Considering that I haven’t liked any of the Underworld movies going all the way back to the 2003 original, it’s kind of bizarre that I’ve watched them all, sometimes more than once. Heck, I even own a copy of Underworld (special collector’s edition!) and have spun the disc in my DVD player many times, including once when I listened to the commentary track in order to glean as many tidbits of trivia as I could. Mine is a sad case.
I took me forever to see Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, despite the presence of Rhona Mitra, for whom I have a strange affection. I had been burned more than was typical by Underworld: Evolution and wasn’t sure I wanted to dive into that blue-tinted world a third time. But once they announced a fourth film, I was all aboard. What’s up with that?
It’s tough to say what I expected of Underworld: Awakening besides more of the same. There’s always been something vaguely unsettling about the amount of attention paid to the films’ own mythology and the second film practically drowned in it. The third film was likewise an exercise in telling us a bunch of stuff we pretty much already knew, so what could a fourth installment offer but still more convoluted back-story and a mindless, blue-tinted violence.
Lest there by any suspicious that I’m about to call Underworld: Awakening a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, let me clear that up right away: what you have here is a movie that is better than the second, somewhat less irritating than the first and on par with the third. If I had to put a letter grade on the movie, I’d give it a solid C. It is not a case of overreaching in the manner of Underworld: Evolution and it is not beleaguered by unflattering comparisons to the roleplaying setting, The World of Darkness. Underworld: Awakening is instead a unabashed action vehicle that happens to have vampires and werewolves in it and is, of course, appropriately tinted blue most of the time.
A lot of people went to see Underworld: Awakening on its opening weekend, and I’m willing to lay odds that they all came for the same reason: they wanted to see star Kate Beckinsale kicking tail in a corseted fetish suit. It will please all of you who haven’t yet seen the movie, but want to based on that sole criterion, that Underworld: Awakening consists of a hair under 90 minutes’ worth of Kate Beckinsale kicking tail in a corseted fetish suit.
In a way this is actually refreshing, because the last couple of entries in the series have been larded with faux-significance and meaning that really doesn’t befit the material. Underworld: Evolution was a particular offender, throwing so much world-building gobbledygook at the screen that the movie could barely breathe. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans seemed downright simplistic in its storytelling, what with its tale of star-crossed lovers and a hairy, Spartacus-style uprising. Underworld: Awakening is saddled with closing out a couple of plot threads from Underworld: Evolution, but for the most part it completely jettisoned the hoity-toity stuff and gets down to the main attraction.
Underworld: Awakening opens an indeterminate time after Underworld: Evolution. Through a combination of voice-over and television broadcasts — these movies always start with a thudding voice-over, which I wish they didn’t — we learn that somehow human beings have learned of the existence of vampires and Lycans and have embarked on a worldwide crusade to wipe both species out. Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and her lover, hybrid vampire/Lycan Michael — not played by Scott Speedman, but by some double who barely looks like him and gets no dialogue — have decided to flee the city where they live. This doesn’t work out. Selene is separated from Michael and before long we rediscover her frozen in a laboratory somewhere, a laboratory where some incident has thawed her out and enabled her to resume her ass-kicking ways.
What follows are several scenes of Selene slaughtering hapless security guards and easily escaping the facility where she was kept. Only upon her release does she discover that it’s been twelve years. Michael is missing, all the vampire covens are apparently wiped out and Selene is having visions of someone fleeing and in danger. What she finds on her way to solving these mysteries will propel the film throughout its brief running time, a running time that will be almost entirely taken up with scenes involving Selene killing things.
Just in case I haven’t made it abundantly clear by now, Underworld: Awakening is an action film, through and through. Minus all the navel-gazing and cruddy romance of the previous films, this one is allowed to simply cut loose and feature sequence after sequence of gunfights, knife fights, explosions and creatures being killed by having their throats ripped out. Here and there Beckinsale gets a handful of lines and once she even has an opportunity to emote, but Underworld: Awakening is far more concerned with filling up the screen with violence to bother with such niceties. The film’s tenuous logic even starts to fail toward the end, so intent are the filmmakers on blasting audiences’ eyeballs with people flying around on wires and CGI werewolves, to the point where the resolution of the story comes so abruptly, and is so unsatisfactory, that you’ll want to punch somebody when it’s all over. Clearly the studio thinks they can milk this series for at least one more installment and, given the film’s first-weekend gross, that sequel is more than just a possibility.
A few actors have come and gone through the life of the Underworld series that were clearly too good for the material: Bill Nighy, Michael Sheen and Derek Jacobi come immediately to mind. At one point I would have said the same of Kate Beckinsale, but she seems so at home playing this part with her perma-scowl and black leather overcoats that I’m beginning to think this is what she’s best at. Forget something like Much Ado About Nothing; Selene has always been Beckinsale’s ultimate destiny. I’m not sure if that’s a tragedy or not.