It’s fright night fight night as vampires take on werewolves in Underworld (2003)
It’s ironically appropriate that a film so concerned with the purity of various bloodlines is itself a shameless hybrid of “Blade” and “The Matrix”. There’s an undeniable appeal to the idea of a war between the eldritch creatures of the night but the film is so taken with the cleverness of its idea that it gets carried away with filling in the corners and forgets to make sure the film lives up to it great premise.
Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is a Death Dealer, one of the elite Vampire soldiers tasked with hunting and killing Lycans, their sworn lupine enemies. When she falls in love with Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), a human whom the Lycan leader Lucian (Michael Sheen) is desperately searching for, she finds herself drawn into a dark conspiracy which reaches all the way to the top of Vampire society.
Suffused in a relentless blue colour palate, the film manages to have a curiously Hammer House of Horror feel to it, thanks largely to the many scenes set in the grand vampire mansion. As will go on to become a hallmark of the series, there’s no shortage of British acting talent on show, with Bill Nighy on spectacularly unhinged and scenery chewing form as the grand fromage (or at least the grandest fromage currently awake) of the vampires, Viktor. Unfortunately (for now) we’re not treated to an extended ham-off between Nighy and Sheen as the story seems reluctant to focus on the werewolves at all, preferring to focus the bulk of its attention on vampire politics. As a result, the film is wildly uneven: either leadenly expository or explosively, kinetically wordless. The action is a slick blend of wire-fu and gratuitous blood spatters but there’s just too much insanely complex and duplicitous politics and power plays to cover to allow the action to really take over.
“Underworld” is yet another sci-fi/ fantasy epic to fall victim to the fallacy that what the cool kids really want in their movies is interminable council deliberations and political manoeuvring. After all, it’s what made the “Star Wars” prequels and the “Matrix” sequels so cool, right?
It has to be said, though, that Beckinsale makes for a very fetching vampire huntress and acquits herself admirably in both the acting and action stakes. While it may frequently get bogged down in its (under)world building, the fictional world it creates is interesting one, rich in possibilities to explore in future instalments. As a standalone film, the finale comes as a little bit of an anti-climax but viewed as a precursor to the sequel, it’s actually a pretty decent cliff-hanger.
“Underworld” is a reasonably even mix of style and substance and the fact you can tell the cast and crew are having an absolute ball with the gothic grandeur and broadness of it all puts it over the top. If only it had a little more bite, it could have been spectacular.