I have so many things to say about this movie,1 I’m not even going to waste time with a clever introduction.
First, I friggin’ loved it, which is not to say you will. I saw the movie with two really smart guys, and they hated it. One is an architect, near genius, and the other is…well, to be honest, I’m not sure what the hell he does, but he knows a lot of stuff and his wife is hot, so he has to be doing something right. The point is; it’s not intelligence that will determine whether or not you like Underworld.
Before we get into the specifics, let’s talk about what is unimportant: chiefly; the reviews (except mine, of course). Most reviewers will not try to understand this film and just label it “Vamp-flick”, and probably give away too much.
Second is how much this movie may look like The Matrix, or other films. This is something else I’m sure most smug reviewers can’t wait to point out. But so what? It’s not a direct rip-off, and isn’t the same movie, so don’t worry about that and just enjoy the movie for what it is.
Lastly, there are the vampires. They have a long history in print, stage, and screen, and while this helps build in an audience, it also limits the possible appeal. Don’t succumb to that thinking. Whether you enjoy this film won’t ultimately come down to whether you like vampires. But we’ll get to that.
For me, seeing this movie was an experience. I had a terrible time even getting there, so I felt I earned the movie. My friend Ajax made plans way north of town, so I talked two others (the architect, Marcellus, and the guy with the hot wife, Starsky) into tromping up north to see it. By the time we got there, though, there was nowhere to sit. Ajax had to stay ‘cause his wife was meeting him, but we decided to go pell-mell back down south and see if this other theatre had a later show.
But Ajax had bought the tickets on his card, and we couldn’t find him to make the exchange. Then Marcellus drove like an old woman, so that meant I had to drive slowly because he didn’t know the area well. By the time we got to the other theatre, the movie had sold out. I knew they always keep a certain number unsold, for fire codes and to let people sit together. So we bought tickets to some other movie and snuck in. (That’s a tip, kids: write it down.) We lucked out to find three seats together (close to the screen; more on that in a minute), and I vaguely heard some girl say they were saved, but after all that time and effort I’d be damned to fail now, so I pretended not to hear her, and luckily I’m someone you think twice before launching a tirade on.
It took us awhile to adjust to how close we were, and this movie starts off with such a bang it was even tougher. I heartily suggest you sit a little further back (that’s another tip).
Let’s get the plot out of the way: Vampires and Lycans (short for Lycanthropes, which means Werewolves) have been in a war for over 1000 years. The war has gotten more perilous lately, for both sides, causing a change in tactics, etc. There’s a human that’s somehow important to the war.
I’ve been accused of not detailing the plot enough when I write about movies. I don’t see it as my job to tell you everything in the movie. You’ll see it all if you go. My job is to explain the movie in a way that lets you know whether you want to see it.
In Underworld, it’s even more important to not reveal plot points, because not only would it not make a whole lot of sense, but also the movie is actually a mystery. Don’t get me wrong: there’s a good deal of gore (including some C.S.I.-esque “in the body” moments), but this is primarily not a horror movie. You’re very pointedly not given all the information right off the bat (no pun intended).
Let’s talk about people who won’t enjoy this film, so that they can quit reading now. If you absolutely cannot stand blood, this is not the film for you. Next, if you hate to have to figure movies out, this is not the movie for you. Last, if you love vampires but expect a traditional vampire story line, this is not for you.
Let’s get the problems out of the way next, so people who get hung up that that can quit reading too. First, the movie is very confusing at the beginning. Initially I thought this was just poor storytelling, but I soon discovered this was on purpose, to keep the movies’ secrets as long as possible. Still, when you combine rapid-fire editing in an extended action sequence added to exposition that is specifically vague, that will deter some people.
Next, the deviations from standard Vampire/Werewolf mythology is given to us in driblets, and never fully explained. I love the idea of departing from standard norms, but since it is the departure that makes it interesting, I think it would help if they explained their universe a little more at the outset.
Last, some of the characters are not fleshed out, and several plot threads are dropped. They might be set-ups for a sequel, but a movie’s job is to be self-contained, unless everyone knows there is more, and this was disappointing. Along those same lines, I wish there had been more in the relationships. This sounds juvenile, but in a movie that crackles with sexuality, it was surprising that there was no sex! Vampires and their lore are at heart a sexual thing—the imagery and symbolism is inescapable—and I wish some of the relationships went deeper.
