Movie Review: Approaching UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING from the Uninitiated's Perspective

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When I learned I would be reviewing Underworld: Awakening, I toyed with watching the first three Underworld films as preparation (prior to my Awakening screening, I had seen but bits and pieces of Underworlds 1 – 3) but then decided against it.  My reasons were two-fold:  I didn’t think I’d have the time to watch the whole series in a week (my movie-watching schedule was already replete with other movies to watch), and I suspected that I wouldn’t miss out on complexities of character and narrative if I skipped doing my homework first.  These movies aren’t Shakespearian tragedies; end of the day, it’s vampires and werewolves finding ever more creative ways to mutilate one another.

I think I made the right decision.

For all its flaws, Underworld: Awakening‘s biggest one is that it didn’t inspire me to run out and devour the three preceding entries.  I didn’t fall in love with the world created by series architects Kevin Grevioux, Len Wiseman, and Danny McBride (note: Not the same guy who plays Kenny Powers), either as a highly artistic film experience or as a junky-but-entertaining action romp.  Underworld: Awakening is just there.  It’s gleefully bloody action spread across a whole lot of po’ faced exposition, and I felt no wiser or dumber after it washed over me.  Maybe the rest of the franchise works better than this one does; if so, please let me know in the comments below.  I’m not too big to admit when I’m wrong – I can see where starting at Part 4 in a four-part story could be misguided.

But judging the merits of Awakening alone, I’m going to chalk the experience up to a “missed opportunity.”  From what I gather of the other Underworld pictures, at least the initial hook is semi-inspired (note: using “Inspired” with regard to summer blockbuster-type movies means Said SBTM has the good sense to rip off material better than it will ever be).  In the midst of a centuries-long war between Lycans (werewolves) and vampires, vampire soldier Selene (Kate Beckinsale, trading her quirky looks and subtle acting charms for skin-tight leather and dual .45s) falls in love with a human (Scott Speedman) marked by the Lycans.  It’s Romeo and Juliet with warring vampires and werewolf, no? I get the appeal – the love that cannot be, told for the Fangoria crowd.

Well, Underworld: Awakening puts the kibosh on that story in its first two minutes.  I won’t go into spoiler-heavy details, but there’s a reason this movie stars Kate Beckinsale and not Kate Beckinsale AND Scott Speedman.  So, the Romeo and Juliet thing is gone, but I’ll chalk that problem up to me and no one else: if I’d wanted to see that take, I would’ve watched the previous flicks.

Awakening, then, offers a different setup.  The secret vampire-werewolf war has gone public (hard to imagine that their conflict was ever private, considering their primary means of combat include messily rending one another limb-from-limb and then firing off copious rounds of high-velocity ammo, but I digress), with humans ethnically cleansing both species, and Selene lies imprisoned in a cryogenic sleep.  Someone (or…something.  God, I’ve always wanted to say that!) frees her, and – naturally disturbed at the state of world affairs – tries to find new allies while warding off threats from humans, Lycans, and duplicitous vamps.

You might think this scenario would make for interesting drama.

You would be wrong.

From the jump, everyone’s motives are so unclear.  Selene reacts like a feral animal after she escapes cryo stasis, and while it’s cool/hot to see Beckinsale slashing through wholescale human flesh like it’s her job, the volume of faceless drones she kills makes her a tad unsympathetic.  The filmmakers toss in a walking plot device to soften her (hint: when a man and woman truly love each other, they…), but it’s too little, too late, and what are we left with?  A hunky vampire sidekick (Theo James), Michael Ealy doing his best Tommy-Lee-Jones-from-The-­Fugitive impression, and a twist involving Stephen Rea’s tortured scientist that will only surprise anyone who’s never seen a movie before.  It’s just…meh.

The lone plus is that Underworld: Awakening isn’t abysmally wretched.  The thing has a lot of gore effects and decent action scenes and a blessedly short runtime – only eighty-nine minutes, and that’s including credits.  But as I watched this thing unspool, I couldn’t help but wonder how Underworld: Awakening might have played with a different director at the helm, one whose qualifications far exceed the material.  It’s a game I play sometimes; would a mediocre movie still be mediocre with a genius director (as opposed to Underworld noobs MÃ¥rlind & Stein)?  I kept thinking, “Underworld: Awakening – Directed by Martin Scorsese” or “Underworld: Awakening – Directed by Steven Spielberg” or “Underworld: Awakening – Directed by Wes Anderson.”  And I realized, if I’m that fascinated in the Earth-2 version of the film, then the Earth-1 version might be more deficient than I thought.

How’s this for a new tagline: “Underworld: Awakening – When Meh Doesn’t Cut It.”

I can’t complain about the A/V, which provides razor-sharp digital picture and a clear, aggressive 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.  Better still are the extras: an informative commentary (with the directors, producers, and the VFX supervisor); five solid making-of featurettes (“Selene Rises,” “Casting the Future of Underworld,” “Resuming the Action,” “Awakening a Franchise, Building a Better World,” and “Building a Better Lycan”); a blooper reel; and a great PiP viewing mode.  Only the lame Lacey Sturm music video disappoints.  The set also comes with a UV digital copy.

You know what?  If you like the series, check this one out.  It seems sufficiently Underworld-y enough, and the Blu-ray is great on all fronts. I’m just a newbie with no frame of reference.

So there.

Underworld: Awakening is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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