Friday, August 17, 2012

Underworld: Awakening

Here we go.  As tween/desperate adult audiences everywhere prepare for the final episode of the Twilight Saga, somebody somewhere decided to remind horror/action fans that there were movies getting vampires wrong as far back as 2003.  Underworld: Awakening is the fourth entry in the Underworld series and is the sequel to the second film (2006's Underworld: Evolution), because making a sequel to the third movie would have been silly.  I'm not going to argue that there is absolutely no reason to make this movie --- I find the "Kate Beckinsale in tight, shiny leather" argument particularly compelling --- but did we really need another movie where vampires shoot guns at werewolves?

Okay, that trailer actually looks halfway decent.  The basic premise of the series (vampires vs. lichens lycans) has been upended, and now both classes are being hunted by the deadliest game of all: man.  There's some promise there.  What I hated about the original Underworld was how completely de-powered  the vampires felt next to the werewolves; making the enemy human changes that power dynamic.  Maybe vampires are more powerful, but there are just so many humans, using so much technology, that the Underworldians will have to change their MO.  That sounds worth checking out, right?

Underworld: Awakening begins with Selene (Kate Beckinsale), the vampire shoot-'em-up expert, and Michael (Scott Speedman), her vampire/werewolf (Vampwolf?  Werepire?) boyfriend, on the run, after the events of Underworld: Evolution.  Boom boom boom, bang bang bang, and Selene (and presumably Michael) has been captured by the human military.  The next thing you know, Selene has been cryogenically frozen and the rest of the movie is the camera slowly zooming in on her ice-block-face.
And by "rest of the movie," I of course mean "title sequence," because Selene breaks free of her icy cage and runs for her life.  She quickly learns that she has been frozen in some sort of science lab for twelve years and that the world is very different following the same trend it was when she was captured.  The humans have concentrated their efforts and have wiped werewolves off the face of the planet, and are pretty close to doing the same to vampires. 
Tip for wiping out vampires: start with the ones who have their own movies
But what set Selene free?  And what happened to Michael?  Well, her escape wasn't entirely her own doing; someone dubbed Subject 2 by the lab scientists also broke out that night.  Who or what is Subject 2?  Why do the scientists want it so badly?  The plot tries to focus on these points until enough time has passed for the film to return to its roots.  Remember the whole "Lycans are exinct" thing?  It turns out that was greatly exaggerated.

The acting in Underworld: Awakening isn't exactly great, but it's certainly good enough for a movie about vampires with guns.  Kate Beckinsale is once again very stoic in the lead, although the script makes her seem a lot stupider this time around.  Let's be honest --- the hardest part of playing Selene is looking good in her outfits, and Beckinsale still pulls it off.  Thankfully, that isn't something that is crassly exploited by the filmmakers to draw attention away from the story.
I prefer the phrase "remorselessly objectified"
Stephen Rea played the doctor heading the research on frozen vampires.  Rea's a fine actor, but he is a one-note villain here.  Michael Ealy was decent as the rogue cop who somehow comes to the conclusion that being lied to by his superiors means that he should help vampires.  I'm not saying that he's wrong, but it is a little weird at how little it takes to convince him.  Charles Dance picks up the thematic baton as the elder vampire who just can't agree with Selene on anything.  I'm not saying that his character is irrational, but every single Underworld has had a stuffy old vampire who causes unnecessary conflicts, and I'm bored with it.  Theo James played the flip side of that coin as the young vamp that supports Selene.  Kris Holden-Ried was the primary werewolf threat and was supposed to be rather intimidating, but I just couldn't get over how much he reminded me of Chris Martin from Coldplay. 
That, of course, led me to making several Coldplay lyric references whenever he was onscreen, which accidentally turned out to be one of the highlights of the film for me.  Rounding out the cast is India Eisley, who got to be a girl of mystery.  She was okay, I guess, but her part required her to snivel and cower a lot, which got a little annoying.  None of the actors were particularly impressive or distractingly bad, which is almost an accomplishment when you are the third sequel in a series.

This movie was directed by Swedish filmmakers Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein.  It's okay if you haven't heard of them, because this is only their second English-language film, and the other was a box office dud.  The most notable choice Mårlind and Stein made was to play Underworld: Awakening completely straight.  This series has always taken itself very seriously, but there were usually a few moments where the characters reveled in their abilities or each other.  That doesn't happen here.  The story (ridiculous as it is) is told plainly, the backstory from the other movies is explained crisply, and there are action scenes every few minutes. 
"Hi, we're cannon fodder for Scene 43"
The action (for the most part) looks pretty good.  Sure, the Lycan transformations are hit and miss, but that has been an ongoing problem for this series; why fix it for the fourth movie?  More importantly, Beckinsale still looks good doing wire stunts.  There just aren't any great moments.  So it's a serviceable action movie with a science fiction/horror vibe, right?  Actually, no.  It's a mediocre action movie with a sexy leather-clad lady and pretty terrible sci-fi script.  The screenplay credit is split between four people (including J. Michael Straczynski and Underworld co-creator Len Wiseman), so it's pretty clear that the story had a few overhauls.  And it shows.  Do you like plot twists?  Do you like them better if the "twist" isn't surprising in the least?  Well, that's what you get with Underworld: Awakening.  Mårlind and Stein did an okay job with what was given to them --- I seriously doubt that the relatively unknown Swedish duo was given much leeway with their first big budget movie --- but what they had was a sorry excuse to make a quick buck off of a franchise that had already had one too many sequels.
Above: every Underworld action scene, ever

The biggest problem I had with Underworld: Awakening was how dull it was. This should have been an interesting take on Underworld's already unique angle on vampires.  But it isn't.  The humans never stand a chance against Selene and her friends and it is incomprehensible that they were ever a threat.  But then the not-at-all surprising reveal of werewolves as the primary antagonists happens, and we're right back at the beginning of the series.  The only difference is that this time, we have a little girl character to be helpless instead of Scott Speedman.
Adding a kid to the mix is always a sign of desperation

The only thing that kept me interested in the film was pointing out conceptual flaws in it.  For instance, if vampires have been hunted to the brink of extinction by man, then it can be concluded that technology and superior numbers are what gave man the edge.  And yet, the difficulties vampires have with humans seems to only be dictated by the script.  When Selene needs to be captured, she gets blown up; when she needs to escape, she kills four heavily armed men that have her in their gun sights with ease.  And if vampires are that fast, why don't we see that more often?  The only new element that this sequel added was a non-powered human doing some of the killing, and even his scenes were hilariously unlikely.  My personal favorite was when Michael Ealy was firing at a car and managed to kill the driver and shoot out the a front tire with only three bullets.
Even he doesn't believe he's that good of a shot

Underworld: Awakening probably wasn't designed to bring in a new audience.  If you thought that a series about vampires and werewolves trying to kill each other with guns was incredibly stupid before (and it is), this movie isn't going to change your mind.  I've always enjoyed laughing at these movies, but this was just plain boring.  While the action was plentiful, it was nothing new.  While the story was stupid, it wasn't stupid-funny.  I was hoping for a mindless action movie, but what I got was just mindless.  In short, this movie sucks.  And not in the "sexy leather-clad vampire" sort of way.

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