Watching the Underworld movies is a weird experience, because it feels like the filmmakers are trying to make a cool entertainment about vampires and werewolves by using none of the stuff that’s cool about vampires and werewolves.
There are four live-action films in the Underworld series—a fifth comes out this weekend—and each installment in the vampires-with-guns-vs-werewolves-with-guns film franchise feels like someone is headbanging their way through a script with the loudest available heavy metal blaring through giant headphones. They lug around a particularly shallow and clumsy sort of self-seriousness and darkness, and twist themselves into knots trying to feel portentous. The movies are so goth that marble busts (possibly of Shakespeare?) get used for target practice in one of them.
The biggest differentiator about Underworld’s approach to its Immortal creatures of the night is the fact that it avoids magic. Sunlight still kills these bloodsuckers but they can’t hypnotize humans or turn into bats or mist; they’re merely super-fast, super-strong and super-pale. Crucifixes do no harm, though. Some of their older, more powerful werewolf antagonists can change shape at will and infect ordinary folks with a bite of their massive jaws. These transformations and abilities happen in CG sequences that miraculously made me giggle and get grossed out at the same time.
Instead of magic, the Underworld flicks lean hard on guns and technology as each side’s tools of the trade. The main character is Selene, a centuries-old Death Dealer vampire played by Kate Beckinsdale whose job is to hunt down Lycans. Lycans are simply werewolves, but Underworld is too busy trying to re-invent monster lore to actually call them that. In this fiction, vampires and werewolves are genetic cousins, twin branches of an ancient disease that evolved differently in humans that were bitten by bats and wolves. (Just think, closed castle doors and windows—and better pest control in general—could’ve avoided this whole thing!)
Any gestures at metaphorical usage of the creatures’ bestial natures are extremely heavy-handed, like the subplot that has Lycans as daytime slaves/protectors of vampires for centuries. The movies’ segments set in the Dark Ages feel like lavishly funded LARP campaigns, full of crossbows that shoot chainlink arrows and intense staredowns where you can see people trying to decide whether they’re method-acting or not.
One of the admirable things about the Underworld flicks is how quickly they sidelined Scott Speedman’s Michael, the love interest for Selene who debuted in the first film. A human descendant of the patient zero of the Immortal virus who is a hybrid of both vamp and wolf, he’s set up as the films’ chosen-one-savior. But his screentime dwindles in each installment, and the movies become all about Selene’s quest to keep vampires alive.
The drama in the movie’s plots comes from Selene’s incremental discoveries of how just about all the Immortal Elders are fucked-up liars who’ve been betraying each other and/or their entire species for centuries. Just about each movie orbits around revelations that some character killed his or her own family members or lusted after someone he/she wasn’t supposed from the wrong side of the trenchcoat train tracks. Hell, the third movie, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, is a prequel that pretty much re-tells the emo-Goth Romeo & Juliet story of the first Underworld, in that it’s concerned with a man and a woman from opposite factions treating each other as something other than second-class citizens or blood enemies.
The series’ big status quo shift happens in Underworld: Awakening, set after a time when humans learn about the existence of the immortal races and have been killing them en masse. Selene wakes up from cryo-sleep imprisonment to find out she’s got a daughter and that an Evil Corporation is trying to cure the disease that creates Immortals.
It was hilarious how much the first movie tried to ape The Matrix’s cool-trenchcoat-and-pistols wire-fu aesthetic, but things have only gotten more over the top as time since then. But Underworld has , to the point where absurdly ridiculous things happen. In the Underworld 1 scene below, Selene shoots enough holes in the floor of an apartment building to open up a hole.
It’s straight out of a Bugs Bunny Looney Tunes cartoon, especially because she never reloads her guns. Over the course of four movies, the level of cheesy moodiness on display increases at an exponential rate.
Here’s yet another extravagant waste of ammunition...
...vampire Elder Marcus pulling down a helicopter…
...vamp/Lycan hybrid Michael discovering that he can’t just have dinner anymore…
...and a bad guy scientist who gets a silver grenade punched inside of him and the ensuing explosion.
Like the Resident Evil movies starring Milla Jovovich, this kind of spray-on cheese food product kicksplode action has become the hallmark of the series, which is why they’ve chugged along for 13 years despite never engendering a fervent fan base of its own. The Underworld movies won’t ever be anyone’s shining example of high-minded, life-changing science-fiction but they’re just as immortal as their vampires and werewolves. Er, Lycans.