Underworld (Sony Pictures, 2003)

I've always loved monster movies, and as far as I'm concerned, the more monsters, the merrier. Movies like Universal's House of Dracula and House of Frankenstein brought together Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man. I watched them over and over, so when I heard that Underworld pitted vampires against werewolves in a blood feud (not just one or two, but all of them), I could hardly wait. And the tag line, "When the battle begins, which side will you choose?" had me actually considering the pros and cons of each type of creature. I sure didn't want to get mauled, but those vampires are just so cool! And if I became a death dealer, maybe I could wear one of those fantastic rubber jumpsuits. But I digress.

Kate Beckinsale (Pearl Harbor and the soon to be released Van Helsing) plays Selene, a death dealer/vampire assassin trained to hunt down and kill lycans (werewolves). She hunts without question; in fact, she loves her job and worries that there might come a time where she could become "obsolete." Those worries become moot when she meets Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman, Felicity), a human that has caught the eye of the lycans, and whom they believe could change the balance of the feud forever.

Underworld combines the stop-action of The Matrix with good old-fashioned scares. Don't let the "shoot 'em up" trailer trick you into believing this is just another horror movie disguised as an Indiana Jones-like adventure movie (Universal's "remake" of The Mummy, for example). The special effects used in this movie are graphic and shot in close-up. Werewolves maul anyone in their path, and then feed. Characters are shot and then remove their own bullets.

Have I scared you? Grossed you out a little, maybe? Good. I don't want anyone walking into this movie without knowing that it is intense. But there are other emotions at work here, too. When I saw the trailer for this movie, I noticed a connection to a most unlikely source; Romeo and Juliet. Yes, there are star-crossed lovers in this movie. How could a movie about a long-standing blood feud be without them? I don't want to give too much of the movie away (because this sub-plot figures into the overall story), but these lovers made my heart break. This particular storyline does not seem tacked on, but in fact gives you insight into several of the main characters.

Kate Beckinsale does a good job with Selene, but then she's usually running around trying to kill something, so emotional range is not this character's strong point. Indeed, when you are playing the part of a vampire that has spent her considerably long life killing (they aren't considered undead in this mythology), emotions have probably gone by the wayside long ago. Scott Speedman also does a fine job as Michael; as this character spends most of the movie confused and/or freaking out, his emotional range isn't exactly tested either. Sophia Myles (From Hell) and Shane Brolly play vampires who each have their own particular agendas. Michael Sheen (Mary Reilly, The Four Feathers) plays Lucian, the leader of the werewolf clan. He switches emotions with ease, all the while making you understand each shift. Considering he was Kate Beckinsale's partner before she took up with the director during filming, that performance is quite a feat.

Underworld went through several rewrites before coming to the screen. Kevin Grevioux (Men in Black 2) and Len Wiseman began the basic story, with final screenplay credit going to Danny McBride. Kevin Grevioux, a former graduate student in genetic engineering, brings an almost science-fiction feel to this story. He strips away most of the lore and legend that surround these creatures, choosing instead to base the why of their existence on mutated viruses. Vampires and werewolves have intense allergic reactions to sunlight and silver. Vampires can see their reflections. Elder werewolves can change at will. The weapons they use to fight each other are not stakes and silver canes, but bullets filled with irradiated liquid or silver nitrate, respectively. These modern day changes make for a more realistic film.

Carrying on with my ideas on realism, the special effects used in this movie are excellent. CGI is used sparingly, when latex would not be feasible (like showing silver nitrate coursing through a werewolf's bloodstream). In most scenes the werewolves are actors in prosthetics with full makeup. Seeing characters fight it out mano a mano is much more satisfying than the current "watch the tennis ball on a stick" school of CGI choreography that is so popular today. The time and effort the various crews put in shows on the screen. I haven't enjoyed werewolves this much since Rick Baker's special effects work (and David Naughton's performance) in An American Werewolf In London. The vampire transformations are subtle, which make an effective counterpoint to the shocking changes the werewolves go through. Some of the vampires have problems with enunciation, but I would too with the dental molds they have to wear. And if you think the vampire costumes seem a bit familiar, it's because costume designer Wendy Partridge also worked on Blade II.

This is director Len Wiseman's first motion picture. His prior efforts have been in the music industry, directing videos for En Vogue and Rufus Wainwright, among others. He takes music video stylings and puts them to good use in this film. The pace is rapid, the close-ups effective, and there is just enough back story to make you want to know more about these characters. The film is shot in various tones of blue, grey, brown and black, which sets the mood and hides much of the Hungarian surroundings, giving the film an "Any City, Anywhere" feel. The only complaint I have is with the musical score. It seems as though techno was used as background for a good part of the movie, but instead of using the actual melody that could pull you in to the story, there are repetitive booms and thumps that can be a bit distracting. I've listened to the soundtrack, and maybe it's that the music they used just isn't that great.

This movie feels like the beginning of a franchise. There is a lot of exposition in this film, and sometimes the film feels a bit rushed because of it. Characters are introduced, then pushed aside so more characters can be introduced. Kevin Grevioux's Raze suffers from this; he's no more than the Big Bad Wolf. And with the possibility of franchise comes the inevitable fast-cut "guess what?" ending that you can spot a mile off. But it is a compelling story nonetheless. The film's theme of intolerance leading to disaster could be used in a multi-movie story arc, or put to good use in the graphic novel format. In fact, it is my understanding that this film will become a graphic novel. If so I'm all for it. Inside this good-time monster mash is a compelling story that I'm interested in following all the way through.

[Denise Dutton]

The official movie site allows you to choose a side in the war, submit vampire
or lycan sightings, and allows you to download a game module,
Underworld Bloodline
(rated M for mature players).
No word on where I can get a rubber jumpsuit. Guess it's for the best.