Underworld (2003)

underworld

“You are one of us, aren’t you?”

The Scoop: 2003 R, Directed by Len Wiseman and starring Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman and Michael Sheen

Tagline: An immortal battle for supremacy

Summary Capsule: Vampires and Werewolves meet Romeo & Juliet, then collide with The Matrix and Equilibrium.

Rich’s rating: Prepare to jettison credibility in five, four, three…

Rich’s review: Before I begin here, I have a request for you, the Mutant Reviewers readers. If you’ve ever read one of my reviews before, and have for some reason come to the conclusion I have some form of integrity when it comes to film reviews, or if you’ve ever considered my opinion on a films worth to have any validity at all — stop reading here. Either that, or pretend this review wasn’t written by me, but by some evil twin/clone (complete with evil facial hair) who exists only to make my opinion worth less than my Underworld collectors edition plastic jumbo Pepsi cup in 20 years time.

Because I really enjoyed this film. And while I was sat in the movie theatre watching it, I could feel my movie critic side totting up all the bad points of the film…but some indefinable quality about it meant that he ended up sulking under the stairs while the rest of my psyche was thoroughly entertained for two hours.

So, here we go. Just a quick goodbye wave to my credibility, and I can start the review proper.

To be honest, I can tell you right off the bat at least one reason my movie critic side didn’t stand a chance while watching this film; Kate Beckinsale in tight, black PVC all the way through the film. It was hypnotic, really. If I ever want to see what he inside of my head looks like, all I have to do is start watching this film, then turn my back to the screen – trust me, my eyeballs would still be pointing in her direction. And before my Mutant sisters jump in here and lambast me by saying “yes, but that costume squeezed her all over the place and she was having to hyperventilate because she couldn’t breathe due to being constricted in the chest area and really who doesn’t look good in black?”, I readily recognise these facts.

But still. Rwaaarrrr.

The lovely, lovely, delectable Ms. Beckinsale plays Vampiric PVC model Selene, who belongs to an inventively named group of vampires called “Death-Dealers” who hunt down werewolves because once upon a time the Werewolves spat in their blood or looked at their sister funny or something. You see, back in the day, the Werewolves (called Lycans in this film for no readily apparently reason) had a big leader named Lucian – but Vampire-Elder-Wannabe Kraven turned up one day and told everyone he’d bumped off the Werewolf leader, and had a strip of skin to prove it. So the Werewolves become disorganised, and the Vamps merrily chop them to pieces.

But who would have believed that it’s not a simple as that? Surely not? Well, shockingly, it seems that the Werewolves are becoming organised again, and they’re very interested in Intern Doctor Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman). Soon Selene and her Vampire buddies cotton on to these two facts, and its a race to get to Dr. M. Corvin, which ends in any number of gunshots, stab wounds and explosions, and betrayals. Go figure.

If anyone out there is looking for a copy of the “Scriptwriters Copy & Paste Plot Point Primer”, I guarantee someone left a copy at Underworld’s house. This film has about as much original thought, plot wise, as a kindergarten history paper. I’ll not ruin any of the ‘surprises’ for you, but if you were playing a drinking game based on “spot the Hollywood cliche”, Underworld would only be recommended for really serious drinkers.

Looks-wise, Underworld could not want to be The Matrix / Equilibrium more. I mean, seriously. Every action sequence, though well done, just screams “I WANT TO BE COOL!!!!”. Everyone in the film ends up dressed like Hot Topic has landed on them. It even steals SFX spots from the films it’s imitating at times (No bullet time, thankfully, but the Taye Diggs/Christian Bale swordfight spot from Equilibrium? That’s in there).

And yet, despite all these things, I found Underworld utterly and completely enjoyable. I mean, I didn’t walk into the theatre expecting this film to push back the boundaries of modern film, or to have any stunning social commentary, and I was right. I went into the film expecting explosions, werewolves, vampires, gunfire, and Hollywood action fluff, and it delivered in spades.

