|Written by Christopher Joseph|
|Tuesday, 01 January 2008|
When I first saw the trailer for “Underworld” back in 2003, I was pumped. I love vampires. I love werewolves. I love Kate Beckinsale in tight leather. Package all of that together with post-“Matrix” styling, and you have a recipe sure to get every male between the ages of 13 and 45 into the theatre. I was one of them, lined up on opening night, big happy grin upon my face. And for the first 15 minutes, I was pleased. The vampire vs. werewolf concept was getting its justice and I eagerly anticipated whatever the filmmakers decided to throw at me. Unfortunately, they threw me an average movie.
“Underworld” is by no means a bad flick. It’s just not great; the problem is, it should be. The filmmakers nailed the right tone, got some talented actors and excellent special effects. The first werewolf transformation uses a combination of classic stop-motion photography and CGI to absolute perfection. I felt like a kid watching “An American Werewolf in London” all over again. Production design (Bruton Jones) is also spot on, using an updated gothic tone bathed in cool blue hues. All the elements are seemingly in place.
When I left the theater, I felt confused. Unsatisfied. I saw a bunch of cool stuff so why didn’t I love the film? After a second viewing on home video, it became clear that “Underworld” suffers on multiple levels. My number one complaint is with the vampires themselves. Other than their pale skin and pointy teeth, they’re not that special and definitely not frightening. Sure they jump off twenty story buildings and land on their feet, but when it comes time to do battle with the werewolves, they use guns. The werewolves are these ferocious brutes, able to transform at will, while the vampires seem to be nothing more than leather-clad models who haven’t seen the sun in a couple hundred years. There are moments in the film where they exhibit exceptional strength, but in the end they’re a big disappointment.
Complaint number two: Shane Brolly. He plays Kraven, temporary leader of the vampires while the elders rest in hibernation. Every time this chump stepped on screen, he took me out of the film. Lacking any trace of subtlety, Brolly delivers his lines with the bravado and cheese usually reserved for soap opera rejects. Kate Beckinsale, Michael Sheen, and Bill Nighy in particular, all turn in great genre performances. Even the conveniently handsome Scott Speedman is believable. Then there’s Brolly, somehow in one of the main roles, soiling every scene he appears in.
As for my final complaint, I’ll give you a brief synopsis of what is ultimately a convoluted storyline. Beckinsale plays the sexy vampire Selene, a Death Dealer whose main purpose is to eradicate any and all Lycans (that’s vampire talk for Werewolf). On a night of Lycan hunting, Selene stumbles upon a master plot by thought-to-be-dead Lycan Chief Lucian (Michael Sheen). His plan: to create a vampire-Lycan hybrid, but in order to do so, he must get the blood from a direct descendant of one of the original vampires. Enter Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), oblivious human victim of the vampire-Lycan war.
Michael’s DNA will allow him to sustain both a vampire and Lycan bite, thus creating the hybrid, more powerful than any Lycan or vampire. The entire film leads up to this moment, where we are to witness the ultimate in vampire-Lycan fury. In the film’s finale, Michael (now turned into the much anticipated hybrid) takes on Viktor (Bill Nighy), a vampire elder, prematurely awoken from his slumber to bring an end to the war. Not only are Michael’s new form and powers underwhelming, he gets his butt kicked. So much for those amazing hybrid abilities we heard so much about.
All that being said, I actually like “Underworld.” It just kind of feels like the fat-free version of what should have been a rich and juicy vampire vs. werewolf gore fest. Atmospheric production design, cool cinematography and seamless effects work make this an easy recommendation for any genre fan.
Where the Blu-ray edition of “Underworld” excels is in its audio/video presentation. There’s plenty of fantastic demo material on this disc. While the cinematography (Tony Pierce-Roberts) utilized a slightly grainy look, the transfer is a perfect reproduction of what I saw in the theater. The color palette consists of a dark blue gothic tone with lots of jet black shadows. At first I wondered if my brightness settings were off, but as soon as some lightning illuminated the frame, you see that this is intentional. I wouldn’t call it black crush, rather a cinematic choice made by the filmmakers. The image displays an amazing amount of crisp detail without exhibiting any noticeable edge enhancement.
The fun continues in the sound department. Sporting an uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track, “Underworld” has the sort of sound design meant to shake the walls. There are plenty of gunshots, screeches and howls to fill the surround channels while maintaining perfect balance and clarity in dialogue heavy scenes. The LFE channel also gets a healthy workout throughout the film, providing that perfect punch and rumble necessary for any good action/horror flick. Jump to any action scene and you’re sure to impress your guests and enrage the neighbors.
While a few special features from previous standard DVD releases have been excluded from the Blu-ray edition, there is still a wealth of supplements on this disc. A commentary track, outtakes, and a slew of featurettes provide more than enough behind-the-scenes goodies for the super-fan or casual viewer.
Boasting a terrific transfer and an excellent uncompressed PCM track, I feel comfortable enough recommending this release to home theater enthusiasts. For fans of the genre, “Underworld” is almost a must-see. For the rest of the home video world, it’s definitely worth a weekend rental.