Review: Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)

Note: This review was originally published in Technician on January 27, 2009.


Underworld shows itself a tame breed

Do you like vampires?  What about werewolves?  If so, then supposedly you're frothing at the mouth to see Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, the latest film in the franchise about a war between the two mythical species.  Unfortunately, you're better off staying at home, because not only does it fail to live up to the previous installments, it's just an awful film in general.

The first two Underworld films, while not fantastic, at least felt like they were trying to achieve something.  Characters were multi-layered, there were various dimensions to their motivations, and the mythology was more creative and richer than most fantasy films.  Unfortunately, this prequel feels like it was made with no thought in mind except to make some more money for the studio.  Forget about making a good film.

The film takes place hundreds of years before the original.  Vampires and Lycans (werewolves) are at war with each other, and the leader of the vampire coven, Viktor (Bill Nighy), decides to enslave the Lycans and use their unique abilities to his advantage.  Unfortunately for him, his daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra) is having an affair with Lucian (Michael Sheen), the first of a new breed of Lycan who has the ability to transform at will.  One thing leads to another, and it isn't long before Lucian is leading a Lycan uprising.

Anyone who's seen the first movie already knows this basic origin story.  Fortunately, Viktor and Lucian are the two most intriguing characters of the entire franchise.  Viktor's arrogance and ability to manipulate others makes him a sinister villain, yet the first film also hinted at a more sympathetic side beneath the surface.  Lucian also had complex motivations for his actions, driven in large part by Sonja's ultimate fate.  There's enormous potential for a prequel to dissect these characters in more depth.  But instead of exploring these dynamics further, this latest entry disregards them entirely.  Whereas the gothic tone and black color palette perfectly complemented the moral grayness of the first film, this one deals in absolutes.  Lucian is the archetypal hero, incapable of wrongdoing.  Viktor is pure evil, with no hint of a conscience whatsoever.

To make matters worse, the writers seem to acknowledge this apparent contradiction.  The film ends with the opening scene of the first film, as Kate Beckinsale peers out over a desolate city.  The last word of her voiceover appears to imply that the writers were intentionally trying to distort our original perception of these characters.  Unfortunately, taking complex relationships and making them simpler is the wrong way to go about making them more inriguing.

The problem with Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is that it commits the cardinal sin of prequel filmmaking: Don't just show the audience what it already knows happened.  If it already knows that A leads to B, throw in elements C and D.  Or, just make A and B so incredibly exciting that it's impossible to look away.  Unfortunately, this film does neither, and as a result feels boring and unnecessary.  This marks the directorial debut of Patrick Tatopoulos, who designed the creature effects for the first two films.  That in and of itself is the perfect example of how the movie emphasizes effects over story, and visuals over characters.  The film's few action scenes feel so uninspired that after the climactic battle at the end I thought there was an entire act of the film left to go. After all, surely this couldn't be all there was?

Credit must be given, however, to Michael Sheen and Bill Nighy.  Despite the lackluster script and bland direction, they give it their all, and come close to making it a tolerable time at the movies.  Sheen in particular adds some emotional teeth to scenes that are otherwise formulaic and dull.  Unfortunately, however, the actors can't carry the entire weight of the film on their shoulders, and the poor quality of everything else proves too much for me to recommend it.