In the end, Underworld is exactly what it looks like – a harmless Hollywood action romp with a supernatural twist. In the McDonalds that is Hollywood Action films, Underworld is the limited time only Burger that comes in the special wrapper; it’s still a burger, but there’s something a little different about it that might persuade you to try it once.

Justin’s rating: Back in the day, I used to be able to sing along to the theme song of “Once Bitten.” Sad. My life. Sad.

Justin’s review: Underworld is about vampires. Underworld is about werewolves (called Lycans here, which makes me feel that the vampires should have gotten a hip new name, like Fangos. Or Choculas). Underworld is about vampires fighting werewolves. But what Underworld is really about is the epic struggle between cats and dogs.

Follow me for a second here. Although we’ve had plenty of movies with both of these horror movie staples, seeing them together on the screen made me consider a different angle altogether. Sure, both species might just be psychological projection of our inner turmoil and darkness coming out to change us and all that hooey, but I think the makers of this film just had some bad pet experiences. If you like the Lycans, then you’re obviously a dog person: you like the energetic, muscular, straight-forward attitude in canines. If you’re a fan of the vampires, then you’re all about the cats: hissing, leaping onto ceilings, being all mysterious while just really wanting some food. And once you make that connection, this entire film gets a lot less dark and thematic, and a lot more like a raucous pet store.

(Ooh, I got it now! The vamps could be called the Bitey Whities! What? Am I ruining someone’s appreciation for our Dark Master Overlords here?)

Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is the cutest little vampire in the world. She weighs perhaps 95 pounds (115 hectolitres) soaking wet, yet armed with the wonder of modern gunnery, is able to fight hulking Lycan brutes, who are only armed with bad breath and a tendency to leave a surprise on the rug. Supposedly she’s been fighting in this secret war between the Kitties and the Doggies for centuries; so secret, in fact, that they made an entire motion picture about it and distributed it worldwide.

There’s a plot, indeed, but I just don’t have the strength in me to make it interesting. It has to do with some random dude and genetic manipulation using horror freaks and syringes, but nothing is too surprising or interesting that you can’t see it while looking deep into your third grade imagination. Ultimately, Underworld is an dull excuse to wear lots of skin-shrinking leather, leap around in appropriately gothic decor, and use lots of guns.

But before I go, I have a few issues I need to vent, else they will pent up and I’ll go irrevocably insane.

Issue 1. The movie doesn’t go to any great lengths to set up the “rules” for vampires and werewolves, other than passing mentions (silver bullets kill werewolves, UV bullets kill vamps). So we’re left on our own pre-established beliefs from traditional literature and films as to what are the special rules governing each horror creature. Vampires can’t go out in the day; fine, they don’t show any day scenes whatsoever. But my big beef with this is that they have one scene where a vampire walks right up to a mirror — a MIRROR — to try on a dress, and there’s a full reflection. Which would be fine, except that’s one of the traditionally established rules about vampires (they have no reflection), and since the movie at no point tries to debunk the popular myths about their species, I gotta ask: what the hey?

Issue 2. In the opening scene, a vampire is killed by a UV bullet, which they show in a really cool effect as the vamp is burned from inside out. So how come they never, ever use that effect in the rest of the movie? This is particularly vexing since they specifically show werewolves loading their guns with those bullets plenty of times, and killing vampires in the final battle… but no cool Buffy effects for you.

Issue 3. Guns? I mean, I’m all for updating the old horror staples, but if you’re a guy who can transform into a 500-pound werebeast that can rip people’s heads off with one swipe, whaddya need guns for? As long as everyone was carrying around weapons — and this was a lot — they didn’t transform into their alternate selves. Which leaves us with a lot of people running around in sewers shooting guns. Ho-hum.

