Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
Sony Pictures // R // $39.95 // May 12, 2009
Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 8, 2009
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Rent It
E - M A I L
this review to a friend
R E V I E W S
Graphical Version
Look, if
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you want to see werewolves...y'know, do something, Dog Soldiers just came out on Blu-ray, and its sticker price is half of what Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is going for. On the other hand, if you're up for watching a gaggle of stiff Brits stand around under a blue filter and gloweringly ham it up for an hour and a half...well, here you go.

The first two Underworld flicks are guilty pleasures, sure, but they knew what they were doing: vampires versus werewolves, a cacklingly over-the-top arsenal of bleeding-edge weaponry, a hell of a lot of splatter, and a camera that never really stops leering at Kate Beckinsale's ass in painted-on leather. Rise of the Lycans rolls the clock back who-the-hell-knows how many hundreds of years to the start of this blood feud, so that means Beckinsale's out, and so are the submachine guns, silver nitrate slugs, and fluorescent ultraviolet shells. C'mon, where's the geek fantasy? Swords, Ren faire costumes, and a collagen-injected Rhona Mitra are kind of a sorry substitute.

If you're up on your Underworld mythology, you already know the core of the plot, and it doesn't hurt that it's pretty much the same skeleton of a story -- Romeo and Juliet with creatures of the dark -- warmed over for the third time straight. Rhona Mitra takes the reins as Sonja, the rebellious daughter of vampire overlord Viktor (Bill Nighy). The countryside has been overrun by mindless, ravenous werewolves, but that's hardly any concern of Viktor who keeps his coven safely sheltered within his castle's walls. The mutant birth of Lucian (Michael Sheen) heralds a new breed of werewolf: the lycan, a creature that can freely transform between man and beast. Viktor finds that they make ideal slaves, and Lucian is so doggedly loyal to his master that he willingly spawns as many of these monsters as is demanded of him, even though he too is sneered at as a pet and is bound by the same spiked silver collar as his brethren. It kind of goes without saying that vampires and lycans aren't supposed to be diddling each other, so cue the forbidden love and starcrossed romance between
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Sonja and Lucian. You know what happens next: a PG-13-friendly sex scene complete with Lucian being reverse cowgirl-ed over a cliff, their secret discovered!, a couple of Passion of the Christ-ish floggings, stinging betrayals, and, apparently, the rise of the lycans.

The Underworld franchise has always been saddled with a unnecessarily dense backstory, and Rise of the Lycans is so slavishly devoted to it that there's not much room -- or at least not enough cash in the budget -- for much of anything else. It'd be one thing if this were a six minute prologue or flashback, but an hour and a half movie...? I really couldn't care less about the one-dimensional characters, a tepid romance, or that third-rate Shakespearean rehash of a plot: I just wanna see werewolves carving their way through a legion of fanged vampires. Rise of the Lycans definitely delivers on some of that -- the action is slathered in gore, with vampires and lycans alike being sliced straight down the middle, impaled by oversized crossbows, and carved apart into bloodied, fist-sized chunks -- and the scale of some of these setpieces is startlingly elaborate. The thing is that they're separated by long, long stretches of nothing that seem to drag on more and more as the movie slo-o-o-o-wly trudges along, and the dark lighting, spastic cutting, and unusually tight shots make it kind of tough to tell what's going on anyway.

It doesn't help that the movie looks so low-rent. The distractingly rubbery werewolf costumes look like they were grabbed off the shelf at Big Lots, the bright, cartoonish computer generated blood is embarrassing, the sets are so artificial that you can practically picture a grip munching on a cheese sandwich just off-frame, Rise of the Lycans
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hardly ever bothers to capitalize on the fact that Viktor and his brood are vampires, and the lycans spend all but a few scattered minutes of the movie in human form. C'mon! You have vampires...werewolves...do something! It's all steely blue gothic imagery and cold, lifeless acting. At least Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen swing for the fences, and their completely unrestrained performances -- especially Nighy, who only stops gnawing on the scenery just long enough to snarlingly overenunciate his lines -- are the only things that come close to redeeming Rise of the Lycans. Rhona Mitra, on the other hand, is surprisingly forgettable in the faux-Beckinsale role, with her turn in the batshit-psychotic Doomsday starting to look pretty far in the rear-view mirror. Sheen and Nighy are the stars this time around, though, so that's okay.

A rehashed paint-by-numbers story, leaden dialogue, cut-rate production values, and gory but kind of routine action make Rise of the Lycans seem more like a direct-to-video cheapquel or Sci-Fi Original Movie. Underworld completists enthralled with the series' mythology will probably find it worth picking up, but casual fans shouldn't bother with anything more than a rental. Rent It.


Video
Rise
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of the Lycans
was shot digitally -- a first for the Underworld series -- but it still looks convincingly filmlike, complete with a tightly rendered texture very closely approximating film grain. The scope image generally looks outstanding, but the presentation can be a bit erratic.

A handful of shots are slightly softer and smoother than the rest of the movie, and contrast varies wildly throughout. Black levels alternate between being black and inky -- making for some striking gradients between light and shadow -- and a flat, lifeless gray. Clarity and detail tend to be very strong, though. The palette skews heavily towards a cold blue, in keeping with the rest of the franchise, and the otherworldly hues of Viktor's eyes are as startling as ever.

Even for a vampire movie set against a medieval backdrop, the photography can be exceptionally dark, and sometimes it seems like less of an aesthetic choice than an excuse to hide the shoddy special effects. At least the dual layer disc gives Rise of the Lycans' AVC encode plenty of room to breathe, and I couldn't spot any missteps in the compression anywhere throughout.

