Sunday, January 29, 2012

Movie Review: Underworld: Awakening (2012)

The Underworld series has never been mistaken for good films. Rather, the series is a guilty pleasure for many. The 2003 film is a shameless Blade knockoff, in which a superpowered hero with semi-futuristic equipment battles in a dark world of vampires. This series, rather than focusing on the struggle between humans and vampires, associates with another species that have become known as adversaries of the vampires: werewolves, known as Lycans, short for lycanthropes.

Selene is a vampire- one of the few that's dedicated her entire life as a vampire to killing werewolves. And I say “life” intentionally- the Underworld mythology treats vampirism and lycanthropism as forms of immortality, not as a form of undead. It's a moral crusade- up until the end of the first movie, she believes the Lycans to be the cause of the death of her entire family. After 600 years of training and killing them, the instincts and skills become so built into her that she doesn't need a moral crusade to be the best killer of immortals still living.

Before I go into the story, let me explain the series to you. It's not technically a horror series, if nothing I've said has told you that yet. Instead, Underworld is an action series with horror elements. The lighting emphasizes that aspect, keeping everything looking dark, with everything other than the red downplayed. Whether you like that look or think it's a cheap trick, there's no denying the fact that this look makes it clear you're watching vampire scenes.

What can you expect from this series? Well, this brings me back to a text review I somewhat regret back from my early days of reviewing. Why do I regret it? Because this is the one ten out of ten review that I can honestly say does not deserve it. That movie is Aliens vs Predator: Requiem, a movie with bad writing, shallow characters, and a premise that's nothing more than a set up for poorly lit fight scenes and bad special effects. If that turns you off in a horror-themed action movie, Underworld is not for you. When it comes to the writing, different Underworld movies have different strengths and weaknesses, but none of them can be taken entirely seriously. You're watching mindless action and cheesy glory, nothing more. That, and Kate Beckinsale in a black leather jumpsuit.

And that's all these films are marketed for. If you bought these films, you bought them for Kate Beckinsale on the cover. That's why almost no one talks about the prequel.

Speaking of which, I wasn't able to watch the second ans third movies before the new film, due to a misunderstanding on my part. I thought the movie came back a week later than it did, and timed my Netflix queue incorrectly as a result.

Keep in mind, then, that I watched Underworld: Awakening without having seen either Evolution or Rise of the Lycans. I went to this movie having seen headlines of negative reviews and tweets, expecting nothing more than a dumb, cheesy action flick. And that's exactly what I got.

Before I go into spoilers, let me give you a first look at the movie. The script isn't as good- and really, it's better than I'd expect with a screenplay written by a group of four people- but everything else about the movie is pretty much the same. It's desaturated and dark, with an emphasis on action. The sondtrack is great, and for a film that's essentially the action sequences of movies like the Blade and Matrix trilogies strung together, that's an important thing.

Going into this review, the last statement I will make without spoilers is this: if you're a fan of the first two movies, watch this one. In 2-D, if possible; the 3-D adds nothing but dollars to the presentation. If you haven't seen the first one, check that out first, and if you're not a fan at all, avoid this one, because it's more of the same.

The film opens with a recap of the first two films, letting you know who Selene and Michael are. I expect varied opinions on this- on one hand it's helpful to people who haven't seen these movies, on the other hand it's a strong statement that if you haven't seen them, you're not meant to be watching this movie. There used to be a day when a sequel like this would be direct to video, but now, they sell it in 3-D all the same.

We go into news footage that describes humans discovering and killing vampires and werewolves. This is conducted without mercy, and you start to wonder if the question of genocide, racism, and everything else is going to be gone into here, considering that our “good guys” are a vampire and a vampire-Lycan hybrid and that mankind is essentially murdering people for developing a communicable disease.

Other than a few comments by Selene that “humans have found the enemy that they've been looking for”, Underworld knows that its not that kind of movie. This isn't some sort of deep movie about prejudice and motivation and all that- it's a movie about a hot chick in black leather kicking the shit out of people with knives, guns, halberds, and other weapons.

We cut to Selene, a person who's been pushed to her limits, her back against the wall, and has survived being hunted by Lycans and vampires alike, now trying to escape an attack by humans, the dominant species. I say this, not because Selene says anything to look for sympathy, but because I've seen this described as “wanton murder”. Rather than murdering, Selene is a rat, trapped in a corner, biting at the fingers of the homeowner who suddenly decided to stop abiding her presence and has decided to smash her and throw her broken body in the trash can. The fingers she happens to bite are the members of the task force that was sent to kill her. She bites them by breaking them.