Issue 4. I promise this’ll be the last one. What’s up with the names in this movie? One guy’s name is Kraven, which glaringly stood out to me every time someone used it, since “craven” is the less-popular term for “coward.” So, a whole movie with people calling him coward. You’d think a vampire would’ve changed that at some point. Oh, and another vamp’s name is Viktor, which is not a name to inspire fear, exactly, unless you’re the bad guy on a soap opera. “No dog food for Viktor tonight!” (bonus points if you catch the reference)

Issue 5. I know, I promised, but I had to come back to add one more thing. Making up new names and terms is a tradition and a hard task for fantasy/horror/sci-fi writers, but when Selene calls her occupation being a “Death Dealer,” well, that’s just bad. Not Michael Jackson *OW!* bad, but bad bad. It might sound all cool and brooding coming off her lips, but the second you think about it, it’s ridiculous as all get out. Death Dealer? Do you sell coffins right next to the car dealership? Do you get cool little business cards that say, “Selene, Death Dealer est. 1350 A.D.”? I mean, it’s alliterative and all, but… Death Dealer? Huh. Is there any special qualifications for a professional Death Dealer that differentiates yourself from anyone else who shoots guns a lot? Because they don’t show that here. Okay, I’m gone now.

PoolMan’s rating: Y’know, one of the girlie Mutants had better review this thing soon, or this page is going to explode with testosterone.

PoolMan’s review: Okay, let’s see… I’ve got Rich’s list of Ye Olde Vampyre Filme Reviewing Qualificationes right here, I better check my credentials before I get started.

1) Have you read at least one Anne Rice novel? (better if compulsively reread)

    • Uh oh. I’m off to a bad start.

2) Do you currently, or have you ever, worn a long black coat and white makeup simultaneously?

    • Yeesh. I used to laugh at kids like that. No wait, still do.

3) Have you ever had a black mana Magic: The Gathering deck with an unusually high content of Sengir Vampires?

Phew! Yes! Just made it in under the wire!

Okay, so one out of three ain’t bad.

The easiest way for me to explain my feelings about Underworld is like this: I really liked it. More than I thought I would. After all, usually I’m a big wussy with the monster movies, but this is not horror in the slightest. In fact, if there’s anything that’s really going to send the goth kids hissing into their parents’ basements, it’s that an entire movie about werewolves and vampires is 100% not even slightly scary. Everyone’s out in the open, and very seldom are the big, bad teeth and fur and eyes brought out. The Matrix comparisons are indeed quite valid. The majority of the movie is attractive people in tight black clothes running around shooting each other.

But there’s a nice, well stated tone to the movie that makes it just enough of its own animal that it’s not a total Neo clone. The werewolf/Lycan fighters are indeed cool to watch bound around in full beast mode. The vampires have some of that aristocratic cool that usually follows them around in their stories, although if you were to take this movie as your ONLY source of vampire-related knowledge, you might be led to believe that vampires were pretty damn frail creatures. I mean, with the exception of Viktor, nearly every time a vampire gets into a hand-to-hand with a Lycan, they lose, and pretty badly, too. On the other side of things, the Lycans get shot with silver bullets, and they actually take the time to stop, pull out the slugs, and keep fighting. Yeah, I’m thinking das wampyrs are maybe not the side to be on, in this one.

For a movie that weighs in at a slightly-slower-than-average 2 hours, they sure start hurrying past the plot points, especially near the end. The story is actually inventive enough to keep you guessing a little bit if you’re not familiar with the mythology, but as the climax of the movie nears, you’re expected to accept switch after switch after switch in character motives. They come fast and furious, often with very few lines to justify it. Examine the following spoiler-retardant example of dialogue.

“Hey, you know that person you’ve loved your entire life? They’re really your enemy!”

“No, it cannot be!”

“No, for reals.

“Oh. Okay. I better go kill them.”

Still, I repeat my earlier sentiment. I really liked Underworld. It was fun and dark at the same time, and gave those of us who don’t have The Masquerade tattoos something to cut our teeth on as new vampire fans. Sure, it could have used Michael J Fox surfing atop a truck, but I’m just being picky now.

