Saturday, January 7, 2012

Underworld (2003)

Believe it or not, on Jan. 12, a fourth installment of the Underworld series will be released. For a film to release a sequel, let alone three of them, it means that the series must be a critical and commercial success, it must be in the hands of capable actors and filmmakers, and probably most importantly -- it must continue to appeal to its target fan base.

Having never bought into "the great vampire craze" of the mid-to-late 2000s, I avoided this movie, until recently. Although, to be fair, one can make the argument that Underworld beat the new found vampire phenomena to the punch, having been released before other notable films and franchises of the same genre, including Van Helsing (2004), Let the Right One in, Twilight and True Blood, the latter three which were released in 2008.

Regardless, once a film series reaches its fourth installment, it intrigues me enough to want to discover what the fuss is all about. So let's get into it.

Underworld, like most fantasy-based films, comes down to one single fundamental argument, which has existed since the dawn of time: Is one ethnic group -- or in this case, species -- better than the other? Regrettably, this has been a theme in the history of our world, and resultingly, has given us tragic events such as slavery, the Holocaust, the Trail of Tears, and the list goes on. Underworld takes on this question in another form: vampires vs. werewolves (or Lycans, as they are coined in the series.)

Like all ethnic wars, no one really remembers why they hate each other, but they just know that they do. It's why they live: to fight this war, even if the origins are long forgotten.

Kate Beckinsale takes the helm as the vampire heroine in this series, and aside from providing the male fan base with an abundant amount of eye candy, takes on the role of Selene in a cool, polished fashion. While one can easily argue that Beckinsale's career relies solely on her looks, there's no denying that she fits the role of Selene so well, that she may have even been a vampiress in a previous life. Although, she doesn't need to do much but look pretty and let her sexy British accent add to her character's intrigue and seductiveness. Indeed, a lack of acting skills may have actually benefited her in this role, as vampires are meant to be devoid of actual human emotion.

Bill Nighy as a vampire elder.
Selene is not the leader of the vampire pack by any means. Though she is respected, and proven, she still is forced to take orders from her clan leader, Kraven (Shane Brolly), who takes his order from his elder, Viktor (Bill Nighy.) In Underworld, the vampire world is very structured.

So why is the narrative centered around Selene, you may ask? Well the answer is, simply, because unlike the other vampires -- she is decent. She alone questions the rationale behind the vampire's 600-year war with the Lycans. Does she still participate? Of course. But reluctantly.

Her doubt is put to the ultimate test when a new species is dragged into the war -- a human named Michael (Scott Speedman.) The Lycans are hunting him for a specific purpose, and Selene is determined to find out why. In the meantime, she takes it upon herself to protect him, going against the will of her vampire kin.

In a way, the film is reminiscent of Avatar, another fantasy flick that incorporates a battle of two species for superiority. When this happens, the chain of events is inevitable. One individual will finally question the rivalry, will form an unlikely kinship with the enemy, and will go against their own species so that they could do what they think is right. Underworld is no exception.

Call it cliché if you will, but Underworld does do a lot of things right. Director Len Wiseman, in what was his directorial debut, headed this project (along with the next subsequent releases before parting ways with the upcoming fourth release), and he clearly had a vision when creating not only a setting of this movie, but a world. Appropriately, given its title, the film is dark -- literally, dark -- to the core. In fact, I can't recall an instance of sunlight at any point during its two-hour length. If you've ever seen Dark City (1998), then think of terms of that. The Underworld that Wiseman created may not be added to your list of possible Honeymoon locations, but it definitely gives the film some character.

The score also fits will. Upon my viewing, I felt like, at times, I was sitting in a Rob Zombie concert. The fast-paced rock and roll sound coincides nicely with the action, further contributing to the film's mood and helps accentuate the film's pacing.

A film like this could also fall into a trap of relying too heavily on CGI. However, the special effects are as believable as a human transforming into a werewolf could possibly be. Also, never mind the classic vampire bites and werewolf attacks, Wiseman's Underworld takes place in the modern age, where guns abound. This is no classic tale, where Lestat creeps up on his prey at the dead of night, this is fighting in the open, with guns, on a subway platform, with humans present.
Why bite when you can shoot?

The film doesn't dumb it down for you too much as the plot develops. You're meant to be in the dark (both literally and figuratively) until all the details are finally shed. You discover why the werewolves are targeting a human being, and through a series of flashbacks, you discover the origins of the vampire versus werewolf feud, which may actually alter your view of who the sympathetic figures of the film are -- clearly the screenwriter's intent. And Beckinsale is helped out in the acting department by some capable veterans, primarily Nighy and Michael Sheen, who plays the Lycan leader with a creepy effectiveness.

An inter-species love story abounds between Beckinsale and Speedman, of course, and as the film resolves, you realize it was clearly meant to be a setup for future films. Call it cockiness, or call it a premonition towards the upcoming "vampire craze" which was still about three or four years away. Either way, I said earlier that for a film franchise to develop, it must successfully appeal to its target audience; well, if you're a vampire aficionado, it certainly achieves that.

Whether three sequels were warranted still remains to be seen, but as a solo project, Underworld has all of the ingredients to appeal to the vampire enthusiasts, while not relying too heavily on age-old vampire clichés.

~ Review by Ddubbs

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