Underworld (2003)

After seeing Underworld: Blood Wars at the cinema recently, I was in the mood to revisit the franchise, starting with the first film, 2003’s Underworld.

Selene, a vampire warrior charged with hunting down werewolves, encounters a group of werewolves that are remarkably well organised and well armed. She has a hunch that they had set their eyes on a very particular target, and when she tries to find out more, she stumbles upon a web of intrigue and deceit.

Underworld still looks very fresh. It certainly pays off that the team around director Len Wiseman paid so much attention to the visual aspects of the film. The film’s colour scheme and coherent stylistic language make it look pretty timeless for a film that is nearly 15 years old. The fight choreography is also very solid, as are the cinematography and the musical score. The special effects do hold up, but there is no denying the fact that we are used to better and more impressive effects these days.

Danny McBride wrote the script based on a story idea he had developed with Kevin Grevioux and director Len Wiseman. McBride puts a lot of effort into the world-building, which also contributes to the film’s timelessness. Everything here works, everything feels organically grown as if it had always existed.

But while there is a lot of emphasis on history and world-building, this is nonetheless a story-driven film with lots of character-development.

There is a nice variety within the vampire world: the warriors and “death dealers” like Selene, the bureaucrats and politicians like Kraven, and a vampire society which displays some decadence and a lot of complacency. Many of these vampires consider the war against the werewolves already won and are unprepared for any adverse turn of events.

Anchored within this world, the characters receive their own personality through the script – a personality which in many cases is shaped by their history and the vampires’ heritage, which makes the great world-building all the more important. This is particularly true for the main players Selene, Lucian and Viktor. In the case of the latter, some very clever writing has been employed to have his back-story influence his present-day decision-making.

These characters are brought to life by an impressive cast, including Kate Beckinsale as Selene, Michael Sheen as Lucian, and Bill Nighy as Viktor. Of these, Sheen gives the best and most consistent performance, but has the smallest role. Nighy is very good, of course, but he tends to overact in more than one scene. And since we all know how good an actor he is, I am inclined to blame the director for that. There is also a pattern here, because Beckinsale, who gives a great performance overall, has one scene with Shane Brolly (Kraven) in which her acting does not fit her character. Again, I am inclined to blame Wiseman for this, because he would have needed to guide her better in this scene. As for Brolly, I did not care much for his acting in this film. Most of the time it seemed to me like he did neither believe in his character nor in the story as a whole.

The acting of Scott Speedman, who takes the main supporting role opposite Beckinsale, is good, but there is not much in this role that would allow him to showcase his talent. There are also good performances in many of the minor supporting roles, including performances by Sophia Myles (Moonlight), Robbie Gee, and the great Erwin Leder.

I believe that the cast are of particular importance in this film, as you need actors of this calibre – with this kind of poise and elocution – in order to make this whole world with its “epic” scale convincing. Again, this falls to Sheen, Nighy, and Beckinsale. A lot of exposition is delivered in monologue (including the opening monologue by Beckinsale) and you need a specific kind of actor for this to work. For example, when Nighy tells of vampire history and traditions and when he chides others for breaking the rules, etc., you believe every word he says without any of it sounding ridiculous – and at the same time he thus conveys a lot of back-story and lore without any of it feeling particularly forced.

There are some minor points to criticise. One or two things about the way vampire society is organised could have been set up more clearly. And there is the aforementioned problem with the acting in some of the scenes. There are also some minor plot holes, probably caused by the editing, the most prominent of which has to do with Selene getting spurred into action without us knowing what exactly pushed her into that direction. She causes a lot of trouble for someone who is just following a hunch.

All in all, Underworld is a very enjoyable and slick action film which benefits from its world-building and from its cast. The film’s world offers a wide variety of aspects and potential story-lines – from Romeo & Juliet love stories and political infighting down to faint vibes of body-horror. Not to forget that this 2003 film offered a convincing and well-written female lead in an action film at a time when very few really successful examples existed. The film is also rather well-paced. It has a high tempo, without any lulls, and still you never feel like the story is moving too fast or is becoming confusing.

Rating: 8 out of 10


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