With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.
It’s not unusual for a movie series to essentially retell the same story over and over—origin stories, endlessly restaged battles, suspiciously similar blackout-drinking episodes, and so on. But even within those big-studio franchise restraints, the Underworld saga feels especially like a single, heavily footnoted story needlessly expanded to sprawl across 14 years and five movies. The conflict between ruling-class vampires and more raffish, less architecturally blessed Lycans (that’s Underworld fancy talk for werewolves) has already raged on for centuries at the beginning of the first movie. But for all their mythological ins and outs, these movies do not depict or even hint at a rich, detailed history so much as explain some convoluted, clustered, yet essentially same-sounding plot points repeatedly, to the degree that even the first one feels like it’s flashing back to some previous lost entry in the Underworld universe. Like its Screen Gems stablemate Resident Evil, the Underworld narrative moves forward far less rapidly than it should. It’s junk food that tries to fill the audience up, only to turn around and promise more junk food.
Despite the first movie’s aspirations, it’s not surprising that the filmmakers were caught unprepared to turn Underworld into an elaborate franchise. No one could have predicted in 2003 that this series would still be going in 2017, which probably explains the amount of circling back in subsequent entries, including a prequel prologue to the second movie, and an entire third movie creating prequels to events referred to in the first two movies. The fourth and fifth movies attempt to jump ahead with vampiric “death dealer” Selene (Kate Beckinsale) but keep stumbling back into old routines, such as assuming death dealers are inherently interesting and that the aristocracy issuing orders to death dealers is even more interesting than that.
Despite the repetition, the first Underworld is in some ways a series outlier. All five movies look very similar, but Underworld is the one shot to most nakedly emulate the then-recent success of The Matrix. The first movie came out just a few months after The Matrix Reloaded, which even has coincidental dialogue about how stories about supernatural beings like “vampires, werewolves, or aliens” are really just the Matrix assimilating rogue programs. Underworld, a story setting itself in an anonymous city and arming its beasts with automatic weapons, assimilates itself a little too well. The guns-and-leather Matrix aesthetic may have been a little bit silly as part of a cyberpunk narrative, but the Wachowskis both entertainingly fetishize their style and offer ample contrast with the scenes set outside of the slicked-up virtual-reality world. The first Underworld offers little respite from its stylistic suffocation.
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But after a while, the series’ dogged refusal to deviate from its original color palette beyond a few minor variations makes it distinct, almost despite itself. No modern franchise movie would dare film in black and white, but Underworld comes close with its blacks, silvery blues, and pallid flesh tones. When the later sequels move into more traditional gothic-creature environments—castles, forests, places with better access to moonlight—the Underworld look-book begins to seem almost classical. It also makes any tiny change look almost revelatory. A sizable portion of the recent Underworld: Blood Wars occurs in and around a remote mountaintop castle filled with white-haired vampire recluses, inspiring unearned gratitude for the shift in color balance.
Although Underworld made its name on its Matrix-like cityscape, the subsequent move away from that setting has improved the series. Underworld sequels are the rare January releases that not only come out in January by tradition, but also actually kind of feel like January. Moreover, a hidden mountaintop castle offers fewer (though not zero) opportunities for shots of vampires walk-and-talking through various ornate doorways, which the first movie prizes almost as much as slow-motion gun fights.
More than an action movie, Underworld is a perpetual exposition machine: Narration delivers it, characters deliver it to each other, and the movie zaps in additional exposition in near-subliminal form with hyper-fast montages packed with backstory images as well as clips from earlier in the film. This is also true of the sequels, which spend a lot of time catching viewers up on the events of previous films and/or events that happened off camera and are just coming to light now and/or memories of characters experienced by vampires, who receive visions of their victims’ prey when they taste their blood. This is a fascinating concept treated with very little interest. In Underworld world, there’s little discernible difference between what you’ve seen and what you haven’t. It’s all subjected to the same tedious exposition-dump rhythms.
The volume of palace intrigue is tedious—the kind of plot-heavy blather that inspires repeated trips to Wikipedia for reminders about which vampire is Viktor and which is Markus. But Selene’s plight as a working woman keeps some pathos running beneath her chilly vampire skin; she’s constantly struggling to be heard by a (mostly old, white, and male) vampire council that is absurdly invested in perpetuating a pointless war with Lycans. The series tries to make a Romeo And Juliet-like romance part of its hook, at least at first; Selene gets entangled with a human (Scott Speedman, moderately well-cast in the role of human male) targeted by Lycans, who eventually turns him into a vampire/Lycan hybrid. But Speedman’s Felicity-trained whispering only serves to make Beckinsale look more charismatic by comparison, a successful operation even when the rest of the movie wraps her talent up in constricting leather.
Last year’s Love & Friendship had plenty of critics rejoicing at Beckinsale’s wonderful performance, sometimes referring to the time she’s wasted in the Underworld universe. But while they don’t seem to offer much challenge beyond whatever physical stunts can’t be performed by a double, the Underworld movies do offer Beckinsale something. How often is a non-superstar actress turned into a franchise’s platonic ideal of semi-automated badassery for upwards of a decade? Underworld may owe an extra helping of its Beckinsale worship to Len Wiseman, the director of the first two movies, because he literally fell in love with Beckinsale while making the first one. Even after he got some higher-profile Hollywood gigs, Wiseman stuck around to write and produce some future Underworld entries, while his then-wife returned to make parts four and five, never a given in any franchise.
