Surprisingly good horror-action film from a first-time director. 8.5 out of 10

Title: Underworld
Where: Balmoral Cinemas, Screen 7, Queensland, Australia
When: 26 January 2004 – 9:20pm

I went into this film with very low expectations. The seen-too-often trailers for Underworld, with their Matrix-style slow-motion acrobatic gun battles and cast members strutting around wearing black clothing of various tightness and glossiness, made the film seem so preposterously pompous and self-consciously cool that I was sure it was going to be a silly, silly film and a drag to watch.

Crowd-Pleaser from First-Timer

Yet tonight when I finally went to see it I found that the film was an enjoyable romp that held my attention throughout, with engaging performances from the leads and the support cast, great visuals, confident and creative direction, and a cute twist on well-established horror story-lines. That I enjoyed it so much is saying something, as Underworld was the last film I saw in a three-movie marathon. If only the second and third Matrix films’ scripts and direction had moved along like Underworld’s they would have been better films. Underworld is director Len Wiseman’s first feature, after directing music videos and working in the Art Department on the films Independence Day (1996) and Stargate (1994). He gives his film terrific visual flair and consistency of design (almost too consistent), and gets great stuff from his actors. I found his extreme close ups on actors faces at crucial moments quite effective, and really appreciated the way he kept things moving along at a fast pace – there were no groaners in this film. Danny McBride’s screenplay was remarkably tight given the number of fingers in the story (his own, the director’s, and Kevin Grevioux’s (who also played the rumble-voiced Raze in the film) – and they’re just the contributors that the WGA lets us know about). The story never let us know too much too soon, and never got in the way of the action.

Vamps Kill Werewolves

The central premise of Underworld, which combined vampires and werewolves in a fairly unusual way, was revealed in stages and was different and interesting enough that it isn’t a let down in itself, as is so often the case in these films (it appears that there is some legal action from a games company called White Wolf and a novelist claiming that the filmmakers stole the basic story and characters from their game/novel – we shall see if the lawsuit is successful). In any event, the film did not spend much time on plot, and even less on romance, thankfully. There were some small plot holes in the film – the usual sort of “Why didn’t he do that before?” or “Just how many bullets in one load?” kinds of things, but far less than most action films these days. About the only one that struck me was when I noticed that there were male and female vampires, but only male werewolves – it must be lonely to be a werewolf (it looks like the Underworld sequels will feature female werewolves). The action sequences, which despite all the fashion glamour are what audiences are really watching for, were creatively set up, tightly edited, and generally original – no one expects realism in a film like this. They contained too much slow-motion for my taste, but a lot less of it than many other films (and I seem to be in the minority in thinking too much over-cranking slows down action sequences). The sound effects were perfectly over-the-top, which suited the larger-than-life nature of the film.

The 20-Watt Look

So much of the colour has been drained away that the film is almost black and white throughout, but this worked I guess – even if it was a bit bleak after a while. The film’s look was very dark and high contrast, which is fine in itself (no one wants all films to be bright and high-key all the time) but I felt Underworld went a bit too far at times. The dark look of the film made sense in locations like alleys at night or vampire mansions, but even the scenes within a modern hospital were made to look quite dark – which made little sense and popped me out of the reality of the film. In several scenes I almost expected to hear minor characters say something like, “You know, this would be a lot easier if someone could please turn on a bloody light!“, and in at least one scene Selene (Kate Beckinsale) did turn on a ceiling light and it made such a small difference to the light levels in the room it made me laugh out loud. No one can afford a higher-wattage bulb?! But maybe it’s just me.

Shrink-Wrapped Kate

There was a similar uniformity to the colours of the costumes, which while interesting in themselves seemed to be chosen from a very limited range of very dark colours. It’s one thing to expect me to believe that vampires and werewolves like to wear black and/or goth outfits all the time – but even most members of the public seemed to be wearing dark clothing. And then there was Seline’s costume. Seline’s costume. Can one call a figure-hugging shiny-black leather (or is it PVC?) outfit a costume? In most shots it looked so tight it appeared to have been sprayed on Ms Beckinsale’s tiny body. As an audience member, I’m not complaining about the vision of Kate Beckinsale dealing death while wearing a cat-suit that leaves little to the imagination, but you know you’re getting old when you find yourself wondering things like “How does she get in an out of that thing for a quick trip to the bathroom?” or “What’s she like to be around after a sweaty night of werewolve-killing?”. Pew.

Good Fun

Still, this is nitpicking a film that was, to my surprise, genuinely enjoyable. Anyone who likes the look and gun-play of the Matrix, and who can suspend their disbelief long enough to swallow vampires battling werewolves, will enjoy Underworld. I think the filmmakers knew they were on to a good thing when they made it (I have seldom seen such a blatant “There’s going to be a sequal!” film ending in my life), and I expect it will do very well on DVD.

Slick action
Original yet unobtrusive plot
Ms Beckinsale’s suit
Minor plot holes
A bit dark

6 thoughts on “Underworld”

  1. Minor Spoilers ahead:

    In contrast to Skev, I did go to this film expecting a quality vampire vs werewolf action flick and in the end I was slightly disappointed.

    The plot (and especially the historical subplot) in and of itself was refreshing but I felt that it failed to deliver on one or two occasions.


    The biggest feeling of angst came at the climax of the movie where the old vampire lord (Victor) took on the newly created vamp-wolf. So much time and effort had been put into establishing the power and supremacy of this hybrid (pretty much the whole point of the film) that I was a tad miffed when the final battle scene ended with Selene doing the damage where this new creature didn’t have the ability.

    It would have been good to see Michael (Scott Speedman) get hammered a bit by the Vamp-Lord while coming to terms with his new self but in the end giving the Vamp-Lord a good thrashing. For him to show a bit of spirit at the start of the fight but then wimp out half-way through sold the concept of a super-hybrid a bit short.

    On another note, though Kate acted well, I didn’t buy into the ‘assassin’ thing. Maybe it was the way she moved in the action sequences. But something didn’t quite click. It seemed as though she was acting the part, rather than being the part.

    Given the above caveats, I did enjoy the film and thought it was quite well put together. I would give it a 7.5 out of 10.

  2. Thanks for your comments Brendon. I think it’s true that one’s expectations can colour one’s opinion of a film. I was expecting trash so I was pleasantly surprised. You were hoping for something better so were a bit let down. However I don’t disagree with any of your points, so I guess I was just happy not to be insulted yet again by a horror film.

    I agree that the final battle was a bit odd in that the super-hybrid turned out to be a guy painted dark that needed Kate’s help. Maybe he still hasn’t found his vampire/werewolf legs yet – we’ll see what the sequels have in store. And after all the rules about how vampires can be killed, it turns out that a sword through the head will work on a super-powerful old vampire?

    As for Ms Beckinsale’s acting, I thought she was fine – though perhaps I have lower expectations of how someone ahould perform the part of a centuries-old still-sexy PVC-clad werewolf-slayer. Not exactly a part for a method-actor. 🙂

    Skevos Mavros

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  4. Underworld was definitely the best movie that I have ever seen and I love to watch it over and over again. My favorite actor is Scott Speedman

  5. wow this is totally awesome i myslf have seen the movie i really thought it was incredible i really like thought wat if wat if that was really real wat would we do if our world was made up of witches vampire werewolfs ect wat if we were the movies

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