Haters be damned- I will declare my love outright for the UNDERWORLD franchise. Sure, the series as a whole isn’t cinematic perfection but the films have given us far more enjoyable Vampire vs. Lycan moments than a certain other ‘sparkly’ franchise I’d rather not mention. Other than the film’s tendencies to sometimes take themselves a little too seriously, I’ve always found the UNDERWORLD flicks to be harmless and entertaining films that get an unjust bad wrap in the horror community- after all, not every movie needs to be THE GODFATHER and sometimes, you just want to see Death Dealers kick a little werewolf ass cut to a beat-heavy score in a blue-tinted world.
Beginning back in 2003, the UNDERWORLD franchise is now celebrating this weekend’s release of UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING, the fourth installment in the growing series and in honor of the occasion, I thought it might be fun to take a look back at the series as a whole and some of the highlights of the UNDERWORLD movies as well.
Undoubtedly, the biggest draw for many of the fans of the UNDERWORLD series has been star Kate Beckinsale who has portrayed vampiric Death Dealer Selene in the first two films and now, much to the delight of many, is back again to exert her dominance over both humans and Lycans in AWAKENING. And while her sex appeal is an undeniable big part of the allure for many fans, I have always found her strength to be a great example of female empowerment in modern genre cinema.
And while Selene may not necessarily be the ‘deepest’ heroine to grace the big screen, it’s always been her forbidden love for and devotion to ‘hybrid’ Michael (Scott Speedman) that is the heart and soul of the super-stylized franchise. And while many will say the violence and CGI sometimes plays a bit cartoonish for such serious-toned films, I’ve always appreciated the fact that franchise creators- Kevin Grevioux, Len Wiseman and Danny McBride (no, not the actor)- have always taken the time to give us a rich backstory to go with the ridiculous action sequences or else the UNDERWORLD films would be all style, no substance.
In the first UNDERWORLD, we learn at the beginning of the film that there is a centuries-old blood feud that continues to rage on between the Vampires and the Lycans. Selene notices Michael, a medical intern, being hunted by the Lycans for experimentation and soon uncovers that he is derived from the Covinus blood line that is of great interest to the Lycans who want to exert their dominance over the vampires. What starts off as a kidnapping ends up turning into a love affair between Selene and Michael and after the Lycans locate where the Death Dealer has stashed her new beau, an all-out battle ensues between the Vampires and the Lycans which has huge ramifications on both species.
The first UNDERWORLD (until AWAKENING at least) is arguably the best of the franchise as it deftly manages to be brutal, sleek and work in about 300 years of backstory as well. With a two hour plus running time, the first UNDERWORLD can also be a trying experience as many fans these days check out mentally after 90 minutes. Soaked in a bluish palette, the first UNDERWORLD does a fantastic job of both establishing and reveling in its gritty comic book infused world but there’s a lot to pay attention to.
We’ve got the backstory on the vampire elders, why the werewolves are treated like a second-class species, the implications of Selene and Michael’s growing romance, the truth behind how Selene became a vampire and a whole bunch more. Sure it’s dense material, but at least UNDERWORLD gives it’s audiences a rich mythology to get immersed in while watching Beckinsale crack some skulls and take crap from no one, especially Viktor (Bill Nighy) who turned a young Selene into the fierce vampire warrior she is now in an effort to fill the void of his own daughter who he mercilessly murdered centuries earlier after she was caught in a relationship with Lycan.
UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION was released in 2006 and picks up where the original film left off- following Selene and her hybrid lover Michael who are now working together (and bumping uglies) in order to put an end to the war between the series’ two species by revealing the truth of what really happened between the Vampires and Lycans centuries back. Even though there’s far more violence and gore in this sequel, the focus for EVOLUTION no doubt has to be the love story between Selene and Michael.
The creature work in EVOLUTION is definitely better than its predecessor and Beckinsale finally seems to be settling into her starring role here, but overall EVOLUTION is probably my least favorite in the franchise as the third act feels sadly underwhelming and the reveal of Covinus doesn’t really do much to enhance the story either except to give Selene a few new tricks to tuck up her lycra sleeves.
For UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS, we start off several centuries before the first UNDERWORLD where Viktor discovers an infant Lycan that can shift into a beast at will without the need for a full moon, which changes everything about what the vampires know the Lycan’s world. The infant Lycan we soon learn is Lucian (Michael Sheen who is integral to the original film), is bred by Viktor in order to fulfill his need for slaves to protect his kingdom. A forbidden romance soon blossoms between Lucian and Viktor’s daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra) which incites both an uprising and a war that would rage on for centuries to come.
While RISE OF THE LYCANS’ biggest issue is its lack of Beckinsale, there’s something to be said for the prequel. It has a rich feel and I totally dig the medieval feel to it. Understandably, Mitra’s and Sheen’s romance tends to make the film a bit sappy and sluggish at times but overall, Sheen completely rules in this third film and while I’m not exactly sure if it’s ever been established that you can resurrect a Lycan, I would gladly welcome Lucien back for future installments of the UNDERWORLD franchise.
So where does Selene and the UNDERWORLD story go from here? You’ll just have to check out UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING this weekend to find out for yourself to find out!