It’s interesting that Wiseman did that second Underworld movie before getting promoted to directing the fourth Die Hard entry and remaking Total Recall, because Underworld: Evolution doesn’t feel like an attempt to turn the series into a more accessible brand. Rather, it feels like the work of someone brought in to make sure an already lowbrow series plays to the genre’s cheap seats. If Wiseman steers the first Underworld with a kind of unearned, poor-man’s-Wachowskis stateliness, he lets his inner hack run free for Evolution: The cuts are faster, the kills are gorier, and there is a point-of-view shot of a super-powerful vampire creature’s tail as it impales a bunch of victims. It’s no lighter with mythology but far more efficient as an exploitation film. This includes the bizarre psychosexual spectacle of Wiseman filming (and repeatedly flashing back to!) a fairly lengthy and gratuitous scene of his wife having very enjoyable sex with Speedman.
As a whole, the Underworld saga isn’t quite as sleazy as it probably should be, but Evolution and newest entry Blood Wars try to make up some of that ground; both are preferable to the original. For that matter, all of the other four entries are preferable due to pure expediency. The first movie runs two hours, and the extended version widely available on Blu-ray runs an unconscionable 130 minutes, making it very much feel like the type of genre picture that gooses its own running time in an attempt to feel more serious. But the sequels wise up fast; Evolution is a solid 15 minutes shorter, while parts three, four, and five each run a cool 90 minutes or so. This makes them all vastly more tolerable.
The abbreviated running time does make fourth entry Underworld: Awakening feel particularly cursory, as it’s the entry that most closely follows the Resident Evil technique of promising series-altering game-changers, then postponing any significant shake-ups until the next movie. Awakening opens with narration that not only recaps the earlier films but also explains that, since then, vampires and Lycans have been discovered by humans, who treat them as “infected.” This puts the main characters on the other side of a pandemic horror movie (or, perhaps more appropriately, a first-person-shooter video game), at least until the movie promptly sends Selene into cryogenic sleep and wakes her up 12 years later, when the vampire and Lycan populations have been decimated, which is supposed to mark a major change but really just returns the movie to status quo. The addition of Selene’s lab-grown daughter and the subtraction of Speedman don’t make much difference. But the requisite mayhem remains, and it’s silly fun to see Selene team up with cop Michael Ealy to run wild in a science facility (also fun: seeing her tween daughter rip a werewolf in twain).
The four Beckinsale-led Underworlds happen on either side of a mid-franchise break to depict some events much-discussed early on: the ascent and temporary triumph of Lycan leader Lucian, played by Michael Sheen. Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans seems like the least essential entry by far, with Beckinsale stepping out for a story that essentially acts out some of the first movie’s less scintillating dialogue scenes. But Lycans is arguably the best of the bunch. It tells a better story of vampire-werewolf lust, with Rhona Mitra, the poor man’s Beckinsale, beginning the movie already engaging in an affair (including acrobatic cliffside sex) with Lucian, who works as sort of a house slave to the vampire higher-ups. It also generates enough rooting interest for the Lycans to make the other movies feel kind of strange, even heartless, in focusing so heavily on the vampire infighting. When switching to the Lycan point of view, the temperatures of the movie’s star power run hotter than Beckinsale’s icier charisma: As Lucian, Sheen doffs his shirt, bugs out his eyes, and tears into the scenery, while the prequel setting allows for a return engagement of regal, hissing Bill Nighy, whose vampire-elder character is dispatched in the first film. It may be the series’ best mix of rudimentary politics and monster mashing.
Blood Wars also earns some storytelling points by actually introducing a second major female character. Lara Pulver does an enjoyable discount-house Eva Green impression (there are a lot of discount deals when watching Underworld movies) as Semira, a conniving vampire who isn’t just lazily paired off with Selene for a girl-on-girl fight scene. She fights dudes, receives cunnilingus from a male lackey during an evil-plotting session, and generally adds some zing missing from previous entries. There are certainly more important examples of ingrained Hollywood sexism, but there may not be a better example than the fact that it took five entries to find a female director for the movie series about a female vampire—and that only Anna Foerster, who made Blood Wars, seemed to think another interesting female character might add something to the narrative.
Then again, it could also be Stockholm syndrome that makes the Underworld series seem more endearing in the fifth entry than it did in the first. These are limited movies in terms of action sequences (a few decent, many rote), style (eye-catching but repetitive), characterization (cool warrior characters who talk too much), and depictions of vampires and werewolves (pretty cool werewolf designs, vampires that spend a lot more time jawing than biting or blood-drinking). Even having a favorite Underworld movie is a wholly pointless endeavor.
Yet, like the Resident Evil movies, the small favors of the series not following an immediate downward slope after the first entry and not gussying itself up as a major event earn it an inordinate line of credit. Many of the filmmakers behind the Underworld pictures moonlight (or work day jobs) as effects or props workers on bigger-ticket Roland Emmerich blockbusters, which have made wads of cash swelling B-movies up to A-list campaigns. In contrast with those would-be extravaganzas, the pleasures of leather-clad killing machine Kate Beckinsale and black-and-white-and-blue cinematography are disreputable and minor, to be sure—but then, that’s how B-movies operate. They don’t endure because they’re necessary, but because they’re on cable or in movie theaters in January, or because the lead actor likes the money. And over time, some junk food turns to comfort food.
1. Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans (2009)
2. Underworld: Evolution (2006)
3. Underworld: Blood Wars (2017)
4. Underworld: Awakening (2012)
5. Underworld (2003)