This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
When I went to see Underworld: Awakening with Dan and Kyra I made sure to manage my expectations accordingly. All the Underworld films are incredibly stupid, but the previous one was stupid in a way which threatened to cease being fun, degenerating into a dreary exercise of sleepwalking through backplot which everyone even mildly interested in the film already knew back to front. The problem they had, of course, was that with the first two movies they more or less ran out of plot, so a continuation of the series would need to find some way to disrupt the status quo reached by the end of Underworld: Evolution.
This is adequately achieved in the first ten minutes of Awakening, in which we get a brief action-packed rundown of the first two films, then a tense action sequence to establish the new reality our protagonists are dealing with and depict the events which took them out of action, and then follows that up immediately with yet another action sequence in which our hero escapes captivity to find her world has changed utterly. If you’re thinking “wow, that’s a lot of action sequences”, you’d be correct: of all four Underworld movies, this one has by far the greatest emphasis on action and the least talky bits of any of them.
Here’s the deal: vampire assassin Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and Michael, her vampire-werewolf hybrid love interest (played by Scott Speedman in the first two films, and by some random stand-in who looks nothing like Scott Speedman for the brief seconds he appears here) thought that with the destruction of the vampire and woofle elders that their troubles would be over – but oh, wouldn’t you know it, someone fucked up and revealed the existence of vamps and woofs to humanity. A global campaign of genocide ensues, like White Wolf always told us would happen if the Masquerade were broken, and within a decade the two species have been driven to the brink of extinction – or so the general public believes.
Selene, for her part, has been out of the action for twelve years – both Michael and her were ambushed and overcome by monster-killing squads during the purges, and Selene has been kept frozen and under observation in the headquarters of the mysterious Antigen corporation, the premier institution researching the whole “immortal monsters live among us” deal. When one of the other test subjects escapes and activates the defrost process in as part of that, Selene escapes, and believing that the other test subject was Michael sets off to track them down – aided by the psychic connection which allows her to see through her fellow escapee’s eyes when in close proximity. As it turns out, it’s not Michael, but Eve (India Eisley), the daughter of Selene and Michael who was born whilst they were both in cryogenic suspension – and because of her super hybrid powers (which include the ability to rip werewoof heads apart with her bare hands), the Antigen corporation wants her back badly. Allying herself with David (Theo James), a vampire frustrated with his coven’s insistence on skulking and hiding in the shadows instead of fighting back, and Detective Sebastian (Michael Ealy), a cop on the
Blade Runner vamps-and-woofs unit who suspects the official story about the purges is a cover-up, Selene goes into battle to rescue Eve from her captors. Whilst wearing skin-tight latex.
As you’ll know if you’ve had even momentary contact with the first two films, it’s the last bit which is really important. To a great extent, the Underworld films are eye candy movies, though this time around I didn’t notice much in the way of male eye candy – Theo James gets his shirt off once, briefly, and Kris Holden-Reid who plays the super-woofle has a few shirtless shots, but they don’t deliver the goods with the success of shirtless Scott Speedman from the first two movies, or even shirtless Michael Sheen from Rise of the
Lycans Woof-Woofs. (Then again I’m not the target audience for shirtless men so perhaps others should comment on this aspect.)
I guess the filmmakers this time were just pleased to get Kate Beckinsale back and so decided to spend a lot of time focusing on her. This is not without precedent. Len Wiseman’s direction in the first two films revolved around his appreciation for Kate’s buttocks, which makes them a curious reflection of the development of the personal relationship between them; the ass shots in the first film tend to consist of sneaking glances, the directoral gaze noticing Kate and momentarily checking her out before getting back to business, whilst when Evolution swung around Wiseman and Beckinsale had got married and so Wiseman allows his gaze to linger a bit more.
