Wednesday, December 3, 2008

REVIEW: Underworld

Kate Beckinsale's shadow puppet shows were impressive, but surprisingly grim.

I have a theory as to why Hollywood loves vampires so much: they’re cheap. You clamp a couple of fake teeth into the mouth of a TV actor and you’ve suddenly got a decadent, angsty immortal that lonely housewives and unpopular teenage girls find sexy and sad. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but I’m just reporting the facts. Hollywood likes vampires even better than zombies for the most part, because even though zombies require even less acting, there’s more of an expectation that there’ll be gut-ripping special effects in their movies, which cost money and limit your cable TV options somewhat. Vampires generally don’t require a lot of gore, just a lot of self-indulgence and general pissiness, which means that they can get the attention of not only the horror crowd, but also the reality TV and cable news crowds.

"Don't do it, Selene! You have so much to un-live for!"

Werewolves, on the other hand, are really on the outs. There’s not a whole lot of sexiness to the idea of a person who turns into a smelly, furry woodland animal, whatever the makers of The Howling seem to think, and you actually have to put some honest effort into the makeup. Plus, it’s a bit harder to structure a plot where bad stuff only happens once per lunar cycle. Although I imagine a lot of the female viewers can sympathize with the werewolves‘ plight, at least.

Get Rich or Undie Trying

But werewolves, unlike zombies, mummies, gill men, invisible men, Red Sox fans, and poltergeists, are a pretty natural enemy for vampires, since they seem to originate from the same general region of the world and share a “woe is me” attitude about themselves. So in comes Underworld, a movie that takes place in an unnamed Eastern European city somewhere in the United States, where vampires are essentially Sicilian mobsters and werewolves are street-level gangsters. They don’t like each other. They’ve been fighting each other for a while. And since in the whole movie, we see about thirty vampires and twenty werewolves, they’ve apparently either been very good at killing each other or very bad at recruiting new vampires and werewolves out of the general population. Though the fact that we almost never see actual regular human beings anywhere might explain it. Both the werewolves and the vampires must really hate each other, since they clearly originated in Europe (the flashbacks confirm that, unless the Native Americans built big European buildings that I was unaware of), but are now living in a city that’s clearly American, due to the fact that the few scattered non-monsters who live in it are American. So one of the races must have jumped continents, and the other side decided they couldn’t just stay where they were or find some other massive population center to call home.

I could have sworn I reviewed a movie like this before... Clearly my imagination. A dreamworld...

Before we start, it’s important to lay down the rules for the two species. These vampires don’t turn into mists or bats or wolves. They’re not vulnerable to garlic, silver, or crucifixes (even though I was going to make a joke about atheist vampires, I actually appreciate the last point since I can do without the werewolves taping together two tongue depressors to make a weapon against the unstoppable undead). They are vulnerable to sunlight, but since it’s never once daylight in the entire movie, they don’t run into a problem with that; however, the werewolves have developed bullets that house ultraviolet light capsules--hey, I’m just reporting what the movie tells me. And it’s a good thing they’re not vulnerable to water, because it never stops raining either. They don’t even need to prey on humans anymore, because they’ve got synthetic blood made for them by some corporation they secretly control; don’t want to have any moral complications for the good vampires, after all, because preying on humans is significant to the reason why we generally frown upon vampirism as a lifestyle. But then again, since drinking human blood is more or less the core feature of any vampire, I have to wonder what makes these people ‘vampires’ and not just albino Calvin Klein models.
Weretapeworms: Warded off by crucifixes, silver, and bringing your own bottled water with you when you travel.

