Ed. note– I’m not discussing the 3D version of UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING because I saw it in glorious 2D. Glasses are up to $4 on Long Island, and I don’t like my wallet getting raped. Plus, 3D sucks. Also, I didn’t rip on the CGI in the film, because it’s kind of herky jerky and reminded me of old fashioned stop motion. So I actually enjoyed it, nostalgically. It may also have influenced my mention of Mighty Joe Young below…–P.F.
The UNDERWORLD franchise has never done much for me. When I first heard how it would have gun firing vampires vs. muscle bound werewolves, I was jazzed. Then I saw the first two films, and they were a letdown. That awesome concept led to some lackluster battles when they should’ve been epic. My sister Sarah loves the series, so back in 2009, we went to a matinee for the third flick, which despite its interesting origin story and medieval setting, suffered from much the same problem. A co-worker gave me a gift certificate for the UA theatres, and I take every chance I can to hang out with my sister, because she’s awesome. So last Sunday night, we were off to see UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING. It’s by far the best of the franchise, but it still left me wanting, though in a new way.
I went into the movie cold, knowing nothing but that it was a new UNDERWORLD, and that Kate Beckinsale was back in full force. Her character Selene starts the movie facing a world where vampires and their sworn werewolf enemies the Lycans have been discovered by humankind, who have swiftly driven the two races to near extinction. Selene and her lover Michael try to escape, but leaping in water only leads to his death and her suspended animation. When she awakens 12 years later in a lab where she’s been branded Subject 2, the mysterious Subject 1 aids in her escape. Solving the identity of Subject 1 leads to more mysteries that unravel in the ultimate battle between Lycan and vampire, a war that mankind thought was long over.
UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING works on a number of levels, beginning with Kate Beckinsale’s performance. Selene has lost nearly everything at this point, and Beckinsale sells it. Her race is gone, her family is dead, and her lover is no more. When given the chance to reach out to Subject 1, she takes it, and makes it her mission to protect her new charge. Beckinsale is an underrated actress, and she obviously doesn’t look down on the genre as she brings her all to Selene. She’s also explosive in the action scenes, blasting double pistols and sinking her fangs into those who get in her way. For a slight British woman, she’s as tough as Stallone at his best when she dons the leather jacket. The action is better in AWAKENING than in all three previous flicks, as Selene fights the ultimate Lycan not once, but twice.
There’s also an interesting subplot about a devastated coven of vampires, forced into hiding among the shadows. This leads to some good son vs. father arguments, with Theo James’ character David espousing the need to fight as broken father Thomas promotes the passive approach. As the world weary father, Charles Dance of THE LAST ACTION HERO and THE GOLDEN CHILD is enjoyable, and David’s verve for action makes for good conflict within the coven.
Then there’s the best fight in the series, as Selene battles a mega-Lycan the size of Mighty Joe Young. This thing can destroy a whole coven of vampires, and is immune to several sure shot Lycan kills. For the first time in the franchise, my blood got pumping when Selene went face-to-fanged face with this monstrosity.
And yet, I still wanted more from the flick, but in an entirely new way. The action carried the day this time around, but at the expense of the story. Everything seems half-developed, as if the plot is there just to keep the film on rails between the battles. Take the identity of Subject 1. It lasts for all of about 12 minutes before the film reveals it. As much of the movie is a mystery, the reveal comes way too quickly. Then there’s the coven. The place works as a safe house for Selene and Subject 1 for a handful of minutes before it’s under siege and broken. Then it’s an afterthought until almost the film’s very end. I would have liked to see more development for it, as the whole idea of a clan trying to avoid extinction offers great possibilities.
The underdevelopment extends to characters as well. When the film reveals the human identity of the mega-Lycan and the involvement of Dr. Jacob Lane, a few lines of dialogue are all we get for their motivation, and that comes in about 75% of the way through. And when a detective explains just why he’s helping Selene, he does so briefly. At 88 minutes, the flick flies by without much meat on its bones. I know these are common slips in a horror film, but the story really interested me here, and it’s a shame it wasn’t more fully developed.
And speaking of horror films, this isn’t really one. Just like BLADE, this is an action flick with monsters in it. Listen to the music cues when Selene is firing off those dual pistols, and you’ll understand that the intent isn’t to horrify at all. TWILIGHT isn’t a horror franchise either, but the difference is, UNDERWORLD doesn’t suck.
What it comes down to is, would I recommend UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING to a ticket buying horror fan? Yes, I would. It fulfills the promises of grand vampire vs. werewolf action that the first three films made, and Beckinsale is a great actress at home in the middle of gunfire. The plot leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s the best film of the franchise, and it’s the only one to have a Lycan the size of a garage. If the earlier UNDERWORLD efforts had this kind of juice, I would have been a huge fan from the start.