THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


If you could boil Underworld down to a recipe, it would probably look something like this: Take one part “Romeo and Juliet,” one part The Crow and one part Blade. Mix together. Let mixture get stale. Serve.

Like “Romeo and Juliet,” this is a tale of a young man and a young woman who find each other amidst the backdrop of a bitter feud between families. The difference is that the Montagues and Capulets have been replaced by vampires and werewolves. Kate Beckinsale plays Selene, a vamp who, in voiceover narration, tells us all about how the werewolves – or “lycans” – have mostly been destroyed in a centuries-old war. The movie never specifies where or when this story takes place. Visually, it’s one of those neo-goth cities where it’s dark all the time and everyone always wears black leather (as in The Crow). Much of Selene’s time is spent hunting down the few remaining werewolves, which allows for lots of scenes involving neck biting and bloodletting (like Blade).

While keeping an eye on the streets, Selene notices a couple of lycans following a human. She locates the guy and learns he is Michael (Scott Speedman), an intern at a local hospital. Selene can’t figure out why the wolves would be interested in a human. The movie eventually gives us an explanation, having to do with an ancient rivalry between lycans and vampires. There are a lot of details to this explanation, but it’s strangely unfulfilling. As my best friend says, it’s hard to explain 1,000 years in two hours.

Selene helps Michael, and he saves her life in return. This pleases neither Kraven (Shane Brolly), the vampire-in-charge, nor Lucian (Michael Sheen), one of the werewolf leaders. Neither does it please Viktor (Bill Nighy), one of three ruling vampires who is inappropriately awaked from hibernation by Selene. Viktor has a more substantial role in the war’s genesis than he lets on, but Underworld doesn’t really care too much about that – at least not as much as it cares about showing the creatures shooting another, or biting one another, or ripping each other to shreds.

A major problem with this movie is the casting. Kate Beckinsale is a fine actress, but she’s too feminine for this role. Selene is a vampire and should therefore have an edge of danger that Beckinsale just can’t muster. This part screams for someone like Angelina Jolie. Scott Speedman, meanwhile, is utterly blank. I know he was in the movie – I saw him – but for the life of me, I can’t tell you anything about his performance. Perhaps he doesn’t really give one. The actor totally fails to make any kind of impression whatsoever. Again, an actor with more darkness or more charisma (Colin Farrell? Orlando Bloom?) could have made Michael stand out a little bit.

A more substantial problem is that there’s nothing original in Underworld. Everything here has been cribbed from other sources. The visual style certainly is dazzling, but it also reminded me of dozens of other gothic horror movies. Though technically impressive, it lacks the inspiration of similarly atmospheric pictures like Dark City or the Alien films. In a movie like this, you should feel as though you are visiting a whole new world. What happens in this case is that you feel like you’re visiting someplace you’ve already been.

I think the germ of a good idea is present here. The whole battle between vampires and werewolves is intriguing, but not enough is done with it. Underworld gets bogged down in a case of the “toos”: too long, too loud, too familiar. (And when I say “too loud” I really mean it. This is the loudest movie I think I have ever seen.) Although a few marginal details captured my attention here and there, I realized after a while that this film was beginning to annoy me. The deafening sound effects, the visual darkness, and the endless spilling of blood became truly bothersome. At some level, I felt like the movie was assaulting me. That’s kind of an unusual criticism to make, and I may have only made it one or two other times throughout my career, but I don’t know how else to put it. There’s something so in-your-face aggressive about Underworld that it ultimately proves to be too much. When a movie about vampires and werewolves stops being fun, you know there’s something wrong.

( out of four)

Underworld is rated R for strong violence/gore and some language. The running time is 2 hours and 1 minute.

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