This time around, Wiseman isn’t directing, delegating the task to Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, but he’s a producer on the project so I guess on the whole he’s chill about Mårlind and Stein directing like two guys who are completely bowled over by how attractive their boss’s wife is and lack the tact to hide it. Standout scenes include a bit with Kate crawls down an air vent with the camera mere inches behind her, and a part where she kills a werewoof with poledancing moves. Part of the point of the movie seems to be to say “Kate Beckinsale: check her out, she’s totally hot and she’s still a viable action movie heroine, call her agent if you want to know more”.
Viewers who are left cold by the directoral emphasis on how sexy Kate is might find solace in the directoral emphasis on how incredibly violent Selene and her allies are. In the first two films you could watch them for a while and almost forget that Selene is meant to be a vampire – she nibbles on Scott Speedman momentarily but doesn’t make a big deal of it. Not this time, folks; this time around, when you push Selene, there’s a decent chance of you getting drained. In the opening quarter of an hour she kills more human beings than she did in the first two films, at least one of whom she outright murders in cold blood despite him posing no threat to her. Eve is no slouch either, and is responsible for two of the most brutal kills in the film, and the CGI woofs are actually more realistic and less stiff than the guys in woof suits from the first movie. On the whole, the fight choreography is the best the series has seen so far, and on top of that the adamant refusal to use shaky-cam means you can actually follow what is going on. The stunts are cool too – there’s one nice callback to the first movie where Selene is at the bottom of an elevator shaft with the elevator falling on her, and she survives by shooting a circular hole in the bottom of the elevator and positioning herself so that she goes through the hole, which is like the best stunt in the first movie in reverse.
We opted to watch the film in 3D, and I found it a much better experience than the Conan remake. Awakening has the advantage that unlike Conan the Barbarian, it was filmed in 3D from the get-go rather than having 3D added in post-production, and apparently this helps; on top of that, Wikipedia informs me that they used a new type of camera technology to record it which might have helped too. Either way, the 3D effect worked much better – I could focus on more objects on the screen, fast-moving things didn’t break the illusion, and in general I could follow what was going on much better.
On the whole, then Awakening is a visual feast. There is a lot of titillation, there is a lot of violence, there’s a bunch of stunts, and there is some pretty crazy gore in there; if you like at least two of those things and at least tolerate the others you’ll probably find something to enjoy in its Matrix-revival aesthetic, and indeed it does all four of those better than the previous movies (with the exception of providing hot menz without shirtz, which it seems a little light on compared with the smorgasboard of female latex arse presented).
That’s good, because as expected the actual plot this time around is laughably bad.
Len Wiseman and John Hlavin put together the story for this one and also get scriptwriting credits, though in the latter case I suspect that’s down to the directors (as has been reported) phoning Len and asking for help with the script, which wasn’t actually finished in time for filming to start. Also contributing to the script are Allison Burnett… and a certain J. Michael Straczynski of Babylon 5 fame. This might go some way to explaining why the script has so much exposition in it – clumsy, ham-fisted, cludgy exposition, just like a first season Babylon 5 episode.
Take the example of Lida (Sandrine Holt), the doctor who was responsible for supervising Eve until she got old enough for Antigen’s sinister purposes, and has ended up caring for her and seeing as a human being instead of a mere test subject. The only reason we know any of this is because it all comes out in cack-handed exposition from her boss, the villainous Dr. Lane (Jacob Rea) in the two scenes she appears in briefly. (To be fair, it’s possible there were more scenes with Lida which were cut – at about 88 minutes long, this is the shortest Underworld movie to date, and I rather suspect there’s been some pretty severe editing done on it.) In fact, more or less every scene Dr. Lane is in before the climactic attack on Antigen seems to involve him expositing his little heart out; there’s a bit where he carefully recounts his recent family history to his own son, who was present for all of it.
