Borrowing the Night
Underworld received some unwanted publicity (or maybe not, since almost any publicity is good publicity) when the news reported its makers were being sued. The litigators claimed their ideas were stolen. After seeing this movie, I wonder what all the fuss was about. The only new idea here is the scenario of a centuries-old war between vampires and werewolves (called "Lycans" in the story). Honestly, would it be too difficult to come up with that concept?
Everything else about Underworld is borrowed. Its depiction of vampires as aristocratic, pretty people is nothing new. Its dark, colorless look has been seen in countless night-based movies. Its style of gunplay and slow-mo attitude, complete with leather, shades, and flowing acrobatics -- I don't even need to mention what that's similar to. It's as if the movie plays by a strictly established set of precedents, from the hip gothic look of the vampires to the modern rules for a cooool action flick. What rules it does bend are minor -- the werewolves can change at will and no attempt is made to take reflections away from the vampires.
Such a movie can no longer impress us with originality, so it must do so with execution -- not an inferior goal, for many borrowed-element movies have been redeemed through great production, story, characters, and/or style. Underworld can brag about its consistent and professionally designed look. Star Kate Beckinsale, clad in shiny leather, helps matters with her comic-book heroine come-to-life appearance. Not so eye-pleasing are the werewolves, who, in wolf form, are hairless and look like they jumped out of a game of Doom. Because the movie is so dark, viewers may not notice how out-of-place they appear.
If the way a movie looks is everything to you, this film will pass the test. I, myself, prefer feeling involved, and here's where Underworld lets me down. This is a story filled with explanations and little character portrayal. It features all sorts of history about vampires and Lycans, yet serves up a heroine who maintains a cold stance even after she's supposedly fallen in love. I found it hard to feel worried about her as the movie machine-guns to its finish. Worse yet, all the side characters are even less sympathetic; as the movie unfolds one new development after another, the end result is not knowing which side to root for as they're blasting away at each other. Wearing dark outfits and toting firearms, the combatants are already mostly indistinguishable, so when they start getting killed left and right, the tendency to shrug it off grows pretty strong.
Underworld should appeal more to action fans than to fans of monster lore. When all's said and done, the fight scenes are well-filmed and the gun battles are polished. But if you want more vampire-type stuff to chew on, you may wonder why the werewolves were ever at a disadvantage, given their superior strength. Other than being able to leap from high distances to a soft landing (an ability shared by the Lycans) and having fangs, the vampires don't seem much different from humans. They still die by the light, but they apparently lack the power to metamorphose. Borrowing the legendary weaknesses, but not the strengths? Hey, with such a raw deal, the vampires should have been the ones bringing up that lawsuit.
(Released by Screen Gems and rated "R" for strong violence/gore and some language.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.