This direct-digital transfer of Rise of the Lycans ought to be as close to the original photography as Blu-ray could hope to hammer out, and the only flaws of note are almost certainly owed to the way the movie was shot.


Audio
Rise of the Lycans is more intensely driven by its dialogue than you might expect for a movie that's kinda/sorta about a werewolf uprising, but this Blu-ray disc's 24-bit Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is unrelentingly aggressive when it gets around to baring its fangs. Effects frequently scream from one speaker to the next: whizzing arrows, werewolves scampering across the rocky terrain, debris scattering from every direction, and the snarls of unleashed lycans. There's a fair amount of color in the surrounds even in its tamer moments, particularly the constant collision of hammer against stone as the lycans slave away. The low-end can be colossal too, and just because it's set hundreds of years before the invention of dynamite doesn't mean it can't belt out a few megaton explosions. The throaty growl of the werewolves and the devastatingly resonant thud of the harpoons also stand out. A few whispered lines are unusually low in the mix, but its dialogue still remains consistently clean and clear throughout. I'll admit to expecting something more unrelenting, but even with the limited amount of action, Rise of the Lycans still sounds phenomenal on Blu-ray.

A French dub is served up in TrueHD alongside Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in Spanish and Portuguese. Subtitles are offered in English (traditional and SDH), French, Spanish, and Portuguese.


Extras
  • Audio Commentary: Director Patrick Tatopoulos,
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    visual effects supervisor James McQuaide, and producers Len Wiseman, Richard Wright, and Gary Lucchesi pile into the recording booth to hammer out Rise of the Lycans' commentary track, and even though I wouldn't chalk myself up as much of a fan of the movie, I really dug this chat. The five of 'em spend a lot of time laughing at the lengths they took to work around (and to beef up) the very modest sticker price for such a visually ambitious movie, and they're unflinchingly honest about everything from vampire teeth continually falling out to shooting in a converted sheep foot warehouse to snickering at a Wilhelm scream. There are its serious stretches too about the mythology that spans the Underworld series, but it really is a ridiculous amount of fun and by far the best thing about this Blu-ray disc.

  • Behind the Castle Walls (Blu-ray exclusive): This running picture-in-picture feature incorporates and expands upon the interviews from Rise of the Lycans' handful of featurettes, and it tosses in a fair amount of behind-the-scenes footage and conceptual art as well. Among the highlights are Rhona Mitra gabbing about Sonja's exhibitionism, detailed comments about the switch to digital photography and shaping the look of the movie, the history of the werewolf legend and the mythology of Underworld as a whole, and an explanation of just how the spiked collars are able to keep the lycans at bay. It's a fairly active feature, running without all that many gaps, and it's worth it just to hear Bill Nighy's story about being asked to come up with a facial expression to represent his head being carved in half. So much footage is repurposed from the disc's other featurettes that there's really no point in digging through them if you're planning on watching this.

  • From Script to Screen (9 min.; HD): The first of Rise of the Lycans' featurettes breezes through lining up a new director for this prequel, rushing the script through before the writer's strike, setting up shop in New Zealand, struggling with a lean budget and a tight shooting schedule, and striking the right balance between practical effects and CGI.

  • The Origin of the Feud (20 min.; HD): It's twenty minutes long, and they don't mention Richard Dawson once. A lot of "The Origin..." is spent spelling out exactly what unfolds in this prequel, which makes it seem awfully redundant, although eventually the chatter does start to skew towards bringing back characters slaughtered in the first flick as well as the cast's preparation for their roles.

  • Recreating the Dark Ages (13 min.; HD): The third and last of Rise of the Lycans' featurettes delves into the look of the movie, including its deliberate use of color, production and creature design augmented by CG, and intricate details in the sets drawing inspiration from throughout the world.

  • Lycanthropes Around the World (HD; Blu-ray exclusive): This interactive map highlights a couple dozen werewolf sightings spanning thousands of years throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. (No Aussie werewolves? C'mon, I've watched Howling III; I know they're out there.) There are 21 hotspots in all, each with its own brief story.

  • Music Video (4 min.; HD): "Death
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    Club" (Wes Borland / Renholder remix) by William Control featuring Matt Skiba: an obnoxiously long number of credits for a pretty forgettable goth-whatever song.

  • Trailers (HD): Among the handful of trailers are high-def clips for Underworld and Underworld: Evolution. Sorry, no nod to Rise of the Lycans this time around.

  • CineChat (Blu-ray exclusive): IM with your pals online as the movie unspools. I...yeah, I've gotta admit to not really getting the appeal of this, but then again, I think Twitter's inane and self-indulgent too, so what do I know?

  • BD Live (Blu-ray exclusive): At least as I write this, Rise of the Lycans' online interactivity otherwise doesn't bother with much more than plugs for other Sony titles.

  • Digital Copy: A second disc in the set serves up a digital copy of the flick for use on iPods and PSPs.

The Final Word
Crippled by a low budget and an overwhelming fascination with its own mythology, Rise of the Lycans isn't about an uprising of enslaved werewolves against their vampiric masters so much as its British cast standing around and overacting for an hour and a half straight. The movie is cacklingly violent when it's given half a chance, but the blood-spattered action is disappointingly sparse, and even those few scattered attacks are saddled with rubber fright masks and cartoonish CGI splatter. Anchored around bland, one-note characters and a room temperature romance as unconvincing as the Sci-Fi Original Movie werewolf suits, Rise of the Lycans is really only for Underworld completists. Rent It.


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