Upon its release, Underworld (2003) painted a picture many filmgoers had seen before. Highly derivative of recent films such as The Matrix, Blade I & II, and even Alex Proyas' The Crow, this was a film that tread dangerously on familiar territory. So familiar, in fact, that many denounced it without even buying a ticket first. Reviews were mixed at best, but the film had a strong start: sitting pretty at #1 with a $21M opening weekend, things looked very promising. However, Underworld sank like a stone after that, dropping out of the Top 10 within a few weeks, and ending its theatrical run with a very modest $51M domestic gross. Still, it wasn't a bad haul for a movie that cost under $25M to make. In that sense, Underworld could be labeled as 'successful': after all, this total was only a domestic gross, and the eventual DVD/VHS releases would also bring the numbers up.
However, that's mostly where the success ends. In short, Underworld is about as vacant as action films come these days, continuing the trend of style over substance. To begin, the similarity to films previously mentioned is an understatement: Underworld takes the worst parts of the Matrix trilogy---along with many other films----and presents them with an additional coat of gloss. The similarities don't stop there: it also heavily borrows from video games such as the Legacy of Kain series, as well as the RPG universe of World of Darkness. Even if the viewer were to ignore these potential flaws, you'd think borrowing from good sources would ad least produce a compelling story.
Unfortunately, the story is largely an overblown, pretentious mess. It centers around two races at war: the Vampires and the Lycans (short for lycanthropes, or 'werewolves'), and the history between the two. However, while Underworld sells itself as a supernatural action/adventure flick, you're likely to see more bullets than fangs during the film's 133-minute running time. While the viewer occasionally catches a glimpse of these creatures using their supernatural ability, they seem content with using automatic weapons instead. This would be fine in most any other action/adventure, but it feels awkward in a film that seems grounded in anything but reality.
As far as the acting goes, somewhat rough road lies ahead. Thankfully, the most pleasant surprise was the performance of Kate Beckinsale, the petite young British actress known for her charming roles in films like Serendipity. Obviously, she might seem out of place in a film like this. However, she comes prepared with the necessary toughness and determination for the role of Selene, a young Vampire who the film's major events revolve around. Another highlight of the cast is Bill Nighy as Viktor, the leader of the Vampire clan. However, there's little more to be said for the rest of the cast; specifically, two other central characters. The chief offender is Shane Brolly as Kraven, the Vampire in charge during Viktor's absense. Brolly tries hard to mask his Irish accent, but his delivery and facial expressions are terrible, making one of the lead villains anything but intimidating. Somewhat less terrible is Scott Speedman as Michael, the potential love interest of Selene, who delivers a positively flat performance. This is not a good track record to possess, especially if you're slated to star in the next installment of the Underworld saga (a sequel is already slated for 2005).
However, this movie wasn't all bad. Even if you can't bring yourself to enjoy the story, this is still a film that successfully uses atmosphere to establish mood. The look of Underworld is a perfect match for the story: dark, brooding and cold. The weather even becomes a character in the film, evidenced by a never-ending supply of rain that washes down over the nameless city. Shadows and darkness are everywhere, borrowing ambience from that of Dark City and The Crow. Animatronics and a small amount of CGI are also skillfully employed, really helping this $23M picture look exceptionally sharp. However, if you're looking for a solid story to go with a great atmosphere, Underworld doesn't provide much more than popcorn entertainment. In short, stick with the classics instead.
Underworld was the first film directed by Len Wiseman, who began his career directing music videos and working in the art department for films such as Stargate and Independence Day. It's not the worst debut effort I've seen, but Wiseman has got a long way to go if he's looking to make a real impact on this genre, or any other. With any luck, he'll polish his skills for the next installment, but there needs to be serious changes to the story and direction for a future installment of Underworld to be anything more than a sub-standard action flick. Additionally, a stronger cast would really benefit future installments; while Kate Beckinsale and Bill Nighy were both excellent in their roles, a strong supporting cast was one of this film's major sore spots.
In any case, this DVD release is the second offering from Columbia/Tri-Star. The first was a decent effort, offering two Audio Commentaries and a few behind-the-scenes featurettes, among other things. Sadly, this newer edition doesn't add a whole lot to the package. Although the techincal specifications of the DVD are similar on paper, the first actual difference is a new cut of the film. While director Len Wiseman goes out of his way in the Audio Commentary to mention that this is not a 'Director's Cut', the re-editing of certain scenes might suggest otherwise. Still, from my memory of the theatrical version (I don't own the original DVD), this new cut isn't exactly full of drastic changes. Certain scenes are modestly different---mostly in a visual sense, and nothing more---and the overall flow and pacing of the movie remains generally the same (in fact, the running time is scarcely five or ten minutes longer). While I'm not in a position to cite specific examples, this is hardly at the level of other "Extended Editions" (such as Lord of the Rings), but fans of the film will be far better off by deciding for themselves. It's worth noting, however, that this unrated cut does not contain more violence or gore, but was simply not re-submitted to the MPAA. Still, the 'unrated' badge might sell more copies, and that's what re-releases are for. Let's see how this one stacks up:
Quality Control Department
I'm not sure if this is an entirely new transfer to complement the "new" cut of the film, but Underworld really looks great! The film's dark, oppressive atmosphere is captured perfectly on DVD, and is likely a marginal improvement over most theatrical experiences. Black levels remained rock solid throughout. The film's cold, steely colors were well-rendered, giving Underworld a terrific ambience. This 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer also has a high level of image detail, and really rounds out an extremely clean video presentation. While this was mentioned before, it's nothing short of a miracle that such a (relatively) low-budget movie was able to look this good!
