Although it came out a mere two-and-a-half years ago, I remember only three things about Underworld:
Underworld falls into an odd recent category of movies that were not box office hits, yet found sufficient popularity on video to warrant a sequel. (The Transporter is another.) All three of the things that I remember from the original apply here as well. Hardcore fans of the series may be satisfied with this second outing; the picture caters to the fans, to the exclusion of everyone else.
At the storyís center is Markus (Tony Curran), the original vampire. Centuries before, his werewolf brother William was captured and imprisoned by Viktor (Bill Nighy), who was the villain in the first film. Markus wants to find and free his brother, in an attempt to create a new kind of army. The only surviving person who knows his whereabouts is Selene (Beckinsale), our vampiric heroine. She is already wanted by the vampire squad known as the Death Dealers for killing Viktor. Now Markus is trying to find her too. The only one she can trust is Michael (Scott Speedman), the hospital intern who previously changed into a unique vampire/werewolf hybrid. Selene believes Markusís plan will only inflame the war, so she attempts to stop him from locating his brother.
That is an abbreviated plot description, to be sure, but thatís not all there is to the film. Underworld: Evolution has all kinds of plot threads involving betrayal, rivalry, and the twisting bloodlines of both species. In fact, thereís a lot of talk about these things going on. I like movies that create an entire universe Ė which this series certainly does Ė but Iím not one for being needlessly esoteric. The film spends way too much time exploring the minutia of the vampire/lykan war. Those who have absorbed every little detail of the original will no doubt enjoy digging deeper into this universe; for everyone else, it can be something of a chore to hear characters endlessly dissecting the long-running feud between groups.
I am reminded of the Star Trek movies which, at their worst, pandered to the die-hard Trekkies. The Matrix Reloaded also comes to mind; like Underworld: Evolution, it seemed to have a compulsive need to explain itself to death. These qualities are effective only for viewers who are already obsessed with the material. When you look at the Star Wars series or Peter Jacksonís Lord of the Rings films, you can see the difference. They created rich, complex worlds, yet also made them accessible to the casual viewer. That is a fine line to walk - one which gets crossed in this case.
On every technical level, Underworld: Evolution is well made. Director Len Wiseman clearly has a vision for the series, and his team of production designers and special effects crews have admirably brought it to life. Visually, the movie is dark and ominous, with humanity replaced by bloodsuckers and wolves. It looks great Ė better, in fact, than its predecessor. The gore effects are surprisingly good too. Werewolves and vampires attack each other in creepy new ways, and they meet demises that will send a chill up the spines of horror buffs. (My favorite: one character gets kicked into a spinning helicopter blade.) Technically, the film has all the ingredients to be a masterpiece of darkness.
Itís in the conception that the series falters. As I pause to re-read my review of the original, I see that I was able to put my finger on the problem back in 2003. While the idea of a vampire/werewolf war is undoubtedly intriguing, the Underworld series tries to incorporate too much of it all at once. I get the feeling that the filmmakers envision a whole series of stories that have a wide scope. Unfortunately, theyíre not taking the time to unfold things at a reasonable pace. There is too much explanation, too much back story crammed into too little time.
Looking back on my prior review, I wrote that Underworld actually annoyed me after a while. Thatís not really true with Evolution. I sort of enjoyed some of the peripheral things like the effects and the action and the monsters. What I didnít care for was the muddled, self-referential story and the dull acting. (Beckinsale is still miscast, and Speedman is still impossibly bland.) I do think itís possible to make a strong entry in this series; this one just isnít it. The film is ultimately an unsatisfying exercise in goth posturing. If you listen to Marilyn Manson, read Fangoria magazine, and do all your clothes shopping at Hot Topic, then Underworld: Evolution is the movie for you. All others neednít bother.
( out of four)
Underworld: Evolution is rated R for pervasive strong violence and gore, some sexuality/nudity and language. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.
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