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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Underworld:SE
Columbia/Tri-Star // R // January 6, 2004
List Price: $26.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Aaron Beierle | posted January 3, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

While not exactly strong on originality, "Underworld"'s high style, sleek appearance and generally good performances manage to make it a satisfying genre entry, if not something that will replace or overshadow the popular "Blade" series. Surprisingly heavy on plot and exposition, yet not without some well-staged action, the film focuses on a war between vampires and werewolves that has raged for over a thousand years. Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is a death dealer, one of the vampire elite that has been leading the quite successful war against the werewolves, whose numbers were thought to have dwindled.

When Selene spots a human named Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman) who has attracted the attention of the werewolves for strange reasons, she begins to believe that the tide of the war is going to turn back against her and her vampire clan, a suspicion furthered by the signs of a conspiracy between the vampire leader, Kraven (Shane Brolly), and the werewolf leader, Lucian (Michael Sheen).

"Underworld"'s success is largely due to Kate Beckinsale, the charming British actress more commonly known for her roles in lighter fare, such as "Serendipity". While she seems like the least likely action heroine, the smallish Beckinsale actually manages to be an intimidating figure, showing herself quite capable of handling both the action sequences and the required attitude. Scott Speedman, on the other hand, is less compelling in his role, offering a rather wooden performance. The slightly "Romeo and Juliet" thing that the film was going for between the two never quite works because the chemistry just isn't really there.

There are other issues,too. While it's admirable that the screenplay creates a decent mythology and set of "rules" for the battle between the two creatures and their separate cultures, some of the dialogue can be a little goofy and some of the supporting characters are never really well-developed. In fact, the only character that's really compelling is Beckinsale's. Pacing could also have been improved, as the film, which runs just over two hours, could have easily lost about 20 minutes, as there are stretches in the middle that start to drag a bit.

Certainly, the look of the film is captured well, as the gothic atmosphere looks terrific and the excellent cinematography results in several stunning sequences. The whip-fast editing of the action sequences takes away from their power at times, but they're still entertaining. Overall, I liked this film, yet certainly didn't love it. It pulls together a few interesting threads, has a great look and a few good action moments. Yet, it could have been a lot tighter, more dynamic, and had more attention been paid to the characters, more memorable.


VIDEO: "Underworld" is presented by Columbia/Tristar in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality was terrific; this is easily one of the finer efforts I've seen from Columbia/Tristar in quite some time. Sharpness and definition were simply superb; the picture boasted an excellent level of fine detail and depth throughout the entire film. Despite the fact that the film takes place entirely at night, the image never seemed murky or soft.

Edge enhancement did not appear at all, although I did notice a bit of shimmer in a couple of sequences. The print used seemed spotless, but there were a few minor instances of compression artifacts that were noticable, but were hardly distracting. The film's dark, blueish/purplish color palette looked accurate and well-presented, with no smearing. Black level remained solid, as well.

SOUND: "Underworld" boasts a fierce Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that is certainly one of the better ones I've heard in months. Highly directional, aggressive and fierce, the sound mix is almost constantly rolling some effect across the soundstage or zipping another one from one side or the other.

The surrounds are involved throughout the majority of the film, offering both more noticeable discrete effects (see the opening gun battle, or any of the film's many action scenes, really) or even some pleasing ambience (there's plenty of thunder and rain falling throughout). While not an official EX soundtrack, those who can enable a rear back surround will find that it gives the soundtrack a more pleasing 360 degree feel. Sound effects don't seem at all compressed, coming across sounding dynamic and forceful. Dialogue and score also remained clear and well-recorded throughout.


Commentaries: The first commentary is from the film's writers and director; the second commentary is a technical track with the film's creature designer, producer/visual effects supervisor and sound designer. The technical commentary is quite interesting, as the three participants offer a lot of interesting details about working on the film's effects, look and feel with a minimal budget (less than $22m), considering the kind of film they were trying to make. Although there are a couple of patches of silence, I learned a lot about the techiques used, shooting on location and how the filmmakers kept the budget in check. The writers and director commentary is quite enjoyable, too: it continues the discussion of budget, as the filmmakers talk about how they had a budget of around $23m to do a movie that some thought would cost $60m. We also learn more about casting and the production's experiences shooting in Budapest.

Featurettes: This appears to be one large (45-50 minutes) documentary broken into parts ("Making of", "Creature Effects", "Stunts" and "Sights and Sounds"). The "Making Of" portion starts off terribly, with a few minutes worth of just complete "happy talk", with the participants talking about how wonderful everything turned out. The rest of the piece isn't much better, offering information about the plot of the film we just saw mixed with clips from the film. The next two parts fare much better as, although clips from the film inserted often start to seem like filler, we actually get some decent information. The creature FX section offers a look at some of the concepts and ideas behind the look and creation of the creatures, as well as some of the fascinating electronic construction of some of the physical creature (the film used a neat mix of practical and CGI) effects. The stunts area shows the rehearsals that Beckinsale did for the part, as well as how some of the action scenes were designed. The "sights and sounds" area, unfortunately, isn't a discussion of the cinematography and sound design - it's simply a montage of B-Roll footage.

Also: Nearly 7-minute storyboard/film comparison, music video, 2 TV spots and trailers for "Underworld", "Resident Evil", "Resident Evil 2", "Forsaken", "Vampires" and "Vampires: Los Muertos".

Final Thoughts: A bit of a mess that could have been aided by some tightening, "Underworld" still boasts rich atmosphere and a very good performance from Kate Beckinsale, who is better in an action film than I could have ever imagined she'd be. Columbia/Tristar's DVD edition provides excellent audio and video, along with a fine helping of supplements. Recommended for fans; others interested should certainly try a rental.

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