SEPTEMBER 18, 2003
Routinely Gothic
By Jeremy Mathews
  Pale English actress Kate Beckinsale stole a werewolf part from a harry actress, playing a Vampire in 'Underworld.'

Screen Gems
Directed by Len Wiseman
Written by Danny McBride, Kevin Grevioux and Len Wiseman
Produced by Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi and Richard Wright
Starring Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Michael Sheen, Shane Brolly, Bill Nighy, Erwin Leder, Sophia Myles, Robbie Gee, Wentworth Miller, Kevin Grevioux, Zita Görög, Dennis Kozeluh, Scott McElroy and Todd Schneider
Rated R
(out of four)

“Underworld” so thoroughly obeys the expectations of its genre that there was no real reason to make it. From “Nosferatu” to “Blade II,” everything has already been done better—with a more cohesive story.

The film is basically an excuse for a combination of action and melodrama in which gloomy characters walk around a chiaroscuro-lit Budapest, Hungary, and talk about…well, nothing, really.

The Vampires, everyone’s favorite immortal bloodsuckers, have been at war with the Lycans, popularly known as werewolves, for what seems like eternity—which means something to people who actually live for eternity. The Lycans haven’t put up much of a fight in recent centuries due to the death of their leader, Lucian. The plentiful Vampires have been stalking and assassinating in unseen corners of society. Now, however, a creepy, mysterious werewolf (Michael Sheen), has been organizing and planning.

The werewolves catch our heroine, Selene (Kate Beckinsale), off-guard while she’s hunting them in the subway. They surprise her and fight back, shooting ultraviolet bullets (“they harness the power of daylight”), killing her partner.

Such advanced technology makes immortals much easier to kill than in the olden days. Of course, in other scenes the Lycans kill Vampires simply by biting them and drinking all their blood, which is a bit confusing.

The story’s ultimately empty political angles provide intrigue early in the film. The Vampires and Lycans have been fighting for some time (“1,000 years”) and the elder Vampires forbid any study of the past. This setup has the same effect on the consciousness as a giant title card reading “A plot twist’s a-coming!”

The setup doesn’t, however, hint at how hackneyed the multiple twists are. The screenplay attempts to rearrange everything without moral ambiguity—a quality that would have created an interesting dynamic.

Once all the twists are sorted out, we get an ending based not on what the immortal societies would logically do, but on what might set the stage for a dandy sequel.

As a character, Selene shows a lot of potential. Her mentor and recruiter, Viktor (Bill Nighy) is one of the three Vampire elders who operate on a 100-year rotating sleep schedule. Since he started sleeping, the man he left in charge has been causing Selene trouble. Kraven (Shane Brolly), who earned fame by killing the Lycan leader, wants Selene as his bride and doesn’t approve of her warrior traits.

In fact, he’s almost taken the Vampires completely out of battle mode. The communal mansion’s lobby displays the gluttony and decadence.

Kraven forbids Selene to research a human named Michael (Scott Speedman), whom she realizes the Lycans were following in the subway. As Kraven is no fool, he realizes that this fellow is a potential love interest for Selene.

While the film includes multiple strong female Vampires, looking pale in sexy black outfits, lovers of hairy women should be warned that there are no female werewolves. Why, oh why are there no female werewolves? One Lycan character says that he was “born into slavery” to the Vampires. So doesn’t he have a werewolf mommy? Despite claims from some that strong women in action films are feminist victories, we won’t have true equality until fur-bearing women can show off whatever skin is visible on their lovely legs.

For those not interested in hairy women, the story gets lost in poor pacing. Some scenes go on forever as characters explain bloodlines, recite rules and regulations and explain things that are obvious. Other sections of the story don’t get enough treatment, like the love story that exists only by default. It begins to feel like the only thing to do is enjoy the film’s look.

Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts creates a successful and coherent look, with low light and creepy shadows. Of course, it helps that there’s no sunlight in the entire film. Most scenes are so stripped of color that it’s odd that the film isn’t simply in black and white.

With obvious credit to classic German Expression, the filmmakers are taking from the style of recent gothic films with cult followings, most notably Alex Proyas’s “The Crow” (1994) and his masterpiece “Dark City” (1998). Perhaps it’s too harsh a comparison, but the production design pales to that of the Proyas films and it’s simply boring.

First-time director Len Wiseman shows promise, but needs to set up better situations. Some of the action scenes are too routine. A car-chase scene even throws in a stab-at-people-through-the-roof sequence. Wiseman might be starting an impressive career, but it’s only the start.

For now, only devotees of the gothic genre will enjoy the work.

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