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Underworld: Awakening

Screen Gems // R // May 8, 2012 // Region 0
List Price: $35.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted April 29, 2012 | E-mail the Author
The movie's called Underworld: Awakening and all that, so why does it keep putting me to sleep?

That's kind of the weird thing about this fourth -- fourth! -- installment in the vampires-in-this-corner-werewolves-in-the-other franchise. If you asked me to rattle off a laundry list of all the stuff
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about the Underworld series that grates on my nerves, Awakening takes care of pretty much of all of it. The other movies in the franchise have a tendency to get bogged down in their dense, needlessly intricate mythology. I'm sure there are websites and Tumblrs and stuff where ravenous fans are charting chronologies about who begat who and stuff, but the endless backstory of Underworld never meant that much to me, and the movies just seemed to drag on and on because of it. Awakening, meanwhile, skips pretty much past all of that. You pay your eight bucks or whatever to see werewolves and vampires shooting an' hacking each other into bloody, fist-size chunks...geysers of the red stuff spewing all over. Yes, the staggering volume of action in Underworld: Awakening outclasses anything the franchise has delivered to date. You never go more than a few minutes without someone's head exploding, a grenade going off, or a lycan tearing some poor bastard in two. Kate Beckinsale is back too, after sitting out the Rise of the Lycans prequel. Much like the character she introduced right at a full decade ago, Beckinsale herself is seemingly immortal as she looks half her age and is still bounding around in that painted-on pleather catsuit.

The problem is...well, everything, I guess. I appreciate the fact that Underworld: Awakening shies away from the overplotting that's bogged down so much of the series to date, but instead, there's not much of a story at all. Seline awakens after being held captive in suspended animation for twelve years, only to find that she's somehow spawned a vampire/lycan hybrid daughter that the sinister scientists of Antigen believe could spawn a new race of Über-Lycans. That's pretty much the entire movie in one very awkwardly worded sentence. There are conspiracies and betrayals and lots an' lots an' lots of
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gruesome battles-to-the-death, but it's generally a straightahead MacGuffin chase. There's nothing about it that's all that memorable or involving.

Underworld: Awakening toys with what used to be the status quo -- the existence of lycans and vampires is now a matter of public record, vampires no longer enjoy the prestige, power, and wealth they once commanded, and the lycans now secretly reign supreme from their towers in the sky as the once-proud vamps cower underground -- but the movie never really figures out how to use any of that to its advantage. Seline is the only holdover from the rest of the franchise (well, minus forty seconds of a CG-double for Scott Speedman), and she's joined instead by a small army of newly-introduced characters. The actors and actresses behind them vary wildly in terms of talent. India Eisley, who plays Seline's hybrid daughter, is terrific, at least when she's not caked in that embarrassingly amateurish fright makeup. Others, like vampire coven lord Charles Dance and moustache-twirlingly-evil scientist Stephen Rea, seize every possible opportunity to ham it up and gnaw on the scenery. There's very little about these characters that's engaging or memorable either, and even the whole mother/daughter thing between Seline and Subject #2 falls flat. Since Awakening doesn't give me much of a reason to care about anything that's going on or anyone it's happening to, the
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spectacle of the action suffers as a result.

This is a movie that's gory, brutal, and frequently unrelenting -- bigger and bloodier than any of the other three Underworld movies -- and yet it's not even a little bit of an adrenline rush. Even worse, the moments in between are excruciatingly static sequences of people standing around and talking, stomping all over any energy or momentum Awakening ought to have built up. An hour and a half of werewolves-fuckin'-up-vampires really shouldn't be this tedious to watch. The production design is considerably less inspired as well, with the bulk of this sequel taking place in crumbling, underground lairs or cold, sterile labs. No matter where Seline goes, though, the lights overhead always seem to be flickering. Wonder why that is. Underworld: Awakening features lycans that are the size of a single-family home, and Seline's powerset has been cranked up to match. It's mentioned in the disc's audio commentary that Seline is put through the ringer more in Awakening than in either of the first two flicks in the franchise, but I felt the complete opposite; she's so off-the-charts superpowered that absolutely nothing seems like a credible threat to her. I can't shake the feeling that these are the worst-looking lycans the Underworld series has delivered either, and that sure doesn't help matters much.

