Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Underworld: Awakening (Screen Gems/Lakeshore/Saturn, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was Underworld: Awakening, fourth and most recent in the cycle of modern-dress horror films featuring ongoing battles between vampires and werewolves (or “Lycans,” as they’re called here) that in the first two episodes, Underworld and Underworld: Evolution (there doesn’t seem to be any particular point in the two adjectives), managed to take place — inexplicably — under the radar of ordinary humanity despite the carnage wreaked on both sides. The film was directed by a Swedish duo named Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, and the writing credits are an indication of just how jumbled the process of creating a series like this becomes when it gets to episode four: Kevin Grevioux, Len Wiseman and Danny McBride get credit for creating the original characters, Wiseman and John Hlavin for writing the story and Wiseman, Hlavin, J. Michael Straczynski and Allison Burnett for the actual script. Wiseman also directed the first two episodes, Underworld (2003 — they’ve all come out at three-year intervals from each other) and Underworld: Evolution, and the two subsequent films have suffered from his withdrawal from the director’s chair even though as a premise (not so much as an actual film) Underworld: Awakening is, or at least had the potential to be, the best film in the series since the first one.

The premise this time is that ordinary humans, including the ordinary humans in political power, have become aware of the existence of a conflict between vampires and werewolves — excuse me, Lycans — and the authorities have mounted a campaign to wipe them out. The writing committee draws veiled but nonetheless unmistakable parallels between this and the Holocaust — particularly in the use of the pronoun “it” to describe a vampire or Lycan and the reference to vampirism and lycanthropy as “infections” that are incurable, and whose victims must therefore be wiped out for the good of the rest of humankind. In the opening sequence, Selene (Kate Beckinsale), soldier in the so-called “Death-Dealer” force of vampires (and who in the previous installments in the series has slaughtered virtually all the elders of the vampire clan after discovering they’ve tried to get rid of her), gets captured by what appears to be a group of human scientists working for a company called Antigen that’s ostensibly seeking to devise a vaccine against the vampire and Lycan infections. Selene’s lover from the first two episodes, Michael Corvin (played in the first two Underworld films by Scott Speedman but only a spectral presence here), a so-called “hybrid” containing both vampire and Lycan genes and also the father of Selene’s daughter Eve (India Eisley) — though that’s getting ahead of the story — is also captured and the two are kept in suspended animation in frozen sarcophagi for 12 years until an assistant at the lab sets her free.

She’s called “Subject No. 1” and there’s a “Subject No. 2” also being held in captivity in the lab, which is run by Dr. Jacob Lane (Stephen Rea from The Crying Game and V for Vendetta), who turns out — we realize it almost as soon as we see her, but it takes Selene about halfway through the movie before she catches on — is her daughter Eve, who was taken away from her at birth by the human baddies. During the main part of the film, the human authorities are aware that vampire covens still exist but are convinced they’ve at least made the earth Lycanrein — only the Lycans are also still around, living in underground tunnels, and as we eventually discover the lab that we originally thought was being run by humans is actually a Lycan project (Jacob Lane is actually a Lycan in human guise) and what they’re really working on is a vaccine that will render Lycans invulnerable to silver, the only substance that can kill them (which is why Selene’s guns, blazing away with far more rounds than small arms could actually contain in the real world, are loaded with silver bullets). Once they do this, the Lycans will be able to take over the world and exterminate the remaining vampires and all humans as well. Alas, the potentials for both pathos and social comment in this plot are pretty much neglected in favor of what can only be called action porn; the exposition, what there is of it (most of it coming from Kate Beckinsale’s mouth as she explains to us what’s going on and why), is really just to keep the plot in motion so we can watch Beckinsale in that incredibly hot leather outfit, high-tech pistols in both hands blazing away, and when she’s not firing she’s performing acrobatic feats far in excess of what any human could pull without the aid of CGI.

 Underworld: Awakening is a genuinely entertaining movie, but it’s one modern film that could actually have benefited by being longer: its official running time is 88 minutes but if you subtract the 10-minute closing credit roll, it’s only 78 minutes long — not that much longer than your average 1930’s or 1940’s “B,” and a longer running time might have allowed the writing committee to get more drama and genuine pathos from their story line instead of cutting everything else short to concentrate on action, action, action. Given the underwhelming box-office reception of the third film in the sequence, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (actually a prequel rather than a sequel), I’d been surprised when an Underworld IV (incidentally the makers deserve points for not sticking numbers on the ends of these things and instead giving them at least somewhat separable titles!) materialized and was even more surprised watching this one to find an open-ended ending (Michael Corvin has been released from his ice prison, though we still haven’t seen him) that’s clearly designed to set up an Underworld V. I’ve liked the series so far — the “look” of these movies, and in particular their genuinely creative use of color (they’ve shown that one can do convincing Gothic in color without making everything either blood-red or dirty-brown), has been quite appealing and one of their most surprising features — but somehow they don’t seem as interesting compared to the Twilight movies and all the films and TV shows about “sensitive” adolescent vampires the success of Stephenie Meyer’s cycle has inspired.