Underworld – Review

Starting in 2003, the Underworld franchise of films has spawned five films to date. Of varying levels of success, the series has, despite that lambasting of the majority of critics, went on to gross over half a billion dollars at the international box office. So, what is the secret of its success? It isn’t too hard to fathom. The series delivers on what it set out to do. Vampires fighting werewolves in a particularly stylish and entertaining way. The first film set the tone and proved to be such a fan favourite that future films were all but guaranteed.

The war between the Vampires and the Lychans has been raging for hundreds of years. With the upper hand, the vampires are systematically eliminating the werewolves. One of the best operatives, known as Death Dealers, is Selene (Kate Beckinsale). On a mission, she finds werewolves were tracking a human with the intention of abducting him. She senses a problem and sets out to find out who the man is and why he is so important to the Lychans. At the same time, there is a major event within the vampire ranks as one of their leaders is due to come out of centuries-long sleep to take their place as the head of the coven. It is no coincidence that this is all happening at the same time.

The first three minutes of Underworld is a good example of how a film sets up its world. Even before the opening frame is displayed we are presented with the title and sound element that indicates that this is going to be a dark film. As soon as the opening sequence starts the colour palate that will dominate the film is front and centre. It is night and everything is bathed in moonlight and shadows. The atmosphere is charged which supported by the thunder and lightning. It is a portent for what is to follow. Only then, we are introduced to Selene. She is perched in a gothic tower high above the street with the rain lashing her but never interrupting her concentration. She is focussed on what is going on below. From the voice over we get the basics of the vampire versus lychan battle that has been raging and, with than she gracefully jumps off of her perch landing perfectly, ready for battle.

Beckinsale is terrific in the role of Selene. The part is physically demanding with a large part of the film involving action sequences that take in both gunfights and hand to hand (or paw in this case) combat. She plays it straight and with all seriousness despite the slight ridiculousness of the story. It is her character that is given the most screen time and she is called upon to pretty much carry the film. This she does with consummate ease.

The over the top acting is left to some of the supporting cast. Michael Sheen is having a great time as Lucian, the head of the lychans. He is a great villain who literally snarls all the way through the film. There is always a twinkle in his eye as he delivers acerbic one-liners and entertaining put-downs. Going in the opposite direction is Bill Nighy as one of the ancient vampires. His menace comes from his stillness and icy delivery. He isn’t on screen for too long but his performance is memorable for the way he underplays the character.

Alas, the rest of the cast are pale by comparison. At the centre of the drama is Scott Speedman as Michael Corvin, the centre of attention for the warring factions. He is the one who is in danger most of the time and he has very little to do until the final fight sequence. I suppose this underlines the fact that this is a film that is very much centred on the character of Selene. It makes a pleasant change to see a large burly man cast as the person to be saved and frequently helpless, rather than a female character.

The film delivers in terms of the action and the story, for what it is, is entertaining throughout the two and a quarter-hour run time of the special edition. The film works because it sets out to tell a single story and not act a launchpad for a film series. Of course, that did happen based on the success of the movie but it never felt like it was forcing elements into the story that would set up further instalments. The world of the film and the history of the war would prove rich enough for more material to be developed.

Underworld does owe a debt to some films that came before it and it takes a lead from The matrix which hit cinemas some four years before. There are clear nods to that film in the costume design and the choreographing of the action scenes. With a lot of leather outfits, long overcoats, slow-motion bullet fire and sunglasses at night the comparisons are obvious. it cleverly takes inspiration in these in order to craft something that is distinctive in its own right rather than a straight copy like the 2002 sci-fi movie Equilibrium.

A good start to the series and a very enjoyable film for all the right reasons.

John McArthur
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