Unlike many fantasy series, the “Underworld” franchise isn’t based on novels or comic books. It comes straight from the minds of screenwriters Len Wiseman, Kevin Grevious, Danny McBride, and John Hlavin—which is kind of like Hollywood eliminating the middle man.
But given Hollywood’s propensity for streamlining literary properties by hacking off side plots and knocking off characters, it should come as no surprise that a franchise like “Underworld” is all high-concept and high-energy, but low in character and plot development. Vampires vs. Werewolves? What more do you need? Besides, most people pay their money to see Kate Beckinsale kick ass and look good doing it.
As I wrote of “Underworld,” if you like vampire movies you’ll probably like this film, and if you like action movies you’ll probably like this film; but if you like movies that come together in a satisfying way, you’ll find that it’s more action and style than substance.
Dean Winkelspecht liked “Underworld: Evolution”a bit more, calling it “a fun film,” while Tim Raynor felt about “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” as I did about the first film. The thing about this fourth installment is that there’s a lot of style and action, and a plot that involves the creation of gigantic überwerewolves. So if you just accept this one as a bloody popcorn movie and don’t look for much complexity, you’ll undoubtedly be happy with it.
Some fans will think that the fourth time’s the charm, because “Underworld: Awakening”introduces a new major character, with India Eisley—who plays the younger sister in “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”—appearing as Beckinsale’s daughter, a vampire-werewolf-human hybrid. Stronger than anyone, she is, and it’s hard not to think of the Anakin saga as her own story unfolds. “Underworld: Awakening” comes to an open-ended conclusion, and the producers say in one of the bonus features that the intent was to push the franchise forward into new territory with Eisley’s character.
The plot’s pretty basic, and you don’t have to have seen the first three installments to watch, because an opening voiceover brings you up to speed about the war between the vampires and Lycans (werewolves) that’s been going on for hundreds of years. Vampire Selene (Beckinsale), a legendary Death Dealer who’s been avenging her family’s deaths at the hands of Lycans, had fallen for the half-human half-werewolf Michael (who’s MIA for most of the film), and in the beginning sequence we see them ravaged by an underwater bomb. Gap in time, and it turns out that the world climate is now such that the authorities are focusing solely on the eradication of the vampires, because random tests have shown that the Lycans are thought to be extinct. Except that one policeman, Det. Sebastian (Michael Ealy), doesn’t believe it. His gut feeling tells him that there are still plenty of Lycans around. Of course, he’s right. While the vampires have been all but eliminated or driven underground, the Lycans are thriving among humans, incognito. In a research facility named Antigen people are even trying to create überwerewolves.
The action is set in motion after Selene, or Subject 1 as her cryogenic chamber was labeled, revives after apparently Subject 2 had broken out and had helped her. So as Selene searches for Michael and the mysterious Subject 2, the Antigen people try to track down the escapees (with the help of the Lycans), and Det. Sebastian (ignored as a major plot or even side plot, really) does his thing, but mostly (inexplicably) off-screen.
I’ll say this, though: “Underworld: Awakening” hits high gear quickly and pretty much stays there for the entire film, with the action between mo-cap/CGI Lycans and vampires nearly non-stop. Though the Lycans leaping from car to car look so amphibian-like that it may remind you of the old Frogger game, they’re generally pretty believable-looking. But there is blood. Lots of it. And I don’t mean just a splatter here and there. We’re talking about incisions being made in peoples’ skin, hands reaching inside, body parts being pulled out . . . and we’re talking beheadings, throat-slashings, spear points thrust through heads and necks, with blood pulsating as if it came from a sprinkler head.
Selene is in the eye of the storm, and involved in just about every violent scene. And yes, Beckinsale looks great as she dispatches the enemy. Charles Dance appears as Thomas, the patriarch of a vampire coven that was driven underground. He’s at odds with his fiery son, David (Theo James), who thinks they should fight, not hide. Meanwhile, another father-son pairing at Antigen features Dr. Jacob Lane (Stephen Rea) as Frankenstein and Quint (Kris Holden-Ried) as his “monster,” the überwerewolf. So when you add that to the mother-daughter thing that’s already going on, you’ve got the closest thing to a motif going that a series like this will probably get.
The transformations look real, and the battles aren’t so blurred by varying camera speeds that you can’t enjoy the action. All that should please fans of action-horror films. But underdeveloped side plots and perhaps a little too much action keeps “Underworld: Awakening” from being the thriller it could have been. After all, when a film has only one speed (and it’s CRAZY VIOLENT ACTION), audiences can begin to get desensitized.
“Underworld: Awakening” was also released in 3D, so 3D fans take note. This is the Blu-ray, and it looks positively fantastic in 1080p. The transfer to a 50GB disc (via an AVC/MPEG-4 encode) looks flawless, and scene after scene is full of sharp detail and inky blacks, with rich-looking colors no matter how dark or drab the palette. Even if you watch the transformations closely, you’ll be impressed at the level of detail and CGI artistry. “Underworld: Awakening” is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio.
I have only one complaint about the audio, and it’s a common one with action films: the action sequences are so loud that you have to dial up the sound when people are talking or you’ll miss the dialogue. That said, the room really rumbles and the clarity of metal against metal and crashes and broken glasses and explosions and scrapes is pretty astounding. The featured soundtrack is an English DTS-HD MA 7.1, with an additional option in French DTS-HD MA 5.1 and subtitles in English, English SDH, French, and Spanish.
The bonus features are pretty average. In addition to a five-filmmaker commentary track that’s fluid and worthwhile, there are five featurettes. At 19 minutes, “Awakening a Franchise: Building a Better World” is the longest, and it’s a look at the film’s visual and special effects, with plenty of behind-the-scenes shots. Then there’s the promo-style “Casting the Future of Underworld” (12 min.), in which cast and filmmakers talk about the fourth installment and how it sets up yet another “Underworld” film. Then there’s “Selene Rises” (12 min.), a virtual Beckinsale tribute in relation to her character, “Building a Better Lycan” (10 min.), about stepping up their werewolf game, and “Resuming the Action” (9 min.), which focuses on the stunt work and 3D challenges. Rounding out the bonus features: a short blooper reel, a PIP option, and a “Heavy Prey” music video by Lacey Sturm. Also included is a UV copy of the film.
Movie Met also did an interview with India Eisley, who talks about her experience on set.
Fans generally thought that the third installment was the best, but “Underworld: Awakening” might cause them to rethink things. It’s at least as good, and maybe just a touch better. Then again, the battles all start to look the same.