When we talk about the long-running horror franchises, those tales of the undead that forever refuse to die, we rarely seem to talk about the UNDERWORLD movies. This bullet-riddled action-horror franchise may not always enjoy the respect that horror fans have for franchises like HELLRAISER and CHILD’S PLAY, but do you know what it has that those series don’t? It has five theatrically-released feature films. UNDERWORLD is undeniably a hit.
And yet the UNDERWORLD movies are so similar that they are often confused with one another. There’s a staggering consistency to these movies about an ongoing war between vampires and werewolves (or “lycans”). They boast similar imagery, similar storylines and characters who are so similar that sometimes it’s actually a plot point that they look and act alike. One might even argue that they’re all rather blasé, and I know this for a fact because I am about to do make that very point myself.
Because I have watched all five UNDERWORLD movies (as well as the UNDERWORLD animated short films) over the course of the last week, and I can say with some certainty that this series is – much like many of its characters – a bit of a relic. It’s rooted in the early 2000s, a time period in which action cinema was still mostly copying the MATRIX movies and getting away with it. The UNDERWORLD franchise is a product of style over substance from an age when action/fantasy movies were wrapped in skintight vinyl and still listening to nü metal and nobody batted an eye about it. Some of us even thought it was cool.
And with last weekend’s release of UNDERWORLD: BLOOD WARS one can now say with absolute confidence that they haven’t fully grown out of that description. UNDERWORLD was completely of its time in the early 2000s and it still feels exactly the same way, except now it’s about fifteen years old, and it comes across as nostalgic as hell.
So let’s take a look back at the UNDERWORLD films, not in chronological order but in the order of their effectiveness. How good are each these movies at kicking monster ass and making us care about it? Put on your fetish gear, blast The Damning Well and desaturate your color-timing until it’s almost indistinguishable from black-and-white… and let’s find out.
- UNDERWORLD (2003)
The first UNDERWORLD movie put all the pieces in place: the war between vampires and werewolves, those skintight vinyl fetish outfits, the complicated mythology that everyone talks about but which doesn’t really matter in a tangible way. What’s amazing about this movie isn’t that it’s an exercise in style over substance, but that somehow it took a handful of leftover visual ideas from THE MATRIX and tossed them into the context of the horror genre and became a part of the zeitgeist based on that novelty, more or less alone.
The first UNDERWORLD movie is attractive to look at but the story takes a backseat to the action, to the posturing, and to the exposition that rarely leads to exciting plot developments. It’s a series of revelations about characters and story elements that emerge secondhand, out of conversation, while the actual plot – about a vampire who hunts vampires, who finds herself uncovering a centuries-old conspiracy and teaming up with a half-vampire/half-werewolf hybrid – gets the short shrift. Take out the details about lineages and vampire sleep schedules and who betrayed who and you could have had the exact same movie with a lot more time to focus on the characters, who they are and why we should care about them.
All the good stuff in UNDERWORLD, the storylines and heroes and villains we have some reason to give a damn about, are brushed aside in favor of world-building, to the extent that even the supposedly “badass” action sequences have little impact, because it’s hard to know why we’re supposed to be invested in who’s getting shot and/or stabbed.
That the series gets better after this isn’t much of a surprise. That the first UNDERWORLD was such a rousing success that the series has now had five opportunities to improve, that seems like a bit of a shocker, especially in retrospect. Oh well.
- UNDERWORLD: ENDLESS WAR (2011)
The UNDERWORLD movies don’t exist in a vacuum. There have been novelizations, tie-in comic books and even a video game for the PlayStation 2 (which was only released in Europe). We’re not going to focus on all of that supplementary material but an exception should be made for UNDERWORLD: ENDLESS WAR, a series of animated shorts, which tells a story about Selene’s ongoing conflict with a trio of vengeful werewolves over the course of about 100 years.
The animation is decent, not amazing, and the storyline isn’t altogether terrible. It’s actually refreshing to see some of these events from the many hundreds of years that the UNDERWORLD movies never talk about. This animated series came out between the third and fourth feature films and it fills in some of the gaps of the movie franchise, explaining what Selene and Michael were up to after they had killed all of the elder vampires but before humanity began hunting monsters in public, and in earnest.
Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much else to boast about this series, other than some straightforward action sequences (a small army of underwear-clad werewolf bodyguards is an odd, but at the very least distinctive addition) and a reminder that Selene was once essentially a racist against werewolves. The sad thing is that, like the movies themseles, UNDERWORLD: ENDLESS WAR doesn’t have an awful lot to say about this intriguing, unheroic character trait of hers.
Yes, Selene hates werewolves, but even after she falls in love with a mixed breed werewolf, this aspect of her character never fully goes away. ENDLESS WAR deserves credit for spending a lot of time with the victims of her death dealing, but the werewolves here are all depicted as criminal monsters whose only positive qualities are their loyalties to one another.
Of course, the vampires aren’t much better. It’s a series of films about unnecessary hatred from all sides but very little effort is ever given to actually mend those fences, even in a storyline like ENDLESS WAR which had the opportunity to provide at least a little shading to the characters and their conflict. So it’s hard not to see this animated series as a bit of a missed opportunity.
- UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION (2006)
The second UNDERWORLD feature film is a decided improvement on the first, if only in its visual storytelling. The action sequences that were murky and hard to follow in the first UNDERWORLD are now, at least, clean and engaging. There are extended set pieces in UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION – like the opening werewolf slaughter, and the protracted car chase – which are presented with genuine flourish, and the filmmakers are to be commended for stepping up their game.
