Returning to the franchise that kick-started your career after sitting out a couple of rounds is all the rage these days, so it makes sense that Kate Beckinsale returns as death-dealing Selene in Underworld: Awakening, the fourth entry in the vampire vs. lycan series. Underworld, particularly in its extended-cut form, is an entertaining thriller set in a fully realized underground world where vampires actually have some bite. The sequel, Underworld: Evolution, is passable trash, but Underworld: Rise of the Lycans lacks both Beckinsale and an interesting story. Underworld: Awakening, from Swedish Directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, virtually ignores the mythology that made Selene and the underground war so compelling in the original film, and instead relies on CGI effects and slow-motion pans to sell the action. Underworld: Awakening is passable entertainment at a brief 88 minutes, but it feels half-assed.
The film picks up right after Underworld: Evolution, as Selene and vampire/lycan hybrid Michael Corvin (that's definitely not Scott Speedman in this brief appearance) are captured by a government at war with the creatures of the night. The pair is imprisoned in a biotech laboratory for several years, during which time the government begins "the Purge," killing off most of the remaining vampires and lycans. Selene is eventually freed by another prisoner into a world without Michael or the comfort of her old society, and realizes her savior is actually her daughter, Eve (India Eisley).
Although the vampire ranks are severely depleted, Selene must fight a newly revitalized pack of lycans searching for Eve, a hybrid like her father. Led by genetically modified Quint (Kris Holden-Ried), the lycans want to use Eve to create a drug that will make them invincible. Unfortunately, the lycans always were the least interesting part of the franchise. The vampire covenants of the first film were eerily romantic, with their sophisticated societal structures and impressive technology. Since those have been wiped out, Selene and company are forced into less impressive underground digs to fight off the lycans, who remain dull and brutish.
The biggest change in Underworld: Awakening is Selene. She was always a lethal killer, but this time out she slaughters anything and anyone who gets in her way. Selene hardly speaks for the first half of the film, and any shred of personality she once had has all but vanished. The mother/daughter relationship is also far from compelling, and Selene looks to be quite the absentee mother from here on out. In the earlier films, I knew what Selene was fighting for and against, but in Underworld: Awakening her actions have little purpose other than bare-knuckle survival.
This fourth outing was shot in 3D for theaters, and, while its budget is much higher than the original film, Underworld: Awakening looks cheap. The sets are less than impressive, the production design pedestrian and the CGI hit-or-miss. For every impressive aerial stunt by Selene there is a handful of laughable lycans and some terrible matte work. The action is nothing special either, and I can recall no scene that was not done as well in the original film.
At least Beckinsale is back this go-round. The actress has aged gracefully since Underworld, and slides back into her skin-tight leather costume with ease. Why the filmmakers chose to rob Selene of any personality is a question I cannot answer. There is nothing particularly memorable about Underworld: Awakening, save a humorous death near the end, but the film is at least a moderate improvement over the previous entry in the series.
I may be in the minority, but I am not a huge fan of Underworld: Awakening's slick, grain-free digital appearance. Shot in 3D using the Red Epic camera system, the film tends to look overly glossy. Steven Soderbergh does a better job setting up his frame and using Red cameras to capture amazing details, but Mårlind and Stein don't have quite the same vision for digital photography. Sony's 2.40:1/1080p/AVC encoded transfer is appropriately slick, and likely recreates the film's theatrical appearance. Detail is generally excellent, though texture suffers some in digital photography. The image is quite deep and perfectly clear, without a trace of compression artifacts. Skin tones are appropriately pale, and the dark-blue color scheme is well represented. Black levels are...interesting. The darkest parts of the image are never exactly black, and instead appear in shades of dark blue and purple. Selene's outfit appears fairly dark, but the entire frame exhibits a ghostly purple haze. I assume this is the look the directors intended. Despite my concerns with the black levels and digital photography, Underworld: Awakening looks as it should on Blu-ray.
The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is loud. Every lycan attack, blast of gunfire and mid-air somersault receives perfect aural representation in this aggressive mix. Dialogue is clear at all times, and is perfectly balanced amid effects and score. Ambient effects are numerous - the rain outside the lab and a raging waterfall - and fill the sound field, and action effects are positively boisterous, calling upon the LFE to rattle the floorboards. A French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is also available, as are English, English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
Underworld: Awakening arrives on Blu-ray in a standard Blu-ray case, and Sony includes a code to stream an UltraViolet digital copy of the film. A separate 3D package is available. That disc includes both 3D and 2D versions on one disc, a nice lenticular slipcover and adds some pre-visualization sequences but drops the PIP track. The extras found on this 2D disc are worthwhile and all in high-definition:
- Cracking the Underworld: Picture-in-Picture Experience - I was kind of hoping this would include a lot of behind-the-scenes footage, but, alas, this is basically a glorified fact track. There are a lot of clips from the earlier films, but I would prefer to watch those separately.
- Filmmakers' Commentary - Participants include Producers Richard Wright and Gary Lucchesi, Directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, and Visual Effects Supervisor James McQuaide. There's a lot going on here, but the track is fairly cohesive, and the group discusses re-booting the franchise, shooting in 3D and coming up with a compelling story.
- Selene Rises (12:14/HD) - Beckinsale and her character are the focus of this featurette, in which the actress discusses returning to the franchise after sitting out the last film.
- Casting the Future World of Underworld (12:33/HD) - The other actors, including Theo James, Eisley and Holden-Ried, are the focus of this piece.
- Resuming the Action (8:52/HD) - The filmmakers discuss shooting all the action bits in the film, as well as the challenges 3D cameras create during this process.
- Building a Better Lycan (10:20/HD) - The visual effects crew tried to create a better lycan for this film. I'm not sure they succeeded.
- Awakening a Franchise, Building a Brutal New World (18:53/HD) - This is the most interesting piece, and it covers the production design, visual effects and overall tone of the film.
- Blooper Reel (3:21/HD) - Werewolves humping is funny, right?
- "Heavy Prey" Music Video by Lacey Sturm feat. Geno Lenardo (3:25/HD) - Not my cup of tea.
Kate Beckinsale returns as vampire assassin Selene, but most of the bite is gone in Underworld: Awakening. The film is brutal and its heroine ruthless, but the vampire and lycan lore that made the earlier films interesting is almost completely dropped. Underworld: Awakening is moderately entertaining, but feels halfhearted. Rent It.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.