The werewolves are vulnerable to silver, but they can turn into wolf form whenever they want, and it’s not mandatory that they transform during the full moon. Oh, and you’re not supposed to call them werewolves; they’re Lycans, because “werewolf” doesn’t sound like a name that’s dripping with enough history and importance and gothness to it (don’t worry, you can call the vampires vampires, not the Kindred or the Forsaken or the Immortals or something equally nauseating). Considering that the Lycans don’t need to turn into wolves and presumably just need meat, not necessarily human meat, I don’t really know why they feel compelled to stick together and fight vampires, rather than just live normally and get friggin‘ jobs. The net result of this is that you’re left with is two warring supernatural races with almost no distinctive features. In fact, if it weren’t for the werewolves occasionally turning into their wolf forms and biting vampires in combat, these would just be a bunch of decadent Goths trading bullets with a bunch of street trash. And since the werewolves are completely vulnerable to vampire bullets and can’t use their own guns in wolf form, they have no advantage in transforming at all.

"Oh yeah? Well, if I bite you, it'll HURT! You'll need Neosporin!" (Ed. Please don't mention Neo. It upsets Len Wiseman.)

The heroine of the movie is Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a slinky vampire assassin in a tight leather outfit who wields a gun in each hand, performs CGI-assisted stunts, shows almost no emotion, speaks flatly, and bears no resemblance a certain other action movie heroine whatsoever. The name for her role among the vampires is Death Dealer, which sounds more like a weapon in an X-Box video game than an official title that 1,000-year-old vampires would bestow upon people very important to them. The movie opens with her and a few other Death Dealers trying to kill a couple of werewolves in a subway station, but it quickly winds up being a small arms shootout where pillars wind up getting hit a lot more than actual combatants. I have not seen an action sequence of this nature in any other movie made since 1999 or so, I can assure you. Selene gets to show her awesome combat prowess by throwing herself out from behind cover in slow motion, spinning around, and firing straight ahead of her while walking forward. She’s so good that she doesn’t even need to go back behind cover to reload, and can do it right out in the open without getting hit. Very impressive. And when the werewolves do shoot at her with rapid-firing machine guns, she avoids getting hit by backpedaling slowly and continuing to shoot. The two sides eventually break off the fight because they’ve lost far too many bullets without killing enough people, and it would just be financially unviable for both sides (especially since neither has a plausible source of income) to keep going.

Winner of the International Ritalin Society Award for Best Actress

Selene returns back to the mansion where all the vamps hang out. The leader of the vampires is Kraven (Shane Brolly), who is the interim leader of the vampires and at no point in this movie fights Spider-Man. He’s got three emotions, pissy, irritated, and grumpy, which he rotates between frequently. He supposedly killed the werwolves‘ leader, Lucian, hundreds of years ago, which is why he is in charge until the vampires’ real leader, Viktor (Bill Nighy), wakes up from hibernation a few days from now. There’s also another vampire leader hibernating between the mansion, but I don’t understand this part of the story at all, so ignore it. Selene reviews some photographs she took of the werewolves and discovers that they were following a human, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman). She wants to know why the werewolves were so interested in him, but Kraven’s very dismissive, and thinks it’s just general werewolf tomfoolery. But Selene goes after Michael at his apartment just in time to save him from a werewolf attack, led by the supposedly-dead Lucian (Michael Sheen). Wow, the werewolves sure did a good job of keeping that under wraps for the 400-whatever years that he’s supposedly dead. He must have gone to the Milford Academy. When cornered at the end of a hallway, with four werewolves crawling down the walls after her, Selene shoots two of them dead. Apparently deciding that she has no hope of killing the two remaining wolves in the exact same manner, she instead uses her fully-loaded pistols to shoot through the floor and carve out a hole she can fall through. In response, the floor says, “What is this mild itching sensation?” Fortunately for Selene, director Len Wiseman steps in and instructs this thick, load-bearing floor to let itself get completely sawed through by 9 mm bullets, and it does so, allowing Selene to escape to the ground floor of the building.

"A toast! To the Voldemort family reunion!"

