JANUARY 20, 2012
It’s ironic, I went back and read my review of the 2nd film before heading out to see Underworld: Awakening, which was written as an open letter to director Len Wiseman*. In it, I pointed out that I think he’s a pretty good director (on a visual level), but shouldn’t be allowed to write the scripts. And yet, on this film he is given screenwriting credit (amongst others, including J. Michael Straczynski) while others direct, and yet it’s the best of the “Selene Trilogy” - which completely negates my theory. I’m not sure if I liked it more than Lycans; I’d have to sit down and watch them all to re-assess, but it delivered what I wanted from the first two films. And in 3D!
Actually, the 3D was the only real letdown. It was a native 3D film, not a post-convert (if it was I wouldn’t have bothered; there was a 2D option as well), but at times it almost seemed like it WAS something that was created later. Not only was it rarely impressive with regards to the depth in a shot (“Comin at ya!” shots – which I largely hate – were used sparingly), but it had a number of elements that seemed exaggerated, which is a frequent problem with the converted 3D films I’ve seen. Characters often seem too far apart, elements blend together as if they weren’t separated, etc. They even turn the images on some security monitors into 3D, which doesn’t even make sense.
Otherwise, I was surprised at how enjoyable it was. It largely ditches the convoluted “mythology” of the first two films (and the romantic trappings of all of them) and sticks to a straight up “mission” movie, with Selene and a few other vampires (and one human) connecting with and then having to rescue a young girl who turns out is Selene and Michael’s daughter. The Lycans (werewolves) have her because she shares Michael’s prized DNA as well as Selene’s, making her perfect fodder to experiment with as the Lycans work to eradicate their silver weakness, which will allow them to take over the world. And that’s pretty much it – the movie is only 88 minutes long with credits, and almost never slows down. There’s a bit around the halfway point (maybe further) where Selene actually has a quiet dialogue exchange with someone and I realized that it had been a while since the movie had been quiet enough to hear people talking behind me.
The action is pretty good too, albeit a bit repetitive. The werewolf based fights are a ton of fun (particularly the crazy car chase early on), and the FX continue to impress, but more often than not it’s just Kate (who seems kind of bored this time, admittedly) shooting and diving around anonymous corrupt cops/henchman types, which gets a bit monotonous after a while (and I swear, if you drink every time she drops into frame from above, you’ll be dead before the movie is over). And these guys never stand a chance (unlike the giant werewolves), so it’s like a Jackie Chan movie where the guys keep getting their asses handed to them but still stand around and fight him one at a time, except without his movies’ sense of humor. There are a couple of moments that made me laugh (mostly involving Eve, the vampy daughter), but as usual the creative team seems pretty serious about their vampire vs. werewolf movies. Or, people vs. werewolf movies - Kate also doesn’t get to show her vamp side nearly enough, though when it DOES appear it’s pretty dang awesome. Quality over quantity!
One thing in its favor was the way that the story branched out. With Viktor, Lucian, etc, all dead, it’s time for new villains, and they stick to series tradition by hiring actors who you don’t expect to find in FX heavy horror movies: Stephen Rea and Charles Dance, specifically. Dance only appears in two scenes (guessing he’ll be more prominent in the 5th film if one comes to pass), but Rea is in it quite a bit as the head scientist of the evil werewolf-run lab. His transformation is kept until the climax, but it’s worth the wait – his design is a bit different than the others; much scarier in fact. The Michael storyline is kept to a minimum; Scott Speedman wasn’t asked to return but they got some guy that looks almost sort of nothing like him at all (but with the same hair!) to appear in the few scenes that he was needed. In other words, if you haven’t seen the others, you won’t be lost – if anything you might even be in a better position to enjoy it as the recasting might be too annoying for the die-hard fans. Then again, a newcomer won’t appreciate the little nods to the others; there’s a terrific bit where Selene reprises her famous “shoot in a circle and fall through the floor” bit from the first film, albeit in an inverse way – I cheered and I don’t even like that one!
I also liked that they flashed forward 12 years, and presented the Lycan race as dying – the first few we see are kind of sickly and weak compared to the ones near the end. In fact I could have used more of this stuff; her 12 year coma doesn’t seem to bother her much, and the movie’s pace is too fast to bother much with what might be different about the world now (most of it is addressed in the first reel and then never mentioned again). Then again, at 88 minutes I have to assume the pace was tightened from something a bit more meaty (the first film is just under two hours, for comparison’s sake), so perhaps this stuff was excised since it didn’t have much to do with the main plot – i.e. Kate running around and killing folks/wolves in her attempt to free her daughter from Rea and his cohorts. Still, the little that’s there gives the overall storyline a bit more of a scope – it’s cool to see how their little war has affected the rest of the world.
So it’s hard to tell how fans will react to it. On one hand, Kate is back after sitting the last movie out, and you’d have to be insane not to be interested in watching her do her thing in 3D (one ad even flat out says “Kate Beckinsale In 3D!”). It continues the story of Evolution without demanding that you can remember the details (or even seen it at all – there’s a bit of a “Previously, on Underworld” thing at the top of the movie either way), and opts to stick more with action and FX than scenes of British thespians standing around arguing with each other using silly words. On the other, it unceremoniously drops the 2nd lead from the first two films, and limits Dance’s screentime to almost nothing, which won’t help anyone forget about the great Bill Nighy. And there’s not a lot of vampire action; more often than not it just resembles one of the Resident Evil flicks, in fact (think Alice vs. random Umberella goons), and thus the “dumbed down” approach of this one might be insulting to those who can actually follow the storyline of the first two. So it might appeal more toward those who WEREN’T huge fans of the others instead of those who were. Your call – but unless you’re a total junkie for the format I think I can definitively say that it’s not worth the extra 3 bucks to see it in 3D. That being said, it’s also in IMAX – and I would never dream to suggest it’s not worth a couple extra bucks to gaze upon a 60 foot screen covered with Ms. Beckinsale’s face during her many closeups.
What say you?
*In that same letter to Wiseman I mocked his overuse of blue filters and offered to show him what the color red looked like. So I had to laugh when the logo for the Red camera (which this was shot on) came up… in blue.