Underworld (2003)


*. Underworld was the directorial debut of Len Wiseman, who got his start in the business working as a property assistant (a mainly managerial role in the art department dealing with the physical design of a film). He worked on such blockbusters as Independence Day, Men in Black, and Godzilla. He then worked in advertising and directing music videos before coming to this project.
*. I don’t bring this up as a way of knocking Wiseman but only to indicate that if you knew all this beforehand you’d probably have a pretty good idea what kind of a movie Underworld was going to be and what it would look like. And you might think that what it looked like was the kind of movie it was going to be. Wiseman says at the beginning of his DVD commentary that he set out to make a comic book: “a living, breathing, graphic novel come to life.” It seems like this is something every filmmaker of his generation has aspired to.
*. You would not be disappointed in your comic book expectations. Roger Ebert: “Underworld is all surfaces, all costumes and sets and special effects . . . This is a movie so paltry in its characters and shallow in its story that the war seems to exist primarily to provide graphic visuals.”
*. Things still might have been saved if there’d been something interesting in the production or artistic design of the film, but it all looks so generic it’s almost numbing. And so uninteresting.
*. There was more colour in Sin City. Everything here is blue. The city (unnamed, but the film was shot in Budapest) looks like every other generic grotty urban location in a comic book movie. I suppose it’s Gotham. The buildings are all large and empty. The streets have nobody in them. Indeed, after the opening battle sequence, do we see any characters aside from Michael’s doctor friend, who isn’t an immortal? And did I mention everything is blue?
*. I had some hopes that something interesting might be made out of the premise. Werewolves vs. Vampires. The werewolves are grungy gangsters living underground. The vampires are hoity-toity types who live in a mansion. Class warfare?
*. No. Not really. In fact, not at all. Nothing as interesting as that. Or as interesting as a toothy version of Romeo and Juliet. Just the usual monster brawl, which was not a new sub-genre. Apparently the working titles for House of Dracula (1945) were Dracula vs. the Wolf Man or The Wolf Man vs. Dracula. But those ensemble monster movies were never that interested in having the monsters actually fight each other. We had to wait for that.
*. Some people enjoyed the fantasy mythology. I thought it seemed canned and Young Adult in the worst way. Have you noticed how the word “mythology” is now used for any movie like this that really doesn’t have anything you might think of as a story? It’s like the Alien mythology or the Marvel Universe.
*. After about thirty minutes I was bored out of my skull. There are no surprises. What? You mean Kraven is a traitor as well as a wimp? Well, I never would have guessed with a name like that.
*. For a straight-up action movie I didn’t think the combat scenes were very impressive. Lots of expensive ammunition is fired off (ultraviolet bullets to kill vampires, silver nitrate for the pack), but neither side are much good at hitting anything. There isn’t a lot of hand-to-hand fighting and what we do get tends to rely on harness work. Wiseman also seems to want to still be doing music videos given how some of the scenes play out.
*. Kate Beckinsale looks like a fetish model. Scott Speedman looks like a male model for just about anything sexy (fashion, cologne, hair products, whatever). They are obviously meant for each other because they have lovely long locks of hair that fall over their faces in the same way.
*. Bill Nighy went from playing Viktor here to playing Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. I wonder if he enjoys spending that much time in a make-up chair.
*. Hard to believe it’s two hours long for so little material. And they didn’t even wrap things up at the end! All this sound and fury just to set up a bunch of sequels!
*. The only place for Universal to go after the chaos of House of Dracula was into parody with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Underworld instead took as its selling point its seriousness. This allowed it to become a franchise that is, as of this writing, still going strong. Will the vampyres and lycans keep fighting each other for another thousand years? Damn their immortal hides.


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