Underworld and Underworld: Evolution are two of my favorite movies. Not only are they movies about vampires and werewolves, they are movies about a war between vampires and werewolves. Not only are they movies about a war between vampires and werewolves, they are movies about a war between vampires and werewolves who are organized and use guns and have a thing for skin-tight leather and trench coats.
Plus, they both have Kate Beckinsale in the starring role that requires her to wear the aforementioned skin-tight leather.
Four movies in the franchise is fast losing its luster, though.
The Fourth installment, or Underworld: Awakening as it’s called, loses most of the big draws that the first trilogy had. Both Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen are gone, and Scott Speedman is also absent (though it looks as if they pasted his face on a stunt double in one or two shots). Even the director, Len Wiseman, has been replaced with relative unknowns Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein.
The enemy of the Vampires (the werewolves, or Lycans) has also been replaced by a faceless human threat. The effete vampire culture is also largely thrown out the window to make way for a post-apocalyptic dystopia where martial law has been declared and what amounts to an ethnic (or in this case genetic) cleansing has engulfed… well whatever country the Underworld world is set in.
There are other things wrong with the movie, but let’s start with the reasons above. First off, the absence of the big name stars (I’ll include Speedman here – even if he doesn’t have the experience of Nighy or Sheen, he was a big part of the first two films).
First off, Underworld would not be what it is without Nighy and Sheen. They were the heart of the first movie and the conviction of their faux hatred of each other was the thing that sold the film. Without Bill spitting invectives at Selene’s betrayal, or Michael’s sly plotting and forceful leadership of the Lycans, the first part of the trilogy would have made for pretty crappy fare.
That talent was again put to use in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, this time with Patrick Tatopoulos (Creature Designer for the first two films and Production Designer for the second) taking over for Wiseman. Together, Tatopoulos, Nighy, and Sheen were what elevated a run of the mill prequel to something that I could stomach and actually like. It didn’t hurt that Rhona Mitra made for a great addition to the cast. Rawr, Rhona.
Awakening, unfortunately, only has Selene (the gorgeous Kate Beckinsale) to rely on, and while she is just as hot as she was when she starred in the first installment almost a decade ago, she just doesn’t have the means of carrying this entire project by herself. And note that this comes from a guy who watched Van Helsing, just because she was in it.
Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein are film school buddies who took over the directing duties for this installment, hired by the studio and Wiseman based on the strength of one of their previous films. They’ve said in an interview (source) that their film is more “emotional” than the first three, but I just don’t buy it. Nowhere in the 88 minute running time did I feel the least bit emotional about the new characters in the film. Even the scene where Selene talks about her broken heart to her newfound daughter (let’s not go down that road as it’ll be a whole other article) failed to stir anything but my internal malarkey meter.
I’m not sure if it was their idea or Wiseman’s to bring in humans as a new threat, but it doesn’t really work. First off, Vampires vs. Werewolves was the entire draw of the first movie. Thing about this: Selene, hot, leather-clad vampire babe dual wielding pistols against an army of werewolves, any one of which was as strong, as fast, and about 10 times as pissed as she was. Now imagine that same scenario, but with wimpy rent-a-cops in the role of the werewolves. This is further complicated by the whole “blood of Corvinus” schlock that they continued here. She’s now more powerful, and immune to sunlight. UV bullets won’t work on her.
Where’s the threat, here? She’s now so far past super-human that none of the regular Lycans can touch her, let alone any of the humans. So what do they come up with? A super-Lycan who has a high tolerance to silver.
This is starting to sound like an episode of Dragonball Z.
If that wasn't bad enough, they've basically dropped all the focus on Vampire/Lycan history and culture (or what passes for it in the world of the film). We do see one Vampire coven in the new volume, but it's basically just a run down cave, and Selene's liaison to that family even goes so far as to dismiss them as useless relics. There isn't any of that fine military proficiency that the Death Dealers had in the first two movies, nor any of the cool ancient tech that you saw in the hibernation chamber or the other vampire strongholds. The Lycans, similarly, are reduced to bestial rodents (given, they're R.O.U.S.).
What was the point of building up the rules in the first few movies if you're just going to tear them down? Why make a big deal about Lycans being able to overcome their feral urges if you're just going to turn them right back around? Why go on and on about how the bite of a vampire and the bite of a werewolf are anathema to the other if you're going to show dozens of vampires living after being bitten by Lycans? Why go on and on about how the hybrid is the future and then unceremoniously drop him from the proceedings, replacing him with a whiny River Tam knock-off?
In the end, the filmmakers changed too much about the original trilogy to really make this one a winner. Yes we still have Selene in all her shiny glory, but the movie itself is basically just set piece after set piece, without any of the little interesting, crunchy, black, burnt bits in between that made it so much fun. It feels like another Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (which I've only now remembered I forgot to review so have linked to co-contributor's review at Geekout.ph - suffice to say, I didn't like it as much as he did).
Underworld: Awakening has more in common with the Resident Evil film series, which I largely watch because I just love how much Milla Jovovich kicks ass. They aren't faithful to either the game or the zombie genre, but they're watchable if you're not insisting that they conform to those templates. I know they're bad for me, but I buy the ticket just the same because I'm not looking for anything but kick-ass set pieces from the franchise.
If you can turn off your brain and your fan boy love of the first three Underworld films for the hour and 22 minutes it takes to watch Underworld: Awakenings, you might just be able to stomach this one as well. If not, may I suggest Haywire, instead?