Underworld: Awakening review (Blu-ray)

Does anyone love the Underworld franchise? The first film appeared in 2003 when the idea of an eternal battle between vampires and werewolves was not quite as boring as it is in 2012. However, it failed to live up to the high concept promise of a supernatural Romeo & Juliet. In fact, it did little more than introduce the world to the sight of Kate Beckinsale in a skintight latex catsuit cartwheeling through the air in slow motion.

The film was a moderate success and spawned first a direct sequel, Underworld: Evolution, then a Beckinsale-less prequel Underworld: Rise of The Lycans. Neither did much to raise the franchise above the level of the many generic horror-slash-action films that clogged up multiplexes and DVD rental stores in the wake of the Resident Evil franchise. And so, one approaches Underworld: Awakening with a heavy heart.

Surprisingly however, the film is actually a decent slice of bloody action mayhem. Beckinsale returns as the vampire Death Dealer Selene, still filling that fetching skin tight rubber outfit (how does a vampire who presumably does not sweat get out of that thing?). At the start of the film humanity finally discovers the presence of not one, but two supernatural species living amongst them and goes on the rampage. Overnight humanity rises up and brutally begins cleansing the world of both vampires and werewolves (or Lycans as the series insists on calling them). Selene and her half vamp/half lycan lover Michael try to escape the purges, but are caught.

Selene awakens in a lab frozen in ice, she is the captive of a sinister medical experimentation lab run by Dr. Jacob Lane (Rea). Someone has thawed her out and she proceeds to escape leaving maximum bloodshed in her wake. She soon discovers that 12 years have passed since her capture, and the world is very different to the one she knew. Humans have driven both vampire and lycan species to the brink of extinction. Meeting a young vampire David (Theo James, last seen in The Inbetweeners Movie), she proceeds to try and find the other test subject who released her.

Underworld: Awakening flies by in a blur of latex, bullets and gore, which is just as well as the not much of the story makes any sense. It is never established quite how humanity came to learn of vampires and werewolves, less how they are so successful at nearly wiping them out. In-between action set-pieces, we are introduced to a bewildering array of characters. There is a harried police detective investigating the incident at the lab who suspects shady goings on. He will come to Selene’s aid, although why a human would help a vampire who spends most of her time slaughtering every person she meets is dubious. We meet a surviving vampire elder, Thomas (Charles Dance), who just wants everyone to keep their heads down. And there is a lycan bad guy who looks unnervingly like Chris Martin from Coldplay. This is one of those movies that thinks if it just juggles enough pieces of plot fast enough, the audience wont notice none of them fit together. There are four credited writers on the film, and the screenplay shows all the signs of having been pulled in different directions. There are some good ideas and an neat early plot twist I didn’t anticipate, but it seems like a patchwork fashioned out of several different writers ideas.

Directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein move things along at a blistering pace, and mount a succession of action scenes that have a satisfying crunch despite the copious use of CGI. Beckinsale manages to hold the interest by summoning up just enough sympathy for her character to make you care what happens to her. She also looks incredibly cool, which helps. Among the supporting cast, Rea is unfortunately squandered, but Charles Dance is terrific and you will wish there was more of him in the film. The CGI is much improved from previous entries in the franchise, particularly the lycans who are mostly fully CG characters. The 3D is not entirely essential, but neither is it annoying, and there are some good stereoscopic effects. The silver-dust loaded grenades work particularly well.

It feels as though this is being positioned as a reboot of the franchise, is still saddled with a mythology that never makes a lick of sense. It’s never been clear to me why we are supposed to side with the vampires let alone against the lycans, but now against the human race as well. The film pulls away from indeed there have been attempts to create sympathy for the lycans (as in the prequel Rrise of The Lycans). This time around the furry beasts are just monsters to be killed, there is no Michael Sheen around to give them a voice. Despite raising the issue of humanity as a player in the drama, this quickly fades away again, and we are back to the age old story of monster vs. monster.

However as a piece of gory action fluff Underworld: Awakening is a notch above other Screen Gems releases. It is far gorier than Priest and less cheesy than the Resident Evil films. For gore-hounds there are plenty of cool moments (including a really nasty throat ripping) and for action fans it is well mounted, and visually arresting. Best appreciated as a live action version of a horror themed Manga, Underworld: Awakening successfully kept me entertained for 90 minutes.

EXTRAS ★★★★ An audio commentary with producers Richard Wright, Gary Lucchesi and James McQuaide (who is also the VFX supervisor), and directors Mårlind and Stein; a gag reel (3:23); five behind-the-scenes featurettes – Selene Rises (12:15), The Cast (12:34), Resuming the Action (8:52), Awakening a Franchise, Building a Brutal New World (18:55), and Building a Better Lycan (10:21); six Previsualisation Sequences; the Heavy Prey music video (3:26).

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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