In addition to this, the script not only flagrantly abuses genetic science, but it abuses it in a way which looks stupid even when you put it next to the way Hollywood usually misuses it. I don’t mind when films get aspects of science which are not widely understood by the general public wrong, and ultimately any film set in a speculative fiction genre needs to have some licence to handwave this stuff. However, once certain concepts reach a certain level of pervasiveness in your target audience it just becomes silly to present depictions of science which fly in the face of them. Unless someone was deliberately going for a cosmology radically different from our own universe for the purpose of a fantasy film, you wouldn’t see a movie depict the Sun as being significantly smaller than the Earth, because whilst some people may not know how stupid that looks, enough people do know that it’d make the film look daft.
So, it turns out that Antigen this time around raised Eve from infancy so they could “harvest her genetic material” in order to use it to make an army of super-monsters. Fair enough. But there’s a problem with that: in this universe, harvesting someone’s genetic material involves doing nasty surgery to essentially harvest all their guts and organs. But one of the few things you can expect a sizable proportion of the film-going audience to know is that you really only need a tiny donation from a person in order to have sufficient genetic material to sequence and play with. That’s the basis of both Jurassic Park and innumerable CSI episodes, so the fallacy introduced here is so drastic that the only people who wouldn’t spot the mistake would be people who just plain aren’t aware of genetics in the first place; any one with more or less any prior exposure even to Hollywood depictions of biochemistry would be aware something is up here. It’s the scriptwriting equivalent of throwing yourself on the audience’s mercy and screaming “OK! We admit it! We have no fucking idea why they want her! Just ignore it, OK?”
Another thing the writers had no idea how to deal with was working human antagonists into the Underworld premise, which relies heavily on lavish action setpieces in which vampires and woofles fight it out. Therefore, partway through they simply give up: the whole purge thing turns out to just be the next stage in the old war and only the actions of vampires and werewoof mean anything whatsoever. Yeah, yeah, spoiler, I know, but in this case I think anyone who was invested in the idea that this film would present a bold new departure in the essential premise of the movies ought to be warned before going in not to get their hopes up.
The slowest and talkiest part of the film is, far and away, the visit to the vampire coven, but it’s saved by being completely stupid. The vampires, whilst hiding away, have amassed a pretty decent collection of Underworld movie memorabilia, like Bill Nighy’s coat from the first one, in order to remind themselves of their glorious past. They also have a sizable armoury which they keep, in all places, in a chandelier, the shotguns all balanced precariously on the struts of the thing. Of course, this armoury comes into play once the coven is attacked by woofs, which leads to a sequence in which Selene causes David to return to life by cutting open a slit in his tummy, sticking her hand in (which she cuts to allow him to take on the special powers she got from Derek Jacobi in Underworld Evolution), and squeezing his heart.
The coven might not get a huge amount of screen time, but between that and the Antigen headquarters there really aren’t that many other locations involved in the movie; the film is essentially the story of Selene and Eve moving from Antigen to the coven, then Eve getting captured again, then Selene going back to Antigen to rescue Eve, with a few stops along the way at people’s homes and workplaces in order to investigate the situation by being badass at them. There’s a sense that everyone in the film is running around in circles, desperately trying to make time and play out the escape-from-Antigen-HQ concept as much as possible to avoid the fact that but for some woofs intervening the story would be over within the first half an hour. As well as chicanery to avoid the fact that nobody really has any idea what to do with the characters once they escape Antigen, there’s also careful flim-flammery designed to minimise the appearances of Scott Speedman’s stand-in, right down to the closing monologue being about how Michael’s kind of disappeared and Selene intends to go look for him, in a more or less direct appeal for Speedman to sign on for the next sequel.
If the Underworld movies are a Vampire: the Masquerade campaign – and White Wolf was convinced enough on that point that they sued Sony over the first film – Underworld: Awakening is the first session of a new campaign, except one of the key players didn’t show up, so the session consists entirely of establishing what happened in downtime and running through a brief adventure that doesn’t advance the plot too much, and closes with the GM e-mailing Scott asking him whether he intends to come back or whether he’d prefer his character to be written out of the campaign or used as an NPC plot device or something. The story, in short, is not good. But at least it’s not good in a way which is amusing and entertaining as opposed to just dull and nonsensical like the Conan remake.