I’m not a big fan of Underworld, but I did pick up the Blu-ray set of the movies a year ago. Now I hear there’s a fifth movie on the way, although casting problems may delay it. So I decided to go back and watch all four to see what I thought of them, and think about what I’d hope to see in the fifth movie.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Underworld is a series of movies set in a universe in which immortal races of vampires and lycans (werewolves) clash without the knowledge of the regular humans. (Note that “immortal” in this context doesn’t mean they can’t be killed, only that they don’t age or die of natural causes. You know, Highlander style “immortal.”) In the first movie, the lycan leader Lucian engineers the creation of the first hybrid vampire-lycan as part of an ultimately unsuccessful plot to overthrow the vampires. In the second movie, the surviving vampire elder attempts to unleash the original lycan to be his ally and to destroy the hybrid created by Lucian, while in both instances being opposed by the vampire Selene. The third movie travels back in time to show how Lucian became the leader of the lycans and led them in revolt against the vampires who had enslaved them. The fourth movie picks up from the second to follow the fates of the hybrid, Selene, and their hybrid child in a world where humans have discovered the existence of the two races and are intent on eliminating both. (There have also been comics, novelizations, and at least one original novel. I’ve not read any of these and am not going to consider them here.)
While not favored by the critics, the movies developed a substantial fan base. Fans like the blue-tinted Underworld, the mythos/backstory supporting the series, the fast-paced and violent action, and Kate Beckinsale kicking ass as the “death dealer” vampire Selene. Indeed, these were the movies that made Beckinsale an action-adventure star. Go watch Cold Comfort Farm (picture left) if you want to see what she was like before.
Although Beckinsale is the star of the series (even though she doesn’t really appear in the third movie), the real driving force of the series is the lycan leader Lucian, played by Michael Sheen. It’s Lucian’s revolt in the third movie that frees the lycans to wage open war on the vampires. It’s Lucian’s deal with the subordinate vampire leader Kraven that almost destroys the vampires in the first movie. And it’s Lucian’s idea to create a hybrid, shaping the plots of the first, second, and fourth movies. Lucian is simply the most intelligent figure in the entire series, the most influential, and in some ways the most sympathetic. Without him, there is no Underworld series.
Apart from being a guilty pleasure, I have to admit that the mythos was one of the more appealing features of this film series when I saw the first two movies in the theater (and why I regretted missing the third when it was in the theater). However, my sober analysis of the mythos after watching through the series is that it’s less logical and more dependent on coincidence than it appears. The assumption of the first two movies is that humans are by and large unaware of the vampires and lycans, yet in the third movie the people under the rule of the vampire leader Viktor certainly know of both. When did the vampires and lycans go underground, and why would they bother? The lycans originally protected the vampires during the day; who’s been doing the job since they revolted? Why don’t the lycans ever attack the vampires in the daytime? Selene played around the tomb for the original lycan, saw the key device for that tomb, and exiled the historian who knows the truth about her relationship to the tomb, but remains completely unaware of what she knows until the vampire leader Marcus begins his hunt for the tomb? And if the vampire leader Viktor meant for the original lycan to be entombed for all time, why did he construct the tomb with a lock that could be opened? Or why didn’t he destroy the key afterwards?
Still, it was an entertaining and successful movie series . . . for three installments. And then came the fourth movie and things went south. The fundamental problem is one endemic to action-adventure movie series: how does each new entry in the series top the previous ones? The most obvious route is to go for direr threats and more spectacular scenes. This can work, for a while at least. (The James Bond franchise went to this well so often that it required a reboot to regain any credibility.) The second Underworld movie went this route, but also included new plot developments and a love story. The third movie really took another tack altogether by going back into the mythos, although it does have its “bigger and better” elements. Unfortunately, the people behind the fourth movie explicitly went for bigger threats and more special effects (according to the commentary track on the Blu-ray disc). But the new threat, the super-lycan, while supposedly the heart of the movie’s plot, doesn’t appear long enough to actually drive the plot. And the new plot elements that could add human interest are underplayed. The cop’s dead vampire wife gets only a mention, while the hybrid child Eve gets two perfunctory moments of bonding with her mother Selene. OK, so they gave Kate Beckinsale the chance to show some human emotions, pleasing the fan boys, but it’s not enough to help carry this movie.
It doesn’t help that there were other problems with the fourth movie. The look of the earlier movies is gone, and the setting seems to have mysteriously changed from Hungary to the United States. The special effects budget apparently went into shooting the movie in 3-D at the cost of using some really unconvincing computer graphics, especially in Selene’s first fight sequence. And it probably didn’t help with the fan boys that Selene doesn’t so much kick ass in this movie as she gets her ass kicked. Excuse me, but my sublimated masochistic desire for a leather-clad dominatrix gets spoiled when she gets beat up all the time.
So what can we hope for in the fifth movie? Reports vary, but the common thread is that it will continue the story of some of the characters from the fourth movie, but apparently not Kate Beckinsale’s Selene, who is scheduled to appear in a sixth movie. For me, this poses a problem. Apart from simply using more technology to drive the vampire-lycan war, which was one of the plot elements of the first and fourth movies, the other obvious continuation is to follow the development of the hybrid Eve, Selene’s daughter. We don’t really know what hybrids can do, apart from acting a bit like both vampires and werewolves and surviving a spike through their chest. Having Eve come to terms with her nature while coping in a vampire underground would be a neat story.
There’s just one problem with the idea of Eve as the central character. It should require Selene as a major character as well. In the fourth movie, Selene is fiercely protective of her daughter, once she knows she has one. It would be unnatural for her to abandon her daughter. Now some sort of plot contrivance could be devised, I’m sure. Have the police hunting Selene, and have her separate from her daughter for Eve’s own safety. Sure, it can be done. But Eve needs someone to play off of, someone more stable. Sure you can play her off some handsome male vampire, and bring sex into it. Please do. (And that apparently was going to be part of the fifth movie’s plot, at least until Theo James’s participation became a problem.) But having her mother around, trying to cope with a daughter who is so much more than she is, would give Beckinsale a chance to show off her dramatic chops, while pulling Eve in several directions at once. And, needless to say, one could still fit in enough fight and chase sequences to keep the fans happy.
Frankly, at the moment, I’d rather pretend the Underworld series ended after three movies. A good fifth movie could rescue the series and make the fourth a necessary link, if an unloved one. A bad fifth movie . . . well, Kate Beckinsale might be able to deliver the fan boys to make a sixth movie a financial success, but I’d suggest she stay away. At that point, the best course is to abandon any pretentions to story-telling, stop being coy about sexuality, and come clean about exploiting the fan base. Underworld VI: Rise of the Vampire Women Warrior-Whores, anyone?