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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Movie Review: Underworld

My husband and I rented the 2003 vampire/werewolf action flick Underworld this evening, hoping for a bit of fun, entertaining eye candy. And while this movie provides plenty of pretty faces, taut bodies, cool special effects and kick-ass action sequences, when the closing credits rolled I was filled with an overwhelming sense of "Eh."

Underworld is a derivative film with tasty set design and art direction and good actors laboring under a poor script and unwise direction. It could have been a pretty good popcorn movie if only it didn't take itself So. Very. Seriously.

(... spoilers follow ...)


Underworld
treats itself like the next coming of The Godfather while ungleefully ripping off a host of other works: The Matrix, Aliens, Alien 3, An American Werewolf in London, Blade, White Wolf's World of Darkness, Clive Barker's Tortured Souls, and on and on. (Having said that, I found Nancy Collins' lawsuit against the filmmakers for supposed plagiarism laughable because her work wasn't exactly breaking new ground, either). It boggles my mind that the writers of Underworld convinced themselves that making vampirism and lyncanthropy the result of viruses is a new and original idea (as they claim in the DVD featurette).

The Blade movies are nearly as derivative but are usually saved by their sense of humor.

Underworld has no humor. None. Ever. Director Len Wiseman evidently told Kate Beckinsale to act as much like Trinity as possible in her portrayal of Selene: "You're in the Matrix! You're here to kick werewolf ass! Don't ever smile, and don't ever pick a lock or watch to see if you're being followed! You're too much of a badass to be stealthy! But, um, you'll faint for sure from blood loss when you get stabbed in the shoulder. Honest."

While the lovely Beckinsale and other actors often come off as wooden or half-asleep, Shane Brolly as Kraven (subtle naming, yes?) snarls and scowls so much he looks like he's going to give himself a hernia delivering even the simplest lines.

The real shame, though, was casting Michael Sheen as Lucian and Bill Nighy as Viktor and then never giving either actor a chance to show off their considerable charm or comedic skills. It's doubly a shame since Lucian turns out to be the most interesting character in the film, but once the audience figures this out, he gets killed (needlessly, too, since his henchman left the blood he needed right beside him in an earlier scene, and furthermore he could have asked for the blood from the heroine later ... oh, nevermind).

There was actually the core of a good idea in this movie, but it was buried by hasty, incomplete storytelling. The movie never bothers to establish the "rules" for its immortals, and has supposedly intelligent characters turn dumb as bricks for the sake of moving the action along. For instance, why does Michael go right into his darkened apartment without seeking a weapon of some kind when his door has obviously been kicked in by an intruder?

In another instance, after the aforementioned scene where Selene gets stabbed in the shoulder by a nogoodnik, she's driving herself and hero Michael down a dark road. He tells her to pull over because she's lost a lot of blood, and she snarls that she's just fine -- and promptly faints. The car goes off the road, hits a barrier and flips spectacularly through the air to land in a lake, river or bay (we never got the sense we were near water to begin with, so it's uncertain).

The car sinks, the windows craze menacingly, and while the hero cracks his head, badass immortal Selene is down for the count. He shoots out the window, which implodes spectacularly, and he somehow gets himself and Selene out of the car and up onto the shore beneath the dock, where he gives her CPR, she wakes up, and he faints.

Later, she tells Kraven that her still-unconscious hunky human "saved my life." Whoa. Wait a minute -- she's a vampire. She's immortal. The script so far has established they're vulnerable to sunlight and ultraviolet light, but since when can they drown? The movie never tells us for sure, nor does it tell us why Selene conveniently fails to notice the huge gaping bloody bite wound on Michael's neck. Nor does it tell us how and where Selene captures Lucian's creepy lab assistant later on so that she can prove to Viktor that Lucian's alive.

I turned my brain off before we even hit "play" on the DVD; I was willing and able to suspend disbelief, but the movie just can't support the weight of its own plot holes.

The more grim gritty gunplay I saw, the more I hankered for the suspense and black humor of Dog Soldiers or even an episode of Angel.

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