Underworld: Blood Wars (2016)

JANUARY 7, 2017

GENRE: VAMPIRE, WEREWOLF
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

A week or so ago, I pointed out how the last time a new Underworld movie came out (2012's Awakening), there was no such thing as Thursday evening shows for the new movies - if you didn't want to deal with going over the more crowded weekend, you had to go at midnight, which was difficult for me given my well-documented battle with Cinesomnia. So, now that Thursday night shows at 730 or so is the norm, I was excited that I'd be able to watch Underworld: Blood Wars at a normal time, before I get real sleepy and end up being more confused with these movies than I am when wide awake. Alas, for whatever reason, Sony seems hellbent on burying this one - not only did they not have much of a marketing campaign for it (I've seen next to no posters/billboards around town - that town being Los Angeles), but they also skipped the Thursday shows entirely, with only a handful of theaters opting for an old-school midnight showing. I even went to a theater that had a 7:45 showing listed, only to be told it was pulled, disappointing me, my friend, and (this made me sad) a dad and his two teen sons who all showed up expecting to enjoy the latest round of vamp v. wolf action.

Now I'm sure there are complicated and possibly even legitimate reasons for this, but to the above-average moviegoer (i.e. the people that go to the early shows on Thursday night), this suggests that they're trying to hide the film, a bizarre course of action for a franchise entry. Even if they thought it was a stinker, why make it seem like one by hiding it from the people who probably wouldn't care much about what critics think anyway? Especially for a series that's on a high; while the last one cost more than usual, it also MADE more than usual - nearly $200m worldwide. A franchise hitting highs with its 4th entry is pretty rare, so while I don't get why they dilly-dallied making the next one (the five year gap is the longest for this usually "every three years" series), I'm more confused that they seem to be content with letting it wither and die, even with yet another cliffhanger ending that sets up the already promised sixth entry. Will it actually happen?

Based on the box office so far (which I finally got to add to, by myself, on Saturday), I wouldn't exactly hold my breath, though the reduced budget means they might be able to justify another in the same ball park if they can play up the "final chapter" element (as Resident Evil is currently doing) and sell another batch of boxed set Blu-rays (maybe even 4K ones - who wouldn't want that for Kate in her leather suit?). If this turns out to be the last we see of the Lycan vs Death Dealer battle, at least it goes out on a relative high, in that it follows Underworld series tradition of being better in some areas than its immediate predecessor while lacking in others, making a ranking of the franchise - a time honored tradition for any horror series - rather difficult. If I absolutely had to rank them right now, it'd be something like Evolution > Awakening > Blood Wars > Lycans > original, but that could completely change depending on my mood (though I suspect the original will always be at the bottom, given its punishing length and lack of any good action scenes). They each offer something I like while frustrating me in other ways, unlike most franchises where I can clearly peg which ones I love and which ones I don't. For Underworld, they're all... not bad!

So what does this one offer that the others don't? For starters: SWORD FIGHTS! OK, that's not really new - Rise of the Lycans had them, but this is the first time they've used them in the present day, when they had their machine guns and what not at their disposal. They still have the guns of course, but it's fun seeing Charles Dance aka Tywin Lannister getting in on the action in a manner Game of Thrones never afforded him, as he was always just sitting around killing people with his words instead of weapons. Speaking of Thrones, they seem to be influenced a lot by the show; not only does it have other actors from it (new bad guy Marius is played by Tobias Menzies, aka Edmure Tully, and one of the vamp elders is played by Sam's dad), but a new character looks and acts exactly like Jamie, and there are seemingly more political chess-playing maneuvers than usual. But fear not, for those who find Thrones too talky - there's still plenty of violence to enjoy between conversations, and thankfully it's not all just "Selene vs whoever else" this time around. Even the gun action is stepped up a bit; there's a pretty great bit where a vamp and a lycan (in human form) are firing machine guns at each other as they walk toward one another, eventually riddling each other with bullets from only a few feet apart while barely flinching - it's laughable but in that awesome kind of way, not unlike the Fast & Furious guys defying gravity and what not. Selene also gets a pretty good fight on an ice lake with another giant Lycan, slightly more satisfying than the parking garage one she had in the fourth movie.

And that's the other thing that I liked more about this one than Awakening - it's been largely shed of that one's overly stylish, futuristic decor, largely due to the return to Europe for filming as opposed to the previous film's Canadian production. While I can appreciate a fresh look (it certainly helps to know which one you're watching), when I rewatched Awakening the other day I couldn't help but think it felt like a half-assed attempt to make it feel like a Resident Evil film, with all the secret labs and evil scientists running shady corporations. This one returns to the Gothic feel of the first two entries; set in the modern day but letting its characters favor old compounds and castles instead of bland looking office buildings. A good chunk of the action takes place at a coven that was set up by Amelia back in the day (which, for this series, means the 13th century), and then later Selene and David (Theo James) travel to an even older area that's hidden in this world's version of Siberia (guessing, since we see the Northern Lights as they make their way there and it's in an ice-covered area). Modern tech shows up when necessary - a car, a security system, etc. - but otherwise this feels like they wanted to return to the "old and new" feel of the original, as opposed to the last one's "just new" look.

