Vamps and Werewolves...why can't they just get along? After 3 Underworld films that found the species tearing at each other's throats, you would think some sort of détente would be possible. Instead we have a 4th entry in the franchise that demonstrates how some wars never end...they just get postponed.
Underworld: Awakening kicks off by pitting the Vampires and Lycans against an unexpected but extremely dangerous enemy: mankind. You see, us humans caught wind of the creatures living in our midst and we didn't like it one bit. In fact we hated their otherness so much that we reached for the sickening practice of genocide. The purge (as the film puts it) saw Vampires and Lycans executed en masse with only a few survivors managing to eke out an existence underground. Selene (Kate Beckinsale), the death dealer, and her hybrid lover Michael tried to make a break for it but got captured in the process.
12 years later (no, seriously) Selene is rudely brought out of a cryogenic sleep to find that she is the captive of an evil scientific corporation named Antigen. They probably had dastardly designs on her but it doesn't matter because one very bloody escape later, she is on the run. Using a strange mental link that even she can't explain, Selene hopes to track down Michael but instead ends up finding...her daughter (gasp!). That's right, there's a mini death dealer in town and all sorts of unsavory types want a piece of her. The rest of the film turns into a battle for Selene as she struggles to protect her newly discovered daughter (India Eisley) while keeping the search for Michael alive.
Although the movie attempts to recap the events of the first few Underworld flicks in its opening moments, it's a bit of a futile effort. At this point, you've either seen the entries leading up to this one (and understand the confusing but detailed mythology of the series) or you haven't. If you're in the latter camp, I would definitely start with the first two movies. If you're the impatient sort, the third can be safely skipped since it is just a prequel. Newcomers who wish to jump right into Awakening will not be rewarded for their eagerness. To be fair, even franchise veterans may be taken aback by how little time and energy is spent on framing the film within the context of what's come before.
All action, all the time seems to be the order of the day. Any sort of character development is tossed out the window in service of visceral thrills. I can respect the fact that Swedish directing duo Mårlind and Stein want to keep things lean and mean. It just feels like Awakening overdoes it on both counts. This is an exceedingly brisk film (not even 80 minutes sans credits) that ends up feeling incomplete rather than efficient. It earns its brevity by ignoring any aspect of the tale that doesn't somehow pit Selene against a room full of Lycans. This may come down to semantics but I believe it is the difference between having a singular purpose and having a one-track mind. The former suggests drive and focus while the latter is lacking in imagination. Can you guess which phrase applies to this film?
As for the meanness, let's cut right to the chase. This is the most brutal entry of the entire series. The carnage comes early and often starting with Selene's blood-soaked escape (scalpel to the skull, ouch!) continuing through a massacre in a vampire den followed by the gory climax that finally answers the question "how do you kill a Mega-Lycan the size of a motor home?" The answer surprisingly involves a touch more intelligence than I would have expected. The action sequences are all cleverly staged but lack an element of danger as Selene has turned into the Terminator. Even when she's being tossed around like a rag doll, we sit secure in the knowledge that none of her foes have what it takes to bring her down (sorry, Stephen Rea doesn't count). Since all this action comes at the cost of furthering the series mythology, there are times when Awakening doesn't even feel like an Underworld film.
Don't let all my whining fool you. I did have flashes of fun with the film. It fulfills its function of being glossy action-packed eye candy. The cast is mostly game with Beckinsale and Eisley standing out. Michael Ealy and Theo James are tossed in to make up for the absence of Scott Speedman (don't be fooled by the stunt double with weird digital face replacement). The pace is unrelenting and each set-piece builds nicely until the mayhem of the finale. The problem is that despite all of its huffing and puffing, it just didn't blow me away.
The movie was presented in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The image was sharp and displayed fine detail quite nicely. Contrast was strong with support for inky blacks. The color palette was dominated by metallic blues and grays as have become typical of the series. I noticed a touch of moiré but really I'm just picking nits at this point. The visual presentation was definitely above average.
The audio track was presented in a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound mix that was as punchy and energetic as one would hope for a modern action film like this one. All the battle scenes carried a strong impact with the rear surrounds being active participants in the mix. Scenes featuring dialogue (there were a couple...I think) were presented with clarity so the characters were never drowned out. Optional English SDH, Chinese, French, Korean, Spanish and Thai subtitles were available.
The only extra is a Filmmakers' Commentary featuring Directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, Producers Richard Wright and Gary Lucchesi, and VFX Supervisor James McQuaide. This is a pretty entertaining track since none of the participants seem terribly shy. They're a jovial bunch and it comes through here even when they're talking shop. Mårlind and Stein talk about approaching the film with a visual style that is handheld, gritty and brutal (a word that gets thrown around a lot). They also discuss their decision to make things more violent by really roughing up Selene. Another interesting tidbit emerges from the description of how the duo goes about filming by taking the lead on alternating days.
Underworld: Awakening is a brisk exercise in Vampire vs. Werewolf violence...and that's really all it has to offer. Much of the mythology built up by previous entries of the franchise has been dropped so that Selene can speed from one Lycan showdown to the next. The rushed approach makes the film feel a bit incomplete and unsatisfying. Folks who are new to the series should definitely start at the beginning with the first film. Fans of the first few films should temper their expectations as well because the shrinkage in scope takes some getting used to. Rent It.