It’s an underworld, all right. This fucking thing is shot at night, in dank tunnels, or during incessant thunderstorms; it seems to unfold in a post-sunlight universe, where vampires and werewolves can walk among us unnoticed because it’s so dark Ronald McDonald could walk among us unnoticed. Chief among many problems with Underworld is that the fashionable gothic-industrial-grunge look never lets up. Even scenes set in the human world (aboveworld?) are moody and oppressive. The great horror directors understand that we’re at our most dread-ridden when night is falling — when there’s contrast between the relatively safe daytime and the gathering of shadows. In Underworld, night has fallen, and it stays fallen.
But then this isn’t really a horror movie, despite the encouraging presence of vampires and werewolves (the latter are called “lycans” here, short for “lycanthropes,” I assume). No, Underworld reads more as an action flick with feeble romantic elements. War has raged between the vampires and the lycans for centuries. Vampire “death dealers,” one of whom is Kate Beckinsale in full Carrie Anne Moss drag as Selene, hunt down the lycans with silver bullets. The lycans, for their part, have developed bullets containing ultraviolet light. The mythoses of both vampires and werewolves are thrown to the winds here, by the way. Sometimes werewolves can metamorphose at will, sometimes the full moon presses the issue. I also enjoyed the many instances in which vampires are seen in reflections (mirrors, glass) and on surveillance cameras.
Selene reads the screenplay and realizes that she’s supposed to fall in love with Michael (Scott Speedman), a human targeted for initiation by the lycans. Selene’s vamp posse, including the scowling Kraven (Shane Brolly, distinguishing himself with the worst performance of the year), wonder why she wants to protect Michael; they haven’t read the screenplay, but then I wonder if director Len Wiseman did, either. I wouldn’t blame him if he hadn’t. Underworld offers a handful of shootouts wrapped around very many scenes wherein elders purse their lips and speak gravely of significant matters, which is great news for those of you who didn’t get enough of that in The Matrix Reloaded. Indeed, Underworld, from its tight black costuming of Kate Beckinsale to its slow-mo battle scenes to its black-on-blue look, plays like an appetizer for Matrix fans awaiting the five-course meal of Matrix Revolutions.
Beckinsale looks adorable with fangs (what woman doesn’t, really?), but she’s as humorless here as the rest of the cast. I don’t ask for pratfalls or Scream-like dialogue dissecting the genre, but couldn’t there have been just one laugh? Just one scene where someone seems happy or passionate about something? (I would’ve said “just one smile,” but various characters do engage in portentous evil sneers.) Sniffing around for levity, we may chortle inappropriately when we see the lycan headquarters, where lycan men gnash at each other for fun (aren’t there any female lycans, by the way?), and the vampire mansion, where these terrifying creatures stand around, crease their eyebrows, deliver pouting exposition, and then continue to stand around.
Poor human Michael gets batted around between the vampires and the lycans, and the script unfurls a lot of backstory we don’t care about illuminating plot mysteries we also don’t care about. I can say, however, that the creation of a half-vampire-half-werewolf results in a guy who resembles a really pissed-off Smurf. Also that there’s room underground for an entire vampire train — an archaic locomotive where the film’s most incomprehensible massacre happens. Underworld takes a terrific drive-in premise and wastes it on techno-flavored action and deadly dull characters. It feels like issue #23 of a comic book that ran out of gas around issue #9.