However, they also shed something else from Awakening - its characters. David and his father return, but Eve and Sebastian are gone, and in the latter's case he isn't even mentioned (when we last saw him he was fending off attackers to buy Selene and Co. some time, so I guess he's just dead). As for Eve, it's not clear how they got separated - since it took five years I guess they felt they couldn't just pick right up where Awakening left off with a new actress for Eve (even though they'll replace Scott Speedman...?), but since the plot revolves around the Lycans hunting Selene to get a hold of her, it's very odd that their separation is left so vague. Selene keeps denying that she knows where Eve is, and we're not even sure if she's lying or not because it's not clear how they got split to begin with. The film doesn't pick up x number of years later, best I can tell, but it still feels like I missed a movie in between that detailed a. how Eve and Selene got split and b. where all of the new enemies came from, as they're kind of established as big players right off the bat. I mean, both races are dying out, shouldn't there be few surprises concerning this kind of thing? Wouldn't they already all know about this Marius guy (the new Lycan villain) at the end of Awakening if he was such an important factor now, a couple days later?

Then again, this helps keep the plot more streamlined and thus easy to follow, so if you skipped Awakening you wouldn't be as completely lost as someone who, say, watched Evolution without seeing the original. As always there's a recap of the whole thing at the top, given by a bored sounding Beckinsale, so as long as you see that and have some passing knowledge of the series, you should be fine. Characters occasionally say aloud things that they both know for our benefit, just to make sure everyone's up to speed, but really the whole thing boils down to what the title promises - blood. The Lycans want Eve's blood, the bad guy vampires want Selene's blood, and that's pretty much it. Every 15-20 minutes we get another big action scene, a traitor or two will be exposed (the trailer gave away the biggest, but thankfully it's an "end of act one" twist so ultimately not a big deal), and Kate Beckinsale will wrap her legs around the world's luckiest Eastern European stuntman when she takes him down - it's pretty much status quo for the Underworld series.

That is, until the 3rd act (SPOILERS AHEAD! Skip this paragraph if you don't want to know the context of why she has lighter hair in the film's poster), when Selene is killed and revived by a group of vampires who are tuned into some witch type powers, including the ability to teleport. The revival makes her become one of them, so now she can zip around like Jason Voorhees in Manhattan, adding to her already impressive stable of superpowers. This gives her renewed value in the vampire world, to the extent that they make her an elder at the end - it almost seems like a way to set up a future where Beckinsale's presence is reduced in favor of "on the ground" participants in this endless war? I can almost see her making a cameo in an Underworld TV show pilot just like Sam Jackson did for Agents of Shield, or taking the "and" role in the next film as new heroes take the spotlight. I mean, she's basically invincible at this point, so they almost have to scale her back somehow to keep it fresh/interesting. The film moves along just fine without her for that 15-20 minute chunk where she's "dead", and I actually liked Lycans a lot when I saw it (I only rank it low now because it's really dull on the action front, giving it very little rewatch value), so as much as I love the woman I don't think she needs to be front and center for the Underworld series to sustain itself - but keeping her out entirely would probably be something they'd have to gradually work towards, not introduce out of the blue (indeed, Lycans is the series' lowest-grossing entry, so clearly people want her around).

But even that development doesn't exactly send the film skyrocketing to another level, so ultimately whether or not it has any value depends on how you feel about the others. They're preaching to the choir here at this point; like the Saw franchise, at a certain point they were no longer interested in scoring new fans, just making sure they didn't lose any more of the ones they already had. Die-hards may nitpick about hiccups in the mythology (with the original writers all having since moved on, I'm sure there are some inconsistencies), but for others like me who find them enjoyable enough but probably wouldn't bother reading an official tie-in novel or watching a Kate (or Rhona Mitra)-less TV show, I think it will provide a pretty entertaining 90 minutes at the movies. They still use CGI wolves more often than not (another casualty of Len Wiseman's reduced involvement; say what you will about the guy, but he has a preference for practical FX), and Scott Speedman's absence has yet to be fully resolved (it feels like they keep Michael alive but MIA just in case they can get him back), but overall I had a good time and hope that the 6th film comes to pass. But if it doesn't? I'm sure I'll get over it.

What say you?

P.S. I saw it in 2D, so I dunno how the 3D was, if you were wondering. I will no longer pay extra for it since projection standards are so low around here (indeed, the film did not fill up the screen, either on the sides OR the top/bottom. I complained, but naturally the theater did nothing to fix it.) But I'm guessing that big ice battle looked great.

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