Underworld (2003) with only a moderate budget is a very glossy expensive-looking film with the fashion-costumes having more personality than the characters, like a very pretty comic book printed on shiny paper, or airbrush-detailed on the doors of a big black RV.
The premise is simple: There's a war between the Lycans (werewolves) & the Vampires. This battle is going on in the sewers & on the streets around us, unseen by normal people though you'd think they'd stick out with those cool leather dusters & s/m fetish outfits.
This simple idea is ornamented with back-story "history" bits & "rules" for how various game pieces, I mean characters, function. Old Lycans have more power than young Lycans for example. Lycans distinguish themselves from "mere" werewolves because werewolves cannot change back to attractive humans.
No matter how tricked out it is with side-complexities, however, little beyond the visuals count for squat.
If judged for its visual beauty exclusively, it scores quite high. The urban environment is a wonderful gothic version of Prague. The female warrior vampire Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is powerful & unbelievably gorgeous.
When she makes a leap from a high building ledge to a street, keeping her dancer's pose, nothing could be more Computer Graphix; it's not the least bit real. But neither is a drawing in a comic book, & the CGI has to be taken as the cinematic version of a comic book's colored inks. And quite a pleasing comic book overall.
Visually it works, yes, though it's easy to have the attitude toward the film that its excessive fashionableness is nothing but an extended music video imitating The Matrix (1999). But with a shift of viewer's mood, & a forgiving attitude toward rank commercialism, Underworld is easily praised for its sexiness & cool clothes.
Just don't look too hard at the story; don't expect suspense or horror. It's an action-packed cartoon plus corny taboo love story between Selene & a werewolf.
The film is so commercially targeted that at times it feels like the work of a jaded old pro who knows what the young & especially the unthinking masses will happily pay too much to see. It's instead Ken Wiseman's directorial debut, though previously he had been involved as Art Director for purely commercial glitzy empty-headed successes like Independence Day (1996), besides doing MTV music videos & commercials for video games.
The influence of video games lends a geeky sci-fi nerd quality to the commercialism that makes Underworld a bit more appealing than mere commerce.
A bigger, more convoluted sequel to Underworld might seem promising at first blush. The first film had an elegant look & seemed to be designed by very talented airbrush comic book illustrators, but with script by less talented wargamers or video game geeks.
Given its major lapses of merit, the promise of getting more bang for your bucks in the sequel should be fairly easy to live up to, since all it takes is the bigger budget.
"Bigger & better" alas adds up to Underworld: Evolution (2006) being merely bigger. Moving the action out of the decadent urban environment makes it by & large less visually stimulating, though the creative team's desire to have a different environment is understandable, lest Underworld: Evolution come off as a clone or remake rather than a sequel.
The core idea for these films remains simplicity itself: vampires & lycans have been at war for several centuries; they constitute two branches of the same family; & they might one day become united in the form of a hybridized line.
Very much like sniffling taped-glasses nerds playing Dungeons & Dragons, or the Magic role playing card game, the world & its history & plethora of back-stories & lineages & magical rules & restrictions of old & new powers...all these D&D side-issues expand & expand, still without any storytelling skills coming forth in evidence. No one learns to tell great stories by playing fun role playing games.
We end up with the machinery of a video game & a half-dozen role playing instruction manuals providing a book-length history of everyone (who nevertheless remain largely indistinguishable). The simple core idea gets lost under the weight of ornamentation, with too little story & no suspense.
To an extent this is The Matrix crossed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or the video game versions thereof, being only the worst of each rather than combining the best.
There was only one long bit I unreservedly enjoyed, & that was the opening flashback to a medieval world of lycanthropes, vampires, swords & sorcery, with the best combination of animation & live action I'd ever seen, creating a horrifically compelling otherworld. But when that stuff runs its course & the film starts over in the modern world, it never again gets quite as thrilling.
The modern setting is a a story of machine-guns & sorcery in a series of largely subterranean gothic sets that are sometimes darkly pretty but invariably a phony looking mix of painted styrofoam & computer graphix.
The ultimate vampire has cool wings that appear & disappear at will, not because it's logical but because it's difficult to animate wings for more than a half minute at a time.
So let's just pretend the wings suck into the body or shrink to the size of a pimple when not in use. The ultimate vampire also has a leaf-nosed bat's snout, not at all like a vampire bat, so instead of sucking human blood, this guy should've been eating bugs.
With all the gunfire & butchery of cool monsters, it's like watching someone else play a video game, insufficient to qualify as a movie.
If super great cartoon computer FX is all one wants of a film, this is a winner. If watching twelve-year-olds playing the video games in the lobby is more fun than watching a movie, Underworld: Evolution is the cat's meow.
And of course a babe like Kate Beckinsdale (married to the director) dressed up in a shiny black plastic dominatrix outfit is truly ace. She's sufficient excuse to give the film a good review, no matter its lapses & immaturities, as a chance to just gaze at Kate justifies everything else.
But the damned story is barely adequate for the crummiest comic book adventure. And personally, I require a story to support such glitzy animation & gunfire. Indeed, a film can do without the animation much more easily than it can do without a story.
Imagine looking inside the Bullwinkle balloon at the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, hoping to find gigantic lungs & a pulsing heart, but all you find is hot air & squeaky-voice helium. Like that balloon, Underworld: Evolution has an impressive skin, but has nothing inside it.