The audio is another highlight of this 2-disc release, and it really blew me away! Most likely, this 5.1 Surround presentation is identical to the original release, as it featured plenty of activity to keep my ears happy! The atmosphere remained tight with a generous amount of LFE and directional effects, and only minimal occasions when the audio presentation was anything short of enveloping. The only minor problem I had with the overall mix was the balance between the front and rear soundstage: in many instances, the front-heavy effects were slightly less powerful that I would have expected, while those towards the rear were almost too loud. Still, this 5.1 mix remained a satisfying effort that should really please fans of the film.
Menu Design & Packaging:
The menu design will seem fairly standard for seasoned DVD fans: eye-catching animated intros and transitions are present, and the overall layout is simple and easy to follow. The only complaint I have is with the background music on both disc menus; essentially, they feature the same 15-second clip from the soundtrack that loops endlessly, which gets annoying pretty fast. Still, this is a relatively minor complaint for an otherwise excellent presentation.
While I don't have the complete packaging in hand, this 2-disc release contains a booklet about the film's production and design, as well as a free mini comic (which I did receive) that serves as a brief adaptation of the film. The artwork in the comic is highly reminiscent of Jae Lee (Hellshock, The Inhumans), and will likely make a nice collectible for fans of the movie.
This is where the disc takes an especially confusing turn. One one hand, it's a well-stocked 2-disc edition that covers most of the bases perfectly. On the other hand, the majority of these features were present on the first release; in fact, some of the original supplements didn't even make the cut this time around. Although this is one of the most shameless acts of 'double-dipping' in recent memory, I'll go ahead and cover the bonus features in their entirety. The supplements that are new to this release will be marked with an asterisk (*). Let's get started:
Disc One features the new cut of the movie, as well as a handful of bonus features. The first is an all-new Audio Commentary* with director Len Wiseman, along with stars Kate Beckinsale and Scott Speedman. Contrary to the dark, serious tone of the film (and the DVD), this is a light-heated and informal commentary. In all honesty, it was a nice break from a film that took itself too seriously, although this commentary lacks strong technical input. Speaking of which, this new release has omitted two Audio Commentaries from the original release: one with the director and writers, and a second featuring the film's production team. All things considered, I have no idea why these two tracks weren't present. If nothing else, they could have helped this release become more of a comprehensive edition, rather than a cheap attempt at tempting fans to buy a second version.
Also on this first disc, we have another new extra: the History Channel documentary Fang vs. Fiction*, which is an in-depth look at the mythology surrounding the film. It's a nice inclusion to this disc, but it's not strong enough to stand on its own. This film breaks so many traditions, any "facts" present in the documentary seem more like a sharp contrast than a seamless extra. Also on board are the same TV Spots from the original release, and a series of Trailers* that vary slightly from the original's lineup (we now get previews for Hellboy and Spider-Man 2).
Unfortunately, Disc Two is about as disappointing as it gets: essentially, it's a rehash of most of the original supplements. First up is a series of Featurettes, including "The Making of Underworld" (12 minutes), "Visual Effects"* (10 minutes), "Creature Effects" (13 minutes), "Stunts" (12 minutes), "Designing the Movie"* (11 minutes), "The Look of Underworld"* (20 minutes), and "Sights and Sounds" (9 minutes). Also on board are two other extras from the original release: a Storyboard Comparison (7 minutes) and a Music Video (3 minutes).
The layout of the bonus features is another confusing aspect of this release. The extras from both discs (save for the Audio Commentary) clock in at less than 2 ½ hours, so there's no reason why the movie couldn't have had it's own disc. While the technical presentation couldn't have improved much, this would have easily allowed for a few other goodies on Disc One; for starters, the two original Audio Commentaries could have been thrown on, or maybe even a DTS track (although the 5.1 mix is excellent). Additionally, the lack of the original theatrical cut is yet another disappointment, as this would have allowed for easy comparison. As it stands, there's simply not enough new stuff to really sell this one, and it's a real shame that this release couldn't have been ironed out more. Although the movie itself wasn't to my liking, fans deserve a definitive edition of any modern film. Overall, this 2-disc release isn't quite up to that level.
If you didn't care for the film in theaters, chances are this "Extended Cut" won't change your mind. I found Underworld to be a bloated B-movie (not the good kind, either), and somewhat of an insult to serious fans of the supernatural genre. With uneven performances, pretentious dialogue, and a string of cliches borrowed from better films, Underworld just doesn't have much going for it. However, there are a few saving graces to be found: terrific atmosphere, a practically-spent budget, and a superb techincal presentation are the first things that come to mind. While the extras don't break as much new ground as many are hoping for, hardcore fans of the film might want to give this release a spin. Unfortunately, there are two missing Audio Commentaries, so inclusion of the previously available bonus material is extremely confusing. It's a shame, too: with a more complete presentation, this would have been a substantial upgrade from the original release. As it stands, it's just one more example of double-dipping at it's most shameful, and the $35 price tag is much too steep for a blind buy. Fans of Underworld should Rent It first, if only to draw their own conclusions about this "new" cut of the film; everyone else should proceed with extreme caution.
Randy Miller III is an art instructor based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in an art gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.