Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is a ‘death dealer’, a vampire assassin fighting in a vampire-versus-werewolf war that has lasted for many centuries. When she rescues ordinary human Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman) from werewolf (or ‘lycan’) attack, she grows to suspect that the powerful enemy leader Lucian (Michael Sheen) – presumed dead for countless generations – may still be alive.
Underworld is an oddly successful b-grade action franchise that has been running close to two decades on moderately-sized budgets, a dedicated core audience, and an underlying (and undemanding) broad audience propping up its success through sheer indiscriminate viewing habits. Some people will watch anything with enough gunshots and martial arts manoeuvres, and they provide the bread-and-butter that keeps film series like this moving. There have been five Underworld films since 2003; at the time of writing a sixth is in development.
The original Underworld was a surprise hit back in 2003, grossing almost US$90m internationally from a modest US$22m budget. I was not particularly impressed by it at the time – but that was 17 years ago, and occasionally a revisit can reveal unexpected benefits or insights.
Occasionally a revisit can also reveal that the original response still stands; Underworld is a derivative and dramatically weak mess without so much as a design element that wasn’t lifted from something better. The elephant in the room is, of course, the film’s vampire-versus-werewolf back story. It is eerily similar to the popular role-playing games Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse, assuming that by ‘eerily similar’ we mean ‘taken from the back of a van with no questions asked’. Vampire publisher White Wolf actually filed a copyright lawsuit that pointed to 80 points that were identical between the game and the film, but it was hurriedly settled out of court by Sony Pictures.
Anything not cribbed from White Wolf is essentially dragged from whatever in Hollywood was not nailed to the floor. Tasting Underworld reveals strong hints of The Matrix, Blade, The Crow, and so much in the way of blue lighting filters that even James Cameron would accuse the film of over-doing things. The plot is a nonsense, as is the dialogue – which relies to a painful degree on exposition-filled speeches and narration. Half of what is in the screenplay is awkward window dressing to obfuscate just how simple and lazy everything is.
To its mild credit the film does not attempt to hide its main selling point: lead actress Kate Beckinsale in a rubber catsuit and tight corset, shooting and stabbing werewolves from street to sewer in an awkward pair of high-heeled boots. It is deeply crass, but at least it feels honest. The genuine tragedy here is that Beckinsale is a properly good actor, and deserves much better material than what Underworld provides. She is, to her credit, considerably more watchable than the movie around her.
As the secretly-alive lycan Lucian, Michael Sheen does his very best. He is, however, an odd choice for the role and never quite convinces. At least he delivers something; as Michael Corvin Scott Speedman barely emotes. At least Bill Nighy provides some wonderfully over-the-top flourishes as the master vampire Viktor, peppering his performance with genuinely odd tics and quirks that properly sell the idea of a thousands-year-old creature that has spend too much time alive to still feel human.
In terms of production values, Underworld definitely bites off more than it can chew. Its digital effects are partially hamstrung by their ambition – werewolves are notoriously hard to do in visual and special effects, and by taking a computer-generated option director Len Wiseman has selected a look that has dated terribly. The direction and photography feel as derivative as the design: there are many better and more effective films that inspire it, leaving Underworld feeling somewhat like a cheap photocopy.
As noted, however, the film was an unexpected hit, and Underworld: Evolution hit cinemas worldwide three years later. Certainly worse films have received sequels. A lot of much better ones did not.