How can 80 minutes of vampires vs. werewolves be so boring? Underworld: Awakening returns the series to its roots, with Kate Beckinsale in the lead and an elevated level of tedium.
Fans will be pleased by this outing, but for the rest of us, there’s one real problem: while the Underworld films are rarely outright bad, they take themselves so seriously (and often confuse seriousness with slowness) that any potential monster mash fun is quickly drained away.
While images of Beckinsale in her skin-tight black leather getup, guns blazing while performing acrobatics, do provide inherent value, it’s a shame the series had to return to the present day (near-future?) continuity; the last film, medieval-set Rise of the Lycans, was easily the best in the series. It at least attempted to tell a coherent, involving story.
Picking up where the first two films left off, the story is right where Awakening falls short. Some years after the events of the second film, outbreaks of vampirism and werewolfism have spread, not unlike a zombie plague.
Governments have taken measures to eradicate the creatures, and vampire Selene (Beckinsale) and her vampire-werewolf hybrid lover Michael (an uncredited Scott Speedman – or a lookalike) are about to ride into the sunset when – wouldn’t you know it – they’re ambushed and captured.
Twelve years later, Selene wakes up from a cryogenic sleep – her naked figure, the only possible improvement over the leather, obscured by an icy mist – in a research facility buzzing about a Subject 1 escape. She’s Subject 2. The facility is maintained by Dr. Jacob Lane (Stephen Rea) and purportedly developing a cure to the vampire/werewolf plagues, but you won’t be surprised to discover they have something more sinister up their sleeves.
Tracking Subject 1, who she presumes to be Michael, through a half-explained psychic connection, Selene makes a quick exit, leaving a trail of bodies in her wake. Vampires and werewolves are supposed to be on the decline in this future world, but that doesn’t stop Selene from immediately encountering large quantities of both, including an underground coven of vamps headed by Thomas (the always reliable Charles Dance) and his son David (Theo James).
Awakening is punctuated by a series of loud action scenes, with copious amounts of gunfire, shattered glass, and Beckinsale twirling gracefully through the air. The best of these takes place in the underground coven, with the introduction of a giant werewolf and some impressive (practical) effects work that recalls Rise of the Lycans.
Otherwise, the CGI effects are wildly inconsistent; emaciated werewolves at the beginning look awful and weightlessly bounce around the screen, and the stronger wolves at the end bear little physical similarity to how they appeared underground; they’re too-clearly the work of two separate effects companies (and techniques).
There is one redeeming feature here: the 3D. Nothing spectacular, but it’s crisp and clean and never becomes a hindrance; the filmmakers have taken care to accommodate it in the camerawork and editing.
After years of use in high-profile films from high-profile filmmakers (the latest being Martin Scorsese’s Hugo), go figure, the best post-Avatar examples of 3D I’ve seen have been in the Resident Evil and Underworld films. From a technical standpoint, that is; Wim Wenders’ Pina and Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams certainly used the technology in a more creative way.
Underworld: Awakening was directed by Måns Mårlind & Björn Stein, the Swedish directing team behind the Julianne Moore thriller Shelter. Of the four screenwriters, the only carryover is Len Wiseman, director of the first two films. Besides Beckinsale and a brief cameo, there are no returning cast members, and little story continuity.
And yet, this is pretty much the same movie as the first two. But you probably knew that anyway.