And I’m proud that I made it all this way without mentioning sweet, sweet Kate Beckinsdale in her ultratight catsuit. Oh my goodness. Talk about RAWR. Although it was kind of funny that in our viewing party, the guys who were most excited by this were the ones who were either already or soon-to-be married. So if you’ll excuse me, we’re on the run from our wives now. Ta!

“I’m not sure-does he go with the pictures?”

Intermission!

  • Vampires that pass out due to blood loss? That must be nasty if they’re hungry.
  • Viktor hates crowds, it seems. The first thing he does in every scene is send people away.
  • The ‘it worked because we say so’ explanation for the ‘Sunlight’ Bullets the Lycan’s use.
  • Vampires seem unable to use the letter ‘C’. Both Kraven and Viktor seem to have suffered unnecessary ‘K’ transplants instead.
  • The little spinning disc things that prevent Lycan transformation are a great idea.
  • Cleverly done sequel foreshadowing. No, really, it’s actually pretty clever.
  • This is the first film I’ve seen which comes with accompanying Half-Life mod, downloadable from Sony Pictures at the official site link below.
  • The name ‘Selene’ is a goddess associated with the Moon; nicely foreshadowing her involvement with the Lycans.
  • Lucian says the werewolves were originally the daytime protectors of the vampires. But Selene notes that they only recently gained the ability to wolf out at will. So how did they guard the vampires during the day, without the moon?
  • The Lycans are “allergic” to silver? Can they take an antihistamine, or something?
  • Gee, I WONDER if they’re bucking for a sequel?
  • The term “Lycan” for the werewolves comes from the word “lycanthropy”, the supposed disease that causes werewolfism. This may take a little of the mysticism out of the whole thing, but I noticed that they went to some lengths to try and explain the Lycans and vampires in scientific terms wherever possible. Selene even refers to both species’ bites as being viral (or something similar), not magical.
  • The movie was initially pitched as “Romeo and Juliet for vampires and werewolves”.
  • The actors only had two weeks of wirework and prop training for the movie.
  • Director Len Wiseman opted to shoot many of the action and effects sequences live, without computer imagery. In one scene a werewolf seems to run more than 50 mph behind a speeding car. The scene was shot using an elaborate rig towed behind a vehicle, with actor Michael Sheen doing the running.
  • White Wolf, Inc. and author Nancy A. Collins filed suit against Sony Pictures, Screen Gems, and Lakeshore Entertainment on 4 September 2003 for copyright infringement little more than a week before the theatrical release of Underworld, alleging 17 counts of copyright infringement, and claiming over seventy points of unique similarity between White Wolf’s roleplaying games, “Vampire: The Masquerade”, “Werewolf: The Apocalypse”, and their creation, “The World of Darkness”, in which the games are set. Nancy A. Collins is the author of a short story, “The Love of Monsters”, published in 1994 by White Wolf Inc, and set in the World of Darkness, which she claims the entire plot of Underworld is based on.

Groovy Quotes

Lycan Doctor: Two attempts and two escapes? This human must be something special.

Selene: The war had all but come to a halt in a blink of an eye. Lucian, the most feared and ruthless leader ever to rule the lychan clan, had finally been killed. The lychan hoard scattered through the wind in a single evening of flame and retribution. Victory, it seemed, was in our grasp. The very birthright of the vampyres. Nearly six centuries had past since that night, yet the ancient bloodfeud proved unwilling to follow Lucian to the grave. Though lychans were fewer in number, the war itself had became more perilous, for the moon no longer held her sway. Older, more powerful lychans, were now able to change at will. Weapons had evolved, but our orders remained the same. Hunt them down and kill them off, one by one. The most successful campaign… perhaps… too successful. For those like me, a Death Dealer, this signaled the end of an era. Like the weapons of the previous century, we too would become obsolete. Pity, because I lived for it.

Kraven: Is there another way out?
Lucian: I guess it never occurred to you that you might actually have to bleed to pull off this little coup.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Blade II
  • Queen of the Damned
  • Underworld Evolution

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