair with Lucian. Now, being that I mentioned this is a "Romeo and Juliet" theme, there's really no more to tell than that. This film simply sets up the foundation for the first "Underworld" movie and nothing more. Even though this movie delivers an all-too-familiar story, it is at least more tangible than the other two films.
The film does have its good points, which include remarkable, dark visual aspects cued with plenty of action, extraordinary movie sets, and an upbeat pacing that easily caters to the younger generation of audience members. The film moves along nicely and never bores the audience with long, drawn out pieces of dialog. However, what appear to be its strengths are also its weaknesses. Even though the movie establishes a tone of darkness with elaborate set pieces, it can also seem redundant and distracting to the eye. The atmosphere is so dark that they could have filmed it in black-and-white, and it would have made no difference. The way I see it, "Interview with the Vampire" was literally a dark movie with amazing movie sets, but even that film was not afraid to use this thing we know as "color" when necessary.
The worst weaknesses are in the stretches of plot logic, vampire and werewolf dogma. And let me say, there are plenty of them. Since our creators have to bend some rules in order to feel as though they are adding something original to the genre, they end up leaving the audience with too many assumptions and too much guess work. For example, Viktor makes mention of Sonja's mother, but we never see her mother or learn anything about her. So, are we to assume these Death Dealers can reproduce as humans, yet have longer life spans, or was Sonja a human at one time and turned into a vampire? There are never any clear answers or clues. Lycans guard the Death Dealer's castle in the day, but are they not to transform into a werewolf only on a full moon? Apparently, that rule has changed, yet in this movie there is constantly a full moon. Let alone, we are hardly ever exposed to any daylight. Which brings up another point: Are not vampires supposed to sleep in coffins by day in order to keep away from daylight exposure? In this film, the vampires do burn up in the sunlight, but they live in a castle with open, outdoor corridors and windows with typical bedrooms and elaborate beds to sleep on. If I were the Lycans, I'd just wait until daylight, open all the Death Dealer's windows, and watch them fry. However, if they did that, then it would be a very short movie.
And where on Earth are we? Does this story take place in central Europe, Norway, Transylvania, or Russia, perhaps? It never seems clear, and we're just expected to think we're in some fantasy, monster land, in God knows what time period. As long as there are victims for our monsters to prey upon, that's obviously all we need to know. What it comes down to is we perceptibly have a film that caters to a much younger audience than usual, so any attention to detail is easily passed over in favor of dazzling CGI and makeup, dark studio sets, and high-paced action.
The overall performances from the main leads are acceptable enough, but none of them seem to spark enough sympathy for us to care. Viktor, while I do admire Bill Nighy's contribution, I found to be so cold and vicious it limited any range or dynamics in his character. Personally, I prefer a more seductive vampire as we admire in Dracula, whom I find much more frightening than a vampire that is constantly having anger issues. While Lucian's and Sonja's characters deliver the forbidden romance angle, they are still hard to connect to because the writers leave very little for us to sympathize with. And why? Complete lack of any coherent character development. We are just thrown into the mix and expected to accept things the way they are.
What's difficult here is that the filmmakers give us a Shakespearian tale, which asks us to think, but the overall film begs us to just enjoy the ride and leave the brain at the door. Unfortunately, this creates a film that is unable to have a solid focal point. But, hey, as long as things "look" good, who cares?
Sony engineers present the picture in a 1080p, widescreen transfer of its original 2:40:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The overall vivid detail looks quite amazing on this Blu-ray. The PQ always seems to be sharp, rarely soft, and with very little grain. In fact, when it comes to sharp detail, this is one of the best I've seen. However, since the film is constantly so dark and void of any natural colors, it's rather difficult to give it a higher mark beyond the average Blu-ray. Nevertheless, this is one of those Blu-rays with video quality that speaks for itself.
The audio is delivered in Dolby True HD and in DTS. Overall, the audio comes through quite nicely and fills the room with very well-balanced dynamics. The front speakers as well as the rears come through with a crisp, shining quality that never seems to fail in their delivery. I found no reason to make any minor adjustments to the sound; this is easily a disc you can just put in the player, turn up the volume, and find yourself good to go. The audio was simply as good as you'll find on any Blu-ray disc. And for those folks who are hearing impaired, the film does come with subtitle features that include English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
There are plenty of supplemental items on the disc to please any fan. This print of the movie comes with a digital copy on a separate disc and also has on-line features that include BD-Live for downloading extra content and an enabled extra called "Cinechat," which allows you to chat with others while watching the movie. Why people find this important, I don't know. Nevertheless, if chatting with others while watching the film is your thing, then there you have it.
Other features include the ever-popular commentaries from the filmmakers, wallpaper for your PS3, a music video, and an interactive map feature called "Lycanthropes Around the World." The map thing is kind of fun. You get to click on places around the world that are documented to have sightings of werewolves dating back as far as 2000 years.
The final extras are three different featurettes where the filmmakers and actors talk about the project. After watching this film, it is quite entertaining in a comical way to listen to how the creators feel they made one of the best films in recorded history. I mean, they literally make it sound like they created something so epic that nobody will ever be able to top it. It makes me wonder if they really watched their finished product.
I'm quite sure any die-hard fan of the "Underworld" movies will enjoy "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans" perfectly well. And as popcorn entertainment goes, this movie works well for mediocre, standby rental or hi-def cable material. It's not a complete disaster, nor is it a film we'll be dying to talk about for years to come. While the film looks remarkably good, the story leaves too many holes and assumptions for thinking people to accept. Therefore, enjoy it for the mindless entertainment it is and don't bother to think, even though the underlying theme requires solid thought.