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Underworld: Evolution Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 March 2007

Image The success of “Underworld” in 2003 prompted this 2006 sequel; the first was a multi-national production, shot in Europe; the sequel was entirely US-financed, and shot in British Columbia. It’s a more elaborate film than the original—more sets, more effects, more action—but it’s just another sequel that falls below the quality level of the original—and that, lord knows, wasn’t very high to begin with.

This continues the centuries-old battle between vampires and werewolves (in these movies, unaccountably called “Lycans”), though this movie doesn’t bother even vaguely hinting at the issues behind the war. Which is taking place on a fairly small scale, having boiled down to a battle between Markus (Tony Curran), the second vampire of all time, and Selene (Kate Beckinsale), also a vampire. She’s assisted by her lover Michael (Scott Speedman) who, in the first film, was initially just another human being like me and probably you, but who became a vampire AND a werewolf—a hybrid. This supposedly gives him really cool abilities, but they’re never demonstrated in “Underworld: Evolution.”

To say the script by Danny McBride features thinly-drawn characters is an understatement—here, the various protagonists have virtually no characters at all. Even a fine actor like Derke Jacobi, playing the ancestor to all vampires and werewolves—pardon me, Lycans—has nothing, simply nothing, to work with. He’s just a soft-spoken old dude with a white beard. (Bill Nighy turns up occasionally, though mostly in flashbacks to the original film.) The issues here are a medallion that pops out four little blades when the jewel in its center is pressed; Selene has it, or Markus thinks she does, and he wants it back. His sole motivation seems to be to revive his brother William, the first Lycan, who was stuck in wolf-monster form back in 1202 A.D., then locked in an escape-proof metal coffin. Just exactly why Markus wants to revive hairy William is never made clear.

“Underworld: Evolution” is full of action, but this doesn’t really allow director Len Wiseman to generate a fast pace—the movie is just busy, not speedy. There are occasional elaborate action scenes which, on a technical level, are impressive. For instance, Markus—in fang-faced, bat-winged form almost entirely throughout—can fly, and pursues the truck Selene and Michael are using in an effort to evade him. Markus flies up to the truck, battles Michael, then flies around the truck and up to the driver’s window where he tries to grab Selene. This was done live, and one of the featurettes shows the elaborate crane rig mounted on the back of the truck, from which a very brave stuntman dangled to be marionetted around the truck as it thunders along a mountain road in British Columbia (though the setting is still Europe).

The climax features a battle in a dungeon which has a hole blasted in its ceiling; a helicopter is yanked out of the sky by Markus and with impressive accuracy, plunges through the hole into the rope-and-board walkways of the dungeon. This, too, was done live, though mostly with very large miniatures.

All of these effects, plus stunt work, design, music/sound effects, etc., are explained in terse, well-made little featurettes (all, like the film, directed by Wiseman himself) that accompany the feature on this Blu-Ray disc. Technically, the film is a handsome production, with blue-toned cinematography by Simon Duggan and attractive, comic-book-like production design by the talented Patrick Tatopoulos (he also contributes to the commentary track). The first movie was mostly urban, this is mostly in the great outdoors, plus a lot of castles and one ship at dock.

But all the talent brought to the effects and to the many monsters that populate the film can’t overcome the aridity of the script. There are no characters, so we find it hard to identify with anyone except by default: Beckinsale and Speedman are attractive and like each other, so they’re the obviously intended audience surrogates. Curran is really ugly—and is much uglier the second time we see him in bat-like form—and trying to kill Beckinsale and Speedman, so he’s the bad guy. But this two-bit approach—or lack of approach—damages the film irretrievably.

As we’re plunged into an ongoing story without a score card, we don’t understand the issues; the characters are vacant place-holders—there’s nothing here EXCEPT effects and action. Plus those reasonably well-done featurettes. But ignore the commentary track (by Wiseman, Tatopoulos, 2nd unit director/stunt coordinator Brad Martin and editor Nick DeToth); they entertain and amuse one another, but their chat just seems self-congratulatory and tedious.

This is a Blu-Ray disc, with the feature mastered in high-definition video, but it’s not an especially good showcase for the crisp revolution of high-def. Some scenes were shot with extremely fast film, so each individual snowflake, fragment of debris, drop of blood, gobbet of flesh, stands out in sharp, detailed relief—but this calls attention to itself. You can see every hair on the Lycans’ bodies, you can see each sharp tooth in the vampires’ mouths—but without an involving story and well-drawn characters, it’s just effects without any interesting causes.

The sound is mostly very good, but either there was an error made in the sound balance when the disc was made or my system didn’t adequately decode the tracks, because Beckinsale’s brief opening narration—intended to explain everything to those who didn’t see the first film—is almost inaudible. Otherwise, it’s a very noisy movie with a busy sound effects track and a very large score. It seems to be trying to sonically batter us into a state of acceptance.

All of this takes place in what seems like a couple of days, and involves only people who can become monsters at will. (Or can they? Selene remains entirely Kate Beckinsale all the say through, and Derek Jacobi looks only like Derek Jacobi.) The only regular humans we see are surly Slavic soldiers in a bar, and stomping through woods with high-tech weaponry. Jacobi and his large team (of what? Vampires? Lycans? Well-paid humans?) occasionally use computer technology, though it plays little part in the proceedings. Watching the battish Markus tapping away at a keyboard with his talons has a certain visual interest—but not very much of it. We have no idea how, or even if, all this vampires vs. werewolves stuff involves regular human beings. It might as well be taking place on a distant planet.

The structure of the film is occasionally very clumsy. In one sequence, Selene is mooning (ha ha) over the battered Michael while a longer, more detailed sequence goes on elsewhere—but she never moves. Similarly, Markus stands in front of William’s metallic coffin unmoving while Selene arrives in a helicopter with some soldiers and rappels with them down into the catacombs. When we return to Markus, he hasn’t moved an inch during all this time. Was the editor asleep at the switch?

The idea was to make a really “cool” movie that would appeal to fanboys of all ages and genders, but the movie’s backstory and visual design are so stylized as to border on the ridiculous. When everything, including monster design, is intensely overheated, a movie tends to immolate as we watch. It’s busy, but it’s hard to follow—worse, it’s hard to want to follow.

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