A vampire warrior becomes infatuated with a human that is sought after by her archenemies: the lycan.
As of late, I feel like I’ve been revisiting a lot of movies that I used to absolutely love to see how they hold up; this is one of those films. It’s weird to think that fifteen years have passed since this movie hit theaters, weirder still to think that there are four sequels to this film. This is a movie that came out of the early 2000s when every single action movie in existence was trying to replicate “The Matrix” in one way or another. There are plenty of slow motion gunfights and action sequences set in cold settings with prominently desaturated blueish (instead of green) color tones. This movie tries way too hard to be cool, and for some of the time it works; for other scenes, it comes off as dated and cheesy. Really, for me, the thing that I liked most about this film was the urban fantasy setting, which, to this day, is one of the better screen representations of the urban fantasy subgenre (though it’s still not a great film). Wiseman really did create a unique world here, even if the basic premise- werewolves vs vampires- is something we’ve seen a dozen times before. Where this movie both excels and fails is with its extensive history and backstory; the world of “Underworld” is fleshed out and truly interesting, but at the same time, Wiseman bogs down the story by giving us too many details and over explaining things to the point where some of the expositional scenes have become arduous to slog through. Still, it’s rare that we get a film that a) is about vampires and werewolves in modern urban setting, b) has a ton of action and effects that still are exhilarating, and c) creates a world unique enough to spawn four sequels. I used to love this film without reservations, but upon my rewatch it’s become rather obvious how many flaws there are in this film. As I watched this again, the fantasy geek side of me ate this film up with gleeful delight, but my cinephile side kept rolling my eyes at the lengthy expositional scenes, some of the acting and dated effects, and the poor pacing. I can’t say this is great, but hey, it’s still mostly entertaining after fifteen years.
“Whether you like it or not, you’re in the middle of a war that has been raging for the better part of a thousand years.”
Selene (Kate Beckinsale, “Van Helsing”) is a vampire that has been fighting a war against the vicious lycan for hundreds of years. One night on a routine hunt, Selene notices that a pack of lycan are following a human named Michael (Scott Speedman, “The Strangers”). Confused as to why they would want to follow a human, Selene investigates, facing strange criticisms from her coven’s leader, Kraven (Shane Brolly, “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans”). As Selene looks deeper into the murky history between the war of vampire and lycan, she realizes that there might be dark secrets that stretch all the way back to the time of the fabled ancient warriors, Lucian (Michael Sheen, “Apostle”) and Viktor (Bill Nighy, “About Time”).
So as I mentioned above, the thing that I like most about this film is the world building. The backstory for these characters stretch back hundreds of years; the rituals and rites they perform feel as if they have a reason and meaning; the vampire politics actually seem to have actual depth to them; and the overall design of the world is objectively really cool. I like the idea of silver-nitrate infused bullets or bullets infused with UV radiation; I like the idea that werewolves have evolved to the point that the moon no longer holds power over them; I like that the world we’re shown is a dark, crumbling gothic metropolis that never sees the light of day. Does it make sense? No; but neither does a never-ending war of vampires and werewolves. If you’re looking for realism, don’t look in fantasy films. The biggest problem this film has is going too far in depth with the backstory. Good backstories are hinted at- you show the tip of the iceberg, but not everything that’s underneath. Why? Because the world-builder has to know what really happened- it makes the world feel deeper and more tangible. The viewer, however, doesn’t need to see everything- we just need to see enough to know that there is more history there if we were to do more digging. The way this film plays out, by detailing every single backstory of every single character, really drags the film down, particularly during the second act. This movie’s pacing is easily the roughest part: more than a few times, the pacing is ramped up by a genuinely cool action scene, then immediately ground to a halt by a ten minute dialogue scene with pure exposition. Almost all of the expositional scenes could’ve been done with brief flashbacks at the beginning or scattered throughout instead of just holding on two characters talking in a dimly lit room.
All of the main actors- Kate Beckinsale, Bill Nighy, Michael Sheen and Scott Speedman- do a fine job acting (Scott does have some rougher scenes, but he’s still passable). A lot of the minor actors in this film really struggle, however, particularly Shane Brolly. Every time Brolly was on screen I felt like rolling my eyes- he was absolutely abysmal. Wiseman’s directing in this film is okay, but it’s clearly, heavily influenced by the Wachowskis style, and there aren’t really any scenes or sequences that show off any sort of inspired work. Most of the visual effects actually still hold up, primarily because a lot of the effects were practical. I will admit that the stuff that uses CGI- particularly when Selene reawakens Viktor and the blood trickles down his throat- looks quite dated.
As a whole, I’m pretty split on this film. It’s definitely not as good as I remembered, but I still sort of enjoyed it. As I’ve stated a few times throughout this review, my biggest problem with this movie was the lengthy exposition, but it’s that exposition that set up the four sequels as well (I’ve seen all of them at one point or another and I’m sure I’ll get around to reviewing them eventually). This is a flawed but unique film; its uniqueness has drawn me and others like me to return to it multiple times, despite all of its issues. Is it great? Nope. Is it worth watching? If you like fantasy or horror flicks, sure… It might be flawed, but it is fun.
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