Sunday, May 07, 2006

Underworld (Special Extended Edition) - review

Director: Len Wiseman

Release Date: 2003

Contains Spoilers

This film begins with Selene’s (Kate Beckinsale) voice-over as she looks out across the city. The cinematography is wonderfully moody; the night is tinged with blue to allow the viewer to actually see what is occurring in the dark. We discover the Selene is a death-dealer, a vampire trained to hunt lycans – werewolves to you and me – in the ongoing war between the two species. The lycans are few in number now, following the defeat centuries earlier of the leader Lucian (Michael Sheen), but those left are powerful, their changing no longer dictated by the moon.

From their lofty vantage spot the vampires spot two lycans heading towards a subway – in human form – and leap down from the building ready for the hunt.

In the subway, Selene catches the eye of Michael (Scott Speedman) and then one of the lycans, Raze (Kevin Grevioux), opens fire across the crowded platform with sub-machine guns. A gun battle ensues. One of the vampires is struck by a bullet and burns from the inside-out. Selene goes after one lycan and the final death-dealer goes after Raze. Raze changes and rips his adversary apart. Selene’s battle goes much more in her favour, managing to embed silver bullets into her prey, preventing him from changing and then killing him.

She races through the tunnels below the city and realises that there is a whole colony of lycans below the city. She reaches the vampire headquarters and passes the information to Kraven (Shane Brolly), who runs the ‘coven’ whilst their leader, Victor (Bill Nighy), is buried in a vampiric hibernation. There are three elder vampires Victor, Marcus and Amelia (Zita Görög), each runs the vampire nation for 100 years whilst the other two hibernate through 200 years. Knowledge of the events they have missed is given to them through memories in the blood of the one who awakens them. It is virtually time for Marcus to awaken.

Here the plot convolutes. Kraven, we discover, is a traitor who faked Lucian’s defeat to save his own life. We discover that there was a human, Alexander Corvinus, who contracted a virus, rather than kill him it made him immortal. He had two sons, one was bitten by a bat and became a vampire and the other was bitten by a wolf and became a lycan. Lucian wants to find a descendant of the Corvinus line (Michael), who is a carrier, to create a lycan/vampire hybrid. To gain that blood he bites Michael – making him a lycan. Lucian also needs the blood of an ancient vampire and so kills Amelia.

Desperate, Selene awakens Victor, who sired her after saving her when her family was wiped out by lycans – though we later discover that it was Victor who actually killed her family.

Eventually a showdown occurs between Victor, Selene and Michael (who becomes a hybrid having been bitten by Selene).

The film itself is slick and does all the right things. The costuming, especially Beckinsale’s, is wonderful. The movie carries fantastic concepts like the tracer rounds used by the lycans that are essentially sunlight in a bullet and the vampires’ answer, rounds filled with silver nitrate. There is little truly vampiric action, but when there is the vampires are almost cat like – probably in response to the canine lycans. This is best shown when Erika (Sophia Myles) sees that Michael has been bitten by a lycan. She leaps to the ceiling, fangs extended, and hisses like a cat (see screen cap). It also has marvelous set pieces, such as Selene shooting around her own feet in order to fall through the floor to escape charging lycans. Unusually the lycans look really good; most werewolves in film fail because the effects look poor.

The film does fall flat in places, however. Some of the acting is awful, especially Shane Brolly as Kraven. The story is good and the plot rich, but that often gets misplaced within the set pieces. The extended aspect of the movie helps, with an extra 18 minutes, for example there is an entire sub-plot with Erika and Kraven that helps explain her motivations when she aids Selene.

In some respects you could say that the film is actually about class struggle. The vampires are decadent – when Selene first enters the mansion the gathering of vampires appear like they have just fallen out of Ultravox’s “Vienna” video – they are the bourgeoisie. The lycans are earthy creatures, practically forced to live in squalor having revolted against their slavery to the vampires – they are the proletariat. Yet, somehow, I don’t believe that the makers particularly considered this and any hint towards it was subconscious.

I love this movie, and therein lies the problem. In truth, despite plenty of plot, the movie is a victory of style over substance (and some occasionally risible acting). So, how to score this? This is a great action flick, even if it isn’t really great cinema, and I believe it deserves a respectable 7 out of 10.

The official site has trailers available.

The imdb page is here.


Dave said...

Thanks for the review. I've just got into this franchise and love this first movie. In fact, I've just got the novelization.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

no probs Dave, thanks for stopping by