Selene almost makes it, but her lumbering, non-combatant lover has been tracked down by humans who want to capture him. Or at least, they mention wanting to capture him, but once he's in their sites, they shoot him and then drop a bomb on him.

The next time we see Selene, twelve years have passed, and the world has moved to state of just enough 3-D to justify the glasses charge. Throughout her escape, she's not only seeing through the eyes of someone else on occasion, but she's also aware that she was freed by another prisoner- a hybrid. Naturally, she makes the same assumption as the audience, and when she hunts down and interrogates an employee of the lab that she was kept at, she asks only questions that support that assumption.Not surprisingly , when Selene finally tracks down the hybrid she's been following, it's... not Michael at all.

Enter Subject 2, Selene's daughter. But first, we meet another vampire, a disenfranchised twenty- or thirty-something youth named David with no last name, who's tired of hiding from humans and welcomes the Death Dealer as a breath of new life into the coven.

After a chase scene in which twelve year old Subject 2 not only reveals her identity, but also her ability to pulls skulls apart with her bare hands after she's left alone to deal with a Lycan who's trying to kill her, we're taken to a vampire coven where a cheap Bela Lugosi impersonator berates his son for bringing a Lycan-lover and a hybrid into their home. They reveal that Selene's daughter has never fed on blood, hence her severely weakened healing factor, and plan for Selene to leave as soon as her daughter is able.

Naturally, the humans who are hunting after River- I mean, Selene's daughter- show up to attack the coven. But wait... humans aren't normally that hairy!

No, they're Lycans, and not just any Lycans, but the troll from Fellowship of the Ring has been turned as well. That's the only way that this giant video game boss makes sense, right? One of the great weaknesses of the first film was potentially great effects that were terribly executed. In Awakening, this is the ultimate example of that. Admittedly, the effects on this movie as a whole don't look like they have the same potential as they did in the first film, but I still maintain that if they had some grasp on subtlety, this creature would look a little more believable.

Selene gets her ass kicked, and Lugosi-lite gives away her daughter. For about the fifth or sixth time, she talks with Lugosi-lite about the difference between hiding and fighting back, before ripping off The Matrix: Reloaded and raising David from the dead as though that proves her point. Selene then hunts down a cop who has no intention of trying to fight her and together finding a massive Lycan conspiracy.

That's right, once again, a trusted leader of the hunting species is collaborating with the Lycans to hide the fact that, far from being extinct, they're stronger than ever. Also, everybody who runs a big lab is an evil mad scientist. Has there ever been a movie where the guy who owns the big scientific corporation was actually a good guy, or at least a guy doing morally grey things for misguided yet altruistic reasons?

Trinity storms the building where Morpheus is being held and starts killing Lycans and security guards left and right. The climax ensues, and no, we don't get any more character development for anyone, but we do get a lot of badassery and a revelation that, if Scott Speedman is down for it, there will be an Underworld 5.

Was there really any doubt?

If you haven't gotten it yet, the real reason to watch Underworld: Awakening is for Kate Beckinsale kicking ass and taking names- and the thing about Beckinsale's character, she's not known for carrying a pen and a notepad.

The characters aren't really developed, and you're required to empathize with their situation in order to really feel anything for them. Personally, I was kind of waiting for the cop and David to both be deaded so that only Selene and her daughter survived for the sequel, but I guess now she plans to lead the vampires into a revival.

The Underworld series is the Western world's tokusatsu, and it's no more apparent than in this movie. We have a girl in a costume (we actually see her sort of change into it in this one) kicking ass, and that's all we need. If that's all you want to see, watch this movie.

I don't recommend paying $5 extra to see this with sunglasses on, though.

Bill Silvia is a regular contributor at Fantasy & SciFi Lovin' News & Reviews. To see his video review of Underworld and Underworld Awakening, visit www.MiBreviews.com.

2 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

I like these ok. I certainly don't remember the details a few days after I've seen them but while I'm watching them I'm good.

Jamie Gibbs said...

You're absolutely right, they're a guilty pleasure. I need to watch Rise of the Lycans too, but I think I'll see Awakening in the cinema too :)