Following on from Underworld and Underworld: Evolution, I am continuing my re-run of the Underworld franchise with the fourth film, Underworld: Awakening. Because the “proper” timeline of the franchise continues with Awakening, and not with the third film, Rise of the Lycans. (As most people may know, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is a prequel taking place some 600 years before the events of the first film. And since it tells a story one already knows the outcome of, I never felt the desire to watch it, and so I do not own the DVD. Of course, technically, you could also argue that the short animated addition Underworld: Endless War sort of fits in between Evolution and Awakening, as far as the timing of its ending is concerned, but there is honestly no reason why you should feel obliged to see Endless War.)
While Underworld: Evolution followed on directly from the first film, with only minutes lying between the two plots, Underworld: Awakening jumps ahead a few months and from the start introduces us to an entirely different era, a dystopian society in which martial law has been enacted and humans wage a large-scale genocidal war against both vampires and werewolves.
Unlike the first two films, this fourth outing was not helmed by Len Wiseman. Directing duo Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein took over, with Wiseman producing. In throwing the audience pretty abruptly into this new world, the filmmakers operate with deliberate shock effects. Many of the opening scenes in which vampires and werewolves are killed are basically re-enactments of scenes we know from films which depict war crimes such as the storming of the Warsaw Ghetto, for example.
You can add to that the fact that we see Selene kill scores of humans in these first scenes – even though they are soldiers. Previously, we had never really seen Selene using her killer instinct to dispatch of humans, especially not that many and that brutally.
The shock the filmmakers are aiming for does not entirely work, however, mainly because the franchise’s typical colour scheme and slick style do not allow these scenes to fully unfold their potential.
Still, the opening offers a considerable freshness, and I remember well how excited I was when I first saw the opening of this film. This brave new world with completely new power constellations and completely new rules of engagement clearly offered a lot of story-telling potential for the writers to take this franchise in new directions.
The spoken intro given by Selene is in a way testament to that fact, because the summary it provides of the plots of the previous films is very much reduced, omitting some facts and twists, because there is no need to know them: Plot-wise, audiences could theoretically walk into this film without having seen any of the other films and enjoy it in its own right, even though they would miss a lot of the characters’ development.
Within these opening scenes, Selene is caught by the authorities, and the next thing we see is her waking up from cryogenic hibernation in a lab. As it turns out, some time has passed, propelling the story further into the future, creating even more distance between it and the previous stories.
What we see unfold in this lab – the sets, the visual aspects, and certain action set pieces – all very strongly resembles similar scenes which have been used (again and again) in the Resident Evil franchise. And there are further elements throughout the film that have a certain Resident Evil vibe to them.
These two elements determine the character of the film: the lab on the one hand, and the new political environment on the other. The latter allows the writers to construct their plot along similar lines as the plot of the first film. This new world which on the surface has a clear black-and-white structure turns out to be a world of shifting alliances, of betrayal, and of subterfuge.
This complex new world is mirrored nicely by a complex new state Selene finds her personal life in. Unfortunately, not enough is done with the latter. The writers do create one or two emotional scenes, but delivering emotional lines seems much harder for Beckinsale than delivering lines of a bellicose or “epic” nature. In general, however, I see the problem more in the writing and less in the acting. Because you have a very solid cast here, including Charles Dance (Game of Thrones, Dracula Untold) who, naturally, does a first-rate job in playing a high-ranking vampire and delivering the appropriate lines. But I also feel that the dialogue is weaker than in the first film, and maybe it can be felt that Danny McBride has not returned to write the screenplay for this film and was replaced by a four-man team (John Hlavin, J. Michael Straczynski, Allison Burnett, and producer Len Wiseman).
Apart from Beckinsale and Dance, there are a number of other actors worth mentioning, most of them in major supporting roles: Theo James, Michael Ealy, Stephen Rea, and Kris Holden-Ried (Lost Girl).
Also, India Eisley does a very decent job portraying a child. And here is another example for the writing not giving the actors enough to do. Eisley’s character is very interesting, and there was a lot of potential to explore her inner turmoil in more detail, but the writers chose not to. The same goes for Selene, as mentioned above. For some reason, the writers felt that one or two lines from these characters describing their emotional state would be enough and that adding more would mean to miss the tastes of the franchise’s audience. I tend to disagree.
Likewise the nefarious plan at the bottom of the film’s main plot could have been illuminated a bit further; and in my opinion the ringleaders of that plan should have been developed into 3-dimensional characters, which they are definitely not. It is a problem that will to some degree return in the next film, Underworld: Blood Wars, where at least one major character is lacking any kind of back-story that would shed light on his aims and motivations.
So with regard to many of the characters, many subplots, and many aspects of the main plot, one feels that not enough room is given to any of them here. That is quite extraordinary, as the filmmakers were definitely not running out of space – Underworld: Awakening is extremely short, with the net running time of just over 73 minutes.
As the film stands, we get two action scenes at the beginning and then hurry through the film’s second act in some four or five minutes before heading into another action sequence which is then followed by five minutes worth of exposition (courtesy of Michael Ealy) and go straight for the lengthy (and well-done) final battle. So in between all the action in this film there is barely any room for anything else. But there could have been enough room, if the filmmakers had aimed for a 90+ minute film instead for a 70+ minute film.
With a new team of writers and directors at work, the focus, it seems, was shifted more towards the action, and the plot merely used as a means to hold the film together. So on the one hand, the film shows a lot of potential, with its new world, the intrigue, the treason – and on the other hand it does do very little with it, merely constructing a bare-bones structure on which to hang its exciting action set pieces. And for me that was never quite enough.
For that reason, I have always felt a bit disappointed by Underworld: Awakening. However, if you re-watch it knowing exactly would you will and won’t get, you tend to feel less disappointed and are able to enjoy the action and the plot more. So, influenced by my current revisit, I would rate this film at about 6.5 out of 10.
One additional problem always worried me: while making humans aware of vampires and werewolves opened up some new story-telling possibilities, it also closed quite a number of doors. And it is a decision you cannot take back as a writer – what’s done here is done. A world in which vampires and werewolves are “out-of-the-closet” is definitely an entirely different world to the one in which they lead a secret existence, and I know that a number of people prefer the latter concept and are tired of the former.