Unfortunately the mythology of the series becomes increasingly elaborate this second time out, and once again the majority of the film’s revelations are academic in nature. There is a lot of exposition but not a lot of implementation. Another elder vampire is loose, and he’s suddenly part werewolf (although he doesn’t seem to possess any lycanthropic qualities). He’s chasing Selene and Michael. Meanwhile there are more revelations about the origins of vampires and werewolves but it all basically boils down to a couple of characters are bad, a couple of characters are good, and they all need to fight to the death.
So although it’s effective from a visual perspective, the storyline still feels – simultaneously – convoluted and perfunctory. It doesn’t help that the emotional crux of UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION is the love affair between Selene and Michael, which peaks in a fancy sex scene halfway through the movie, but their relationship seems to be based on convenience instead of passion. They spend all their scenes talking about the plot instead of their feelings, and they don’t even flirt to speak of. They just buddy up in one action set piece after another and one time they take a break to have slow-motion sex, because… because reasons, apparently.
So the point of UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION comes across, but there’s no emotion behind it, and again it seems like a fairly empty exercise in genre mishmashing and latex style. Oh well.
- UNDERWORLD: BLOOD WARS (2016)
The fifth and most recent UNDERWORLD movie is a much more entertaining experience. It too is unnecessarily complicated, and it all boils down to “vampires vs. werewolves” despite an abundance of conspiracies and political backstabbing. At least it doesn’t revolve around a romance that makes no sense whatsoever, and focuses – mostly – on the simple pleasures of monsters fighting each other.
One element of the UNDERWORLD movies that we haven’t taken a close look at yet on this list are those rare supporting cast members who bring an air of theatricality to an otherwise emotionally reserved series of films. We’ll talk more about Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen in a moment, but in UNDERWORLD: BLOOD WARS we do get a spectacularly villainous turn from Lara Pulver as an ambitious vampire villain who turns her competitors into her pawns and her pawns into her sexual playthings. Lara Pulver isn’t in BLOOD WARS nearly enough, frankly.
The rest of this movie elaborates on new clans of vampires – like the ones who are blonde, which isn’t nearly as much of a mindblower as the filmmakers seem to think it is – and gives Selene new superpowers, off-camera, as she experiences a new sense of spiritual enlightenment, off-camera, so we have no idea what any of that actually means.
UNDERWORLD: BLOOD WARS a bit of a mess, but it’s an inherited mess. All of the serious issues with the movie are endemic to the whole series, and all of the new elements and characters and stylistic flourishes are engaging to watch on their own merits. It could be better, it could be worse. Oh well.
- UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS (2009)
When UNDERWORLD was originally pitched, the story goes that it was pitched as “ROMEO & JULIET but with werewolves and vampires.” That is, of course, a great idea for a movie. How odd it is that the franchise took three whole films to get around to it.
UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS is a prequel to the rest of the series, and details how the lycan named Lucian (Michael Sheen) and a vampire named Sonja (Rhona Mitra), had an illicit love affair that tore apart the species and started violent feud that lasted for centuries. It’s the most emotionally-charged installment in the UNDERWORLD series, and as a bonus it gave the filmmakers an opportunity to bring back the best actors from the first film, Sheen and Bill Nighy, who were unceremoniously (and perhaps not very wisely) killed at the end of that original installment.
Bill Nighy plays the leader of the vampires, who enslaved the lycan species of werewolves. (Lycans can turn from human to monster and back again, werewolves can’t, a distinction the movies never clarified until this, the third installment). Sheen is his favorite pet, but he leads a rebellion and it all ends in tragedy. It’s not a particularly soulful tragedy, but no matter. Both Nighy and Sheen are elevating this material far beyond its obvious limitations, and UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS is in many respects the most human and engaging entry in the series.
But it’s not the best. Oh well.
- UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING (2012)
Although UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS is an interesting story in its own right, UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING deserves a little more credit. It’s relatively easy to ignore a ton of awkward continuity and make a decent standalone movie than it is to take a character that was blasé for years and suddenly make her a lot more interesting.
Granted, UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING also feels like a fresh start. It jettisons a lot of the ideas from the previous UNDERWORLD movies that didn’t work. The love affair between Selene and Michael that we never really bought into in the first place is gone, after he’s seemingly killed in the beginning of the movie. The convoluted war between vampires and werewolves takes a back seat too, because now humans are aware of the existence of monsters and both species are being hunted to extinction. Meanwhile, Selene is put in a cryogenic freeze for twelve years and awakens to find out she has a daughter that all of her enemies want for their own nefarious purposes.
So the stakes, if you’re willing to forgive the vampire pun, have never been higher in this series. The relationship between Selene and her daughter is still a bit forced, since it’s not like she’s the maternal type, but at least it’s easier to accept her instant emotional connection to her own child that it is to accept that she’s irresistibly attracted to a blank slate like Michael. Even the supporting characters have more understandable motivations than usual, since everybody is trying to protect their immediate families in UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING, and even a tertiary character like Detective Sebastian, played by Michael Ealy, has a moment to tell us a convincing sob story about loving a vampire.
Plus, this is arguably the most excitingly presented UNDERWORLD movie. It’s a slick action film full of fun set pieces that outdo most of the other movies in the series and which add unusual new elements. What’s more fun than watching Selene fight a wolfman? How about watching Selene fight a GIANT wolfman? It’s hard to deny, even in a series that gets as dour as this one, that this isn’t an enjoyably weird idea.
If only the rest of the UNDERWORLD movies were so amusingly inspired. Oh well.