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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.