There are two areas that I personally loved but I expect some to have problems with. One is the color. The film is filtered through a blue lens, to give it sort of a black-and-blue-and-white look. I thought it gave the movie a sleek, smooth sexiness, but I can see some people saying it looks flat. The other thing is that apart from the opening crowd scene, there is virtually no one in the movie who isn’t a Vampire or Lycan. This didn’t bother me in the slightest. This is a movie about creatures that don’t exist outside of our art and our imagination, so don’t get hung up on the empty city. (Aside: everyone has London accents, but a train arrives from Transylvania. I heard they shot the movie in Budapest, so maybe that’s the setting, but personally I think it would be cool if they were in London and a train still arrived from Transylvania.)
For those of you still left, here is what I loved: the story is a mystery, and the mystery keeps changing. Why are these groups fighting? Which characters are (relatively) good or bad? Who should I root for? You’ll find all this out, but it was this last question that transformed the movie for me.
Underworld opens with narration from Selene, who we learn is a Vampire and self-described “Death-Dealer” in the ongoing war with the Lycans. Because of that and the PVC (more on that in a moment), we naturally assume the Vampires are the protagonists.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized this movie wasn’t a traditional vampire flick as much as it was a gang romance in the spirit of Boyz in the Hood, Romeo and Juliet, and God help me West Side Story. Neither side are really good guys. Vampires vs. Lycans is really Bloods vs. Crips, or any other grand battle of people where no one is innocent.
Which means it’s not nearly as important who wins as how the characters relate to each other. Like so many battles before and after them, these “monsters” find they have more in common with each other than with the rest of the world (perhaps another reason why there are almost no humans).
The characters themselves are quite interesting. On one side are the Vampires, who seem to represent everything high class. They live in mansions and look like Prada personally outfits them on an hourly basis. On the other side are the Lycans, clearly the blue-collar monsters. They live in squalor, often underground, dress like flood victims, and instead of the sybaritic world of the Vamps, the Lycans seem more at home reenacting Fight Club.
Because Selene is a Vampire, we get more of their world. Times have changed, and now Vampires have to avoid killing humans. There are several power struggles that sort of mimic the S&M world that Vampires suggest just by their very nature. There are also enough love triangles to satisfy a fetishist, which is partly why I wished they’d gone into the relationships more.
At the heart is Selene,2 played by Kate Beckinsale. The first time I ever saw Kate was Much Ado About Nothing, one of my favorite films. Most of you probably remember her from Pearl Harbor. I’ve had a grudge against Kate since then because of that movie. Either way, no one has ever accused her of being hot.
One of the truly remarkable feats of the film is to get heretofore pretty-at-best Kate Beckinsale to be smoking hot. On thing they did was stuff her into this latex outfit that looks like liquid PVC (I told you I’d get back to that). They also did something with her hair. You’ll just have to see it. Selene isn’t the only hot character, though.
For the ladies, the human Michael (played by Scott Speedman), is quite the eye candy too, and I’m sure you’ll drool. I couldn’t quite appreciate him, though, because he reminded me so much of another Scott, the lead singer of Creed, and I hate Creed. But that’s just me.
The rest of the characters are fun too. The Vampires are all lusciously gorgeous—both the men and the women—and the Lycans are ruggedly grotesque. There are no female Lycans, but if you buy my theory that these monsters represent smoldering sexuality this makes sense because who wants some hairy bitch snarling at you?
The style and pace of the movie worked well for me. The riddles are answered one by one, stringing you along just enough that you think you know what’s going on, but are never quite sure. The traditional story has been updated quite a bit, so much so that now the Vampires and Lycans are using guns, filled with liquid silver and daylight, of all things. Pretty cool.
But will you like it? Can’t make any promises. This is such a visceral experience that it will probably come down to the individual. Will you be mad that you saw it? Maybe. But I’d see it again, and I can’t wait for the sequel.
RATINGS (Based on #121, which you should be familiar with before you read this)
Skepticism Scale: 9.8 (out of 10). This is a gang love story, but even those are never realistic, and they don’t include outfits that cannot possibly be gotten into by human beings. Don’t take anything here seriously.
Genre Grade: I call this a Monster Movie, and give it an A-.
Pantheon Percentile: 70. This ain’t Shakespeare, and won’t be winning any awards (unless they give an award for how to make an ordinary girl that hot). Sure as hell liked watching it, though.
1 The original draft of this review was almost 3500 words. Luckily for you I managed to cut it down.
2 Interestingly, Selene was daughter of Hyperion in Greek mythology.