A lot has changed since Underworld hit cinemas in 2003. Though it was a surprise box office hit, that tale of warring vampire and lycan clans would eventually be overshadowed, quite spectacularly, by a little something called The Twilight Saga. Although two films followed and made a tidy profit (even without star Kate Beckinsale in part three), they’ve hardly been a part of the international consciousness like the Twilight films have, and can barely be credited with the resurgence of vampires in popular culture. Now, it would be completely inaccurate to paint the Underworld flicks as these secretly awesome, gritty films that deserve the same amount of attention as Stephanie Meyer’s sparkly, notably unvampiric creations. In actuality, the first felt a lot like a cheesy Matrix rip-off with half the style and double the runtime. But Underworld: Awakening – the fourth entry in the series, and the first to feature Beckinsale since 2006’s Evolution – is a swift, brutal, and thoroughly competent actioner that doesn’t balk at a bit of bloodletting. Arriving between parts one and two of Twilight’s interminable swan song Breaking Dawn, nothing could be more welcome.
The plot is mercifully simple. Beckinsale’s Selene is a werewolf-hunting vampiress who has angered her elders by falling for vamp/lycan hybrid Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman in the earlier films; replaced unceremoniously by a stand in, and occasionally, a weird uncanny valley trawling CGI-creation here). When humankind cottons on to the fact that these so-called-supernatural creatures have lived secretly beneath the surface for centuries, they take it upon themselves to wipe out the unsavoury types. During this “purge”, Selene and Michael decide to runaway together, but their plan is foiled and Selene is capture by evil scientists (Stephen Rea and a quickly dispatched Wes Bentley). It’s only when she’s freed by a mysterious figure that she can get down to the business of getting down to business: namely, viciously annihilating anyone that crosses her – human, lycan, or vampire – on her quest to rejoin her love.
The performances are flat, and the dialogue uninspiring, but directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein can put together an action sequence. The set pieces – and there are a fair number of them – in which Selene goes about decapitating, skewering, and disembowelling her enemies are fairly spectacular. Cinematographer Scott Kevan even brings a hint of beauty to the frame, elevating this beyond your traditional black-and-blue tinged, Evanescence-scored, leather fetish flick (though it most certainly is all of those things).
And perhaps this was the work of an active imagination searching for something beneath the film’s shallow veneer, but were the allusions to Lars von Trier’s Dogville intentional or what? When Selene flees the gunfire of her human attackers, she seeks solace amongst her fellow blood-sucking compatriots. They’re reluctant to offer her shelter, despite the pleas of the chief elder’s (Charles Dance) son (Theo Davis). That being said, the clan is eventually attacked by a bunch of mutated werewolves (chief among them is Coldplay front man Chris Martin lookalike Kris Holden-Ried), so it seems the similarities end there. But this does bring to mind one incredible pitch: Underworld: Rise of the Antichrist, directed by Lars himself. He’ll bring the scissors.
Underworld: Awakening is now showing in Australian cinemas.