Written by: Len Wiseman & John Hlavin (screenplay), J. Michael Straczynski (screenplay), Allison Burnett (screenplay), Kevin Grevioux (characters), Danny McBride (characters)
Directed by: Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Michael Ealy and India Eisley
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
While I&襊ll doubt anyone would ever call the Underworld mythology “complex,” it certainly isn’t too many steps from being soggy and dense, weighed down by clunky exposition and a seemingly endless horde of meaningless characters. Somehow, Len Wiseman and company managed to turn movies about vampires and werewolves shooting each other into a lugubrious proposition, with the end result being movies that act as black holes in my memory. If nothing else, the same can’t be said for Underworld: Awakening, which dispenses with all of the excess baggage and strips the franchise down to the bare essentials: Kate Beckinsale, skin-tight leather, guns, and blood. This is the most streamlined version of Underworld to date, which means that it’s the most easily digestible, if only by default.
In fact, I couldn’t help but chuckle when Selene’s (Beckinsale) two-minute opening recap manages to more fluently tell the story so far than the previous films have. Her narration leaves us at the end of the second film, where she and Michael had slaughtered, well, everyone, seemingly to live happily ever after (even in the sunlight!). Not so fast, though--as it turns out, humans finally discovered that vampires and Lycans had been waging a secret war for centuries, so mankind exterminated them all. Selene and Michael escape death, but end up on ice and subjected to experiments over a 12 year period, with our main story finally picking up when Selene is freed by her daughter (India Eisley).
From there, it’s pretty simple: Selene is righteously pissed (especially after learning that Michael has died), so she spends the next 80 minutes shooting and stabbing just about everything that comes into her path. While Underworld has always veered more towards action than overt horror, Awakening goes full bore with over-the-top sequences that are loosely connected by dialogue that serves to transport characters from one shootout to the next. From a narrative standpoint, this one is just as clunky as its predecessors, only it reins in said clunkiness to a brisk 89 minutes, and I would say maybe about four of those minutes aren’t scored by gunfire and explosions. Gone is the mopey romance angle and the wending back-stories, which leaves us with what most people probably want from a fourth Underworld movie: there are vampires, there are (digital) werewolves, and they clash violently in an experience that probably replicates the experience of being trapped inside an exploding fireworks factory.
It’s also just a Kate Beckinsale appearance away from going direct-to-video. Try as it might to exhaustively assault your senses into being interested, Underworld: Awakening never transcends some obvious budget constraints. If not for the presence of Selene, this would almost feel like one of those hastily tossed-together sequels-in-name-only destined to warm video store shelves (which is exactly what this will end up doing anyway). Even the new cast of characters feel like subtle knock-offs of previous ones, such as Charles Dance, who shows up as a new, elderly vampire leader in the same vein as Bill Nighy’s character from the original. Likewise, Selene bumps into a fellow vampire played by Theo James, whose non-presence will actually cause you to miss the vacuum of charisma that is Scott Speedman. Other newcomers include Stephen Rea, portraying a geneticist (with a secret!) and Michael Ealy as a cop that ends up helping Selene. As someone who has never particularly dug this series, even I lament that we don’t have the likes of Nighy and Michael Sheen for this go-round, and the whole experience feels a little divorced from the previous films.
Of course, said mythology was hardly that interesting, so I can’t say I missed it too much. Had it actually been replaced by something completely worthwhile, it would have been even easier to part with, but Awakening obviously isn’t a great movie, though it isn't without with a slight absurd streak that lends itself to riotous action and gore sequences. Directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein take the helm this time out and deliver the typical stylistic flourishes and generally exhibit a good eye for action, even if it is of the modern-day dizzying, chaotic sort. They aren’t stingy with the gore, even if most of it is accomplished through CGI, much like the rest of the effects, with the centerpiece being a giant, silly-looking Lycan, so it doesn’t take long for this to degenerate into a battle between pixels. Those budget constraints reveal themselves here as well, as the effects don’t even manage to outdo the ones accomplished nearly ten years ago in the original film.
I’ll at least say that this Underworld might finally prove to be a memorable one; between Selene’s newfound ability to resuscitate people by massaging their hearts (where was that when she needed it in part 2?) and the outrageous battles that feature a 12 year old hybrid girl ripping off Lycan heads, there’s plenty of stupid pulp here that’ll stand out. If only the whole thing didn’t feel so airless and stagnant; Underworld: Awakening might be fuelled by some wild moments, but it’s ultimately steered into the ground by an arid polish that’s almost too slick, as if it were simply trying to replicate the previous films by walking through the motions. And when you’re trying to replicate something that wasn’t all that great in the first place, you can imagine what the xerox feels like. To rank this one with the others feels like an empty endeavor--it’s both better (in terms of pure entertainment) and worse (in terms of production values), so it’s exactly what you’d expect from Underworld 4; if not for the tease of an inevitable fifth entry, it’d feel like a nail in its coffin, at least in terms of its theatrical lifeline. Rent it!
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