Unfortunately, Michael gets bitten by a werewolf before he and Selene escape back to the mansion, so he’s cursed to become a werewolf. Selene tends to him anyway, and Kraven is outraged by the fact that she’s harboring a werewolf, and worse, in love with him! He’s most angry about this because he really wants to get into her pants (all three electrons of room that’s left in there), and he hasn’t been able to get her attention in 400 years, but this new guy has taken about 45 seconds of interaction and not a single line of personal or emotional dialogue to completely win her heart. Michael flees the mansion before they can kill him, though.

I want to terminate all notions that this movie is unoriginal.

Down in the werewolves’ far grimier lair, we get a better sense of what they’re up to. They’re doing extensive genetic research, which amounts to, “Hey, if we get the right guy bitten by both a vampire and a werewolf, we’ll get a vampiwolf! And it’ll be awesome!” Michael is the direct descendent of some important guy named Corvinus from way back when, and for some reason I wasn’t able to follow--hey, I had to get my pizza out of the oven, and the remote was all the way on top of the TV--he’s the only person alive who can survive being both a werewolf and a vampire. You might have thought that after 400 years, Corvinus would have accumulated a bunch of descendents by now, and that Michael might have a family member somewhere in the world. But no, it must be Michael. The werewolves want his blood to mix with vampire blood and make an injection that (I think) will turn them all into vampiwolves, and apparently they’re all cool with this idea, despite the fact that they only live for raw hatred of vampires.

"Well, we've exhausted all the Vampire: The Masquerade books. Hey, maybe there's something in this Warhammer game book we can use in this completely original movie!"

Back in Vampville, Selene’s woken up Viktor prematurely to ask his advice about what to do with Michael, doing so through a ceremony in which she feeds blood to his dried husk of a body and telepathically transfers her memories to him so that he‘s caught up on what‘s happened while he‘s been asleep. He’s none too happy about it, because she hasn’t done a very good job of transferring her memories to him, meaning that he has to catch up on 200-whatever years of technology the old-fashioned way. D’oh! I guess he’ll have to start at the cotton gin and work his way up to Photoshop. But more importantly than suddenly needing to lead the vampires in an epic war without the advantage of a proper briefing on modern weapons, finance, or culture, he’s pissed that she’s softening on the Kill All Werewolves platform.

Winner of the International Rectal Stick Society Award for Best Actor

Not getting the kind of support she’d hoped from her mentor, Selene finds Michael and takes him to a place where the other vampires will never find them, a building where the vampires often do their brutal interrogations of werewolves; she must have reset the favorite places on the vampires’ TomTom, which would explain why a place the vampires know well and use frequently is a safe place to store a guy they’re trying to find and kill. Now that they’re completely in love with each other, this is a good time for Selene and Michael to have their first vaguely emotional conversation. Selene talks about how werewolves murdered her family 400 years ago, and how Viktor made her into a vampire so she could get revenge. Very original story, Selene; I’ve heard that in the theatrical run, a big clock flashed on the screen saying how long the audience had left to go to the bathroom and buy new snacks before the movie got going again.

"Would you please explain to me why Keith Bloody Richards gets a bigger hotel room than I do?"

They’re ambushed; not by the vampires, but by the werewolves, but considering that either way it’s guys in trench coats bearing automatic weapons, I’m glad Selene knew, because I sure wouldn‘t have. She sees them running up a square stairwell, viewed from an overhead perspective, in a shot that is not remotely reminiscent of a certain other action movie from a few years earlier. And I’d like to remind you that the earlier overhead shots of rain pouring down on people in a dark alley wasn’t remotely similar to that movie either. Now that we’ve clarified that Underworld is a completely original movie and that director Len Wiseman has his own unique visual style, I can tell you that Selene fends off the werewolves, killing all but one of them, but loses Michael in the process after he jumps out of the window and gets taken prisoner by the cops, who are apparently working for the werewolves. Selene gets briefed on the werewolves’ plan by her prisoner, as well as the fact that Kraven was conspiring with Lucian to move this forward. Apparently, Kraven’s goal was to let the werewolves build their hybrids, kill the vampire elders, then sign a peace treaty between the two races, which sounds fine with me. But apparently Selene’s still on Viktor’s side, so she tells him of this, and he’s pretty ticked, killing the prisoner and declaring his shock at the fact that he can’t trust a man with a name as trustworthy as Kraven. They lead a team of Death Dealers on a massive assault of the werewolf stronghold, where Kraven and Lucian are holding Michael prisoner and collecting samples of his blood. Oh, and the vampires apparently now know where this place is, which would be a prerequisite to attacking it.