In the second film of the Underworld Trilogy, we got a glimpse of the medieval world that brought these two warring clans into existence, & it blew away the rest of the film which did not equal some of the most convincing scenes of "sword & sorcery" ever committed to celluloid.
Most happily, the third in the series, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009), is set entirely in that weird past.
And if I sounded like I found the first in the series & especially the second awfully faulty (though fully entertaining) in the story department, this never struck me as a problem with the third installment. In fact I have to look hard to find any fault at all.
Sword & sorcery is potentially one of the silliest genres for the screen, as an entire world needs to be built from the ground up, & the number of films that have succeeded at that are damned few. With Rise of the Lycans it's fully achieved. I was so blown away by & convinced of the reality of this fantastic setting that I might even say I was overawed.
Looking hard for things to criticize, well sure, it's packed with roleplaying gaming information as were the other installments, but as this really is an "otherworldly" setting, a bit of exposition might've been necessary, & I was never put off by it.
Kate Breckinsale's leading man, Michael Sheen as Lucian, is frankly not the equal of Kate as heroine or Bill Nighy as villain. But he'll get by, & since there was an element of zoophilia about Lucian's relationship with Sonja, it even sort of fit the story that he was not convincingly her equal.
She was the vampiric human; he was veritably the tethered dog. Her desire for him is not one of love between equals, for it had a certain fetishishtic quality, like a svelt beauty with a fat-fetish in love with double-chinned blubber-butt. Sonja simply likes Lucian's dog attributes.
Kate's playing an ancestor of the woman she plays in the two modern-setting films. The villain, her father Viktor (Bill Nighy looking & acting sinister as all get-out), & her slave-lover, are playing the same immortal characters they play in the modern setting. This film is essentially the "back story" for the first two films, & it's just ever so much more glorious than its predecessors.
Vampires storming about modern city sewers in fetish costumes would stink of the sewers rather than look continuously fashionable; nor dressed likethat could they ever possibly pass undetected by mere mortals.
The very premise of the first two films was moronic & it took an effort to hold disbelief in abeyance in order to enjoy it. But the fetish costumes fit the medieval world as normal, & make that world more rather than less real.
Nor are they undetected in their medieval mileau, as they never could've been, so we as viewers are not required to make a superhuman effort in order to overlook the entire set-up's internal irrationality.
The vampire clan lives in a gargantuan city/fortress inside a mountain, distant from sunlight, & only leave their dark realm at night, when they function as a professional army of bodyguards for the royalty of the mortal clans.
Mortals are beset by true werewolves (which can never again take human form), & akin to vampires leave their cavern dens only by nights. These originated as infected mortals, & is contagious so that the numbers of wolf-creatures preying upon mortals increases.
Without the efforts of the warrior vampire clan, mortals would've been eradicated by the werewolves. So an uneasy alliance has arisen among mortals who pay heavey tribute to their protectors.
When a captive bitch werewolf gives birth to the first of the lycans, who can turn from man to wolf & back again at will, a new race is established by Viktor, who uses Lucian's blood to infect captive mortals, turning them into immortal lycans for use as a slave class in perpetual servitude.
The fact that Lucian's human part is of the same lineage as Viktor means they share a familial origin. But the vampires are haughty creatures who are taken by surprise that their slaves must inevitably revolt, Lucian their founding leader of lycans, capable also of controling the vastly more bestial werewolves.
CGI has rarely been put to better use creating an entire environment, something unreal made to seem real.
The wolf transfmorations; the gorgeous armor of the vampiric knights; the gory moonlit battles; the gothic weaponry; the architecture within the mountain fortress...everything is darkly aesthetically beautiful. I barely dared blink for fear of missing the next second of pulchiritudinous horror.
It might be argued the story values remain as in the first two films, that all the detail creates a fascinatingly gameable, but the story is not entirely consistent.
There's a sequence in which the mortals seemingly realize for the first time their nocturnal protectors are vampires -- that made no sense at all -- & there are other lapses in the story.
Still, somehow it kept me so thrilled at every minute that it never seemed to me that anything was missing. And I liked even the love story, whether or not it was cribbed from Romeo & Juliet.
Lucian has become a blacksmith in service of Viktor. The collar that all the slaves wear to keep them from turning into powerful wolf-creatures has only one key for all, this belonging to Viktor.
But Lucian has secretly made another key, & remains at his smithing duties only because his plan to escape slavery would mean losing Sonja, the princess of the clan & a warrior knight of great strength, beloved of her father, who would nevertheless expose her to sunlight to die should her perverse affair become known to him.
So the lovers cannot reveal themselves, though secrets are not easily kept.
This brooding violent tale of forbidden love is as thrilling as those parts of the film devoted the action & supernaturalisms. Their love never descends into the tritely romantic; rather, it is always heatedly Romanticist.
I really can't say much more, just that I love this film unreservedly. Viktor the stunning & complicated villain & egomaniac was an amazing villain. Sonja the amazonian vampire is one of the most perfect action-heroines I've ever seen, incredibly convincing whether in the midst of a fight, or in love's embrace. For me the trilogy consists of a Good first film, an Okay second film, but for the third it's Oh My God I Can't Believe It's Such A Stupendously Great Fantasy.
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