Underworld: Evolution is an odd film. It does not work well as a stand-alone, as it is very much tacked-on to the first film – its plot starting only minutes (60 to 90 minutes tops) after the end of Underworld. That fact gives it the character of a coda, an additional chapter that needed to be told but was somehow forgotten three years earlier. And the film never manages to shake off that impression.
Selene is on the run. Her original plan after the events of the first film was to return to the coven and prevent treacherous forces from taking over the vampire order. But two new players appear on the scene, each with his own agenda, and at least one player’s priorities are very much running against the interest of our heroine.
Naturally, some characters from the first film return, but in order to avoid partial spoilers for the first film, I will only mention those that I absolutely have to. I will therefore also limit the lines I would usually devote to the actors’ performances.
As a result of the film’s coda nature, there is little to prepare audiences who have not seen the first film. The filmmakers try to rectify that by starting the film with a short intro-text – which is rarely a good sign. This is immediately followed by a “cold open”, which is in turn followed by another intro, this time Beckinsale’s spoken intro with its TV-style summary of the last film – a kind of “previously on Underworld” type of thing which the franchise has been saddled with ever since. Unfortunately, this intro is not much use either, as it tells some things it did not need to tell while omitting others I would have deemed necessary for novice audiences.
As you can see, there are a number of problems with this film. A number of flashbacks hurt the narrative flow and might start to confuse viewers, especially those who have not seen the first film. Many other narrative problems stem from the introduction of the two new players, as we do not learn enough about them to fully understand why they are doing what they are doing, or what the consequences of their success might by. I would also argue that there are some plot holes regarding at least one of these characters. It’s no wonder, really, because by introducing new players whose history reaches back into the back-story of the first film, there is a bit of retconning to be done here. I will say that these new historical elements fit quite well into the history and the world the first film gave us – an achievement of Danny McBride’s writing – but all that retconning comes at a price: some plot holes, and some bending of story elements of the first film.
From the outset, the plot of this sequel is simply constructed much weaker than that of the first film. The first film had a lot of scheming and intrigue and some twists and turns. The second film is 50% escape story and 50% McGuffin hunting trip.
Still, despite all these flaws, the film’s problems are not quite as bad as I remembered them. Watching the two films back to back alleviates much of the problems that one experiences watching them three years apart. And because I have seen the film more than once, I am understanding some aspects and connections better, making the possible plot holes appear smaller than the first time round.
The first film’s strengths can also be found in Underworld: Evolution. The fights look good – apparently the result of computer-guided wire-work – and there is a massive final battle. The general visual style is strong, but since a lot of the film takes place in snowy or wooded areas it does not achieve the same slick look as its predecessor. A lot of these scenes look too dark and the franchise’s characteristic colour palette cannot be fully brought to bear.
Again, the cast are a strong point, with the delivery of “epic” lines being pulled off nicely just as in the first film. Actors like Derek Jacobi, Steven Mackintosh, or Tony Curran (Blade II) make sure of that. One word about Bill Nighy: he can again be seen overacting in this film. When I wrote my review of the first film, I speculated that his overacting in certain scenes might have been an oversight by director Len Wiseman. But after seeing Nighy in this sequel, I must assume that all this overacting is actually an artistic choice by Wiseman – a choice I do not agree with.
I said that content-wise it is beneficial to watch this film in close proximity to the first Underworld film. However, doing so needs a bit of adjustment as the pace in the sequel is not the same. To me it seems that less is happening in the same amount of time. In the end, however, it is chiefly my confusion regarding the antagonist’s back-story and his aims that dampens my enjoyment of this film.
Weighing the strengths Underworld: Evolution shares with its precursor against the film’s many shortcomings, I cannot rate it any higher than 6.0 to 6.5 out of 10. Still, if you have the ability to lean back and let the spectacle wash over you while ignoring a couple of plot holes then you will be perfectly well entertained by this film.