Review: “Underworld”

The most remarkable thing about this gothically dark supernatural flick is something most people won’t realise. At a time when film budgets are soaring ever higher and even modest genre movie fare costs just shy of a $100 million, the studios and funding people aren’t crash hot on taking chances. Yet Director Len Wiseman in his debut effort manages to deliver an atmospheric looking film filled with extensive visual and practical makeup effects all delivered for a measly $20 million, less than a third of the very similar albeit easily superior 1998 flick “Blade” which this draws more than one comparison too.

“Underworld” is well scheduled with the early Fall slot – this isn’t a movie which will crossover with the general public, this is strictly genre fare made for fans by fans. For that audience even, many will find this just a Matrix-clone style retread of countless stories they’ve seen before about both vamps and werewolves. Yet amongst the retreads, the stiff acting, and the overwhelming amount of exposition there’s definitely something here – a spark of real potential displayed in a few clever ideas that pop up every now and again even if it gets swallowed up by many ultra-cliched elements.

I use the “Blade” reference above because that franchise made a very good point about audience taste for this material. The first film was a seriously toned drama with attempts at an epic story but keeping things limited to a small scope and group of people. The second had far less plot and story, but relied more on explosive action and a tounge-in-cheek approach along “The Mummy” lines. If the tone of the first “Blade” appealed to you more then you’ll get into this film more than those who liked the second (for the record I think the first “Blade” is a great little film, the second is stylish but an utter bore).

A lot was made of the script when it first hit Hollywood, I’m not sure how much of the original survived but there’s not too much here storywise and what dialogue there is is filled with long chunks of story which the actors seem too tired to wade through. Yet there’s some good stuff as well from simple things like the werewolves street-fighting to more elaborate backstory ideas like giant vampire crusades in centuries past. The story of the genesis of the war when its revealed turns out to be relatively plausible, but sadly all too often it falls back on gun-toting action and attack sequences. There’s a LOT of violence here and plenty of gunfire and people being torn apart.

Acting isn’t crash hot – none of the cast really sticks out, all delivering gruff and all too serious work and none really around long enough to be of note. Speedman, Beckinsale, etc. deliver competent jobs but others are a little strained – one who does stick in the brain is the Lycan leader Michael Sheen though more for his rather creepy face/voice than actual character. The vampires all look like pale-waif CK models with a wardrobe that’s combination leather, lace and stuff stolen from Elton John’s concert tours in the 80’s (most notably Kraven who seems to be suffering from major constipation problems).

The big strength of this movie is the make-up and effects. The werewolf transformation effects are honestly some of the best on screen since a certain 80’s movie set in London. People change many times throughout the film into the creatures via what looks like a combination of make-up and morphing but its convincingly realistic – there’s no smooth CG shift, rather it actually looks like their internal structure is quickly remolding itself into that of a wolf. The vampires well have no nifty effect except blue contact lenses and big canine teeth although the leader has some nice rotting flesh work. A much touted make-up job for Speedman towards the end however ends up looking terrible on-screen.

I kind of get the feeling I liked this more than most will including the fans of the genre. Partly because in my heart I love trashy things and “Underworld” is trashy. Its average fare – yet in a time when the studios are rolling out one crap-tacular monster movie after another, this holds its own far better than the likes of “Darkness Falls” or “They”. Its a interesting idea which isn’t as fulfilled as it should be, but does have enough elements that any fan of the genre should check it out to at least form their own opinion. Hell, if it can actually make me keen on seeing werewolfs in a movie (something the very over-rated “Ginger Snaps” failed to do) then you know there’s gotta be something there. Maybe its all the tight leather, white women and hairy men.