And the origins of Joaquin Phoenix's upper lip scar are revealed.

During the attack, vampires and werewolves continue to do what vampires and werewolves do: fire automatic weapons at each other. The few werewolves stupid enough to actually turn into wolves discover very quickly that charging at an enemy able to shoot you dead with a single shot isn’t particularly effective, no matter how scary and computer-animated they are. With the big showdown having arrived, Kraven decides he’d rather be on nobody’s side than a side that has somewhat of a chance of winning, and shoots Lucian in the back. He also shoots Michael before scampering off, and with Selene devastated by the fact that this man she adores, who has shown so much courage after the tragedy of being born without a personality, is dying in her arms, the dying Lucian suggests that she bite him, completing the job of turning him into a vampiwolf, which Lucian never got around to doing.

"I'm sorry, but I refuse to act surprised on my 874th consecutive surprise birthday party."

Apparently, a vampiwolf is a dark purple guy with fangs. Well, then. Mystery solved. Viktor arrives and isn’t too happy about this development. It’s also revealed that Viktor actually killed Selene’s family, not the werewolves. Okay. I guess that makes it easier for the audience to hate Viktor now that circumstances have made him into the villain and the now-dead Lucian a good guy, so I’m all for it. Viktor knocks out Selene, then takes to fighting the transformed Michael, wanting to kill this guy whose combined bloodline could give them an easy excuse to end this conflict that benefits neither side whatsoever. So Ubermichael and Viktor go at it, with Michael employing the dark arts of rapid editing and Viktor deploying the ancient secret of Nighy Fu. Mike gives him a pretty good fight, but the cagey old stage actor is too much for him, knocking him out and preparing to finish him off with his sword. But Selene springs back into action, slicing through Viktor’s head with a sword, then preparing to engage in a final battle with him. Viktor pulls out a couple of extra swords, and stands ready to engage his protégé in one final battle for the fate of vampire-kind and werewolf-kind for all of eternity. And then they… Oh wait, didn’t she just slice through his head with a sword? Indeed she did, but her sword must have been one quantum thick, since it takes several moments for blood to first appear on Viktor’s wound, and several more for the molecular bonds to loosen and the top half of his head to slip off and pronounce that he is, in fact, dead. Because just like how Wile E. Coyote only falls once he realizes he’s run off a cliff, vampires only lose half of their heads once they become cognizant of the fact that a huge chunk of steel has cleft them in twain.

"Oh, yes, these are clearly much better to have than a gun. At least I'm well-prepared if any lions come along and I have to entertain guests."

So ultimately, I guess, the werewolves won, or they’ve just stopped fighting or something. And Selene and Michael are going to procreate once they manage to get the Jaws of Life and extract her from her uniform. And the remaining vampire elder, Marcus, is going to wake up because the blood of the werewolf prisoner they killed earlier has seeped down into his coffin. And the movie ends. Watch the sequel, Underworld: Evolution. I’ll be sure to do so once I die and I get down to the “U”s in Hell’s video store.

"Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck!"

This movie does have one redeeming quality: Kate Beckinsale is attractive. Clearly in the top 30% of Hollywood leading actresses. Which was enough to redeem Underworld: Evolution, Pearl Harbor, Vacancy, and Van Helsing. Oh, wait…

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