The Underworld series has always been a guilty pleasure for me, but Awakening kinda seems like it wants to be a Resident Evil sequel instead, and...yeah, that's a franchise I never exactly warmed up to all that much. I mean, I don't hate Underworld: Awakening. It's totally watchable. It's less of a waste of time than pretty much every other genre flick I've reviewed over the past couple of months. Yeah, that's not exactly what I'd call high praise, though. Unless you're some frothing-at-the-mouth completist or something, you can probably get by with a rental. Rent It.

At least as far as the strictly technical end of things goes, Underworld: Awakening looks phenomenal on Blu-ray. Contrast in a movie this dark and shadowy is expectedly robust, bolstered by deep, substantial black levels.
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Lensed in 5K with the RED Epic camera, the digital photography is strikingly sharp and detailed. The presentation isn't marred in the slightest by any excessive noise reduction, edge enhancement, posterization, or sputters or stutters in the compression. If you're gonna watch Underworld: Awakening, it really oughtta be on Blu-ray.

If you're willing to put up with me bitching about more subjective stuff, Underworld: Awakening quickly starts to feel bland visually, thanks to less-than-dazzling production design, an overreliance on strobing lights, and the same stale cyan tint that's defined the franchise to date. Crisp and richly detailed though the photography may be, it is distractingly digital, not looking even a little bit filmic, and that doesn't play to my tastes so much. A technically flawless presentation of a fairly routine looking movie.

Underworld: Awakening and its gaggle of extras span both layers of this BD-50 disc. The movie's theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1 has been preserved on Blu-ray, and the video has been encoded with AVC. There's a separate 3D release as well, but I don't really have anything to say about that.

More channels; lower bit-depth. Underworld: Awakening features eight discrete channels of sound, but this is a 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio track rather than the 24-bit audio you've gotten used to hearing on Blu-ray. Then again, unless you're staring dead-eyed at a bitrate meter, chances are that you wouldn't be able to tell much of a difference anyway. The sound design throughout Underworld: Awakening is unrelentingly aggressive: sprays of gunfire pinging around from one channel to the next, a fifteen foot tall über-lycan encircling his prey outside of the camera's gaze, the gutteral growls of these creatures reinforced by a thunderous LFE, and...well, damn near everything in the movie getting blown to holy hell. It's also appreciated that even with as chaotic as the mix can get, the movie's dialogue is unwaveringly balanced cleanly and clearly throughout. It can be aurally exhausting, sure, but I kind of love it. If you're watching Underworld: Awakening in plain-jane stereo with the speakers built into your HDTV, you're doing it wrong.

A 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track in French has also been included, and a descriptive video service track is there for good measure as well. Subtitles are offered in English (traditional and SDH), French, and Spanish. Since there's a little Russian and stuff lobbed around in Underworld: Awakening, some occasional English subtitles kick in by default. Owners of constant image height projection rigs can rest easy that these subs are rendered entirely in the image of the movie proper rather than spilling over into the letterboxing bars.

  • Creating the Underworld: Picture-in-Picture Experience: The short answer: pretty much a complete waste of time.

    First of all, this isn't the usual sort of picture-in-picture extra where a little window pops up in the corner with storyboards, interviews, or behind-the-scenes snippets. For the most part, it's a trivia track, with a
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    little box infrequently appearing in the lower-left-hand corner with nuggets like "vampires require blood in order to sustain themselves" or "lycans have powerful claws for both hands and feet". If you've watched any of these movies before, no matter how many years it's been, it's usually not gonna tell you anything you don't already know. Sometimes it does delve a little deeper into the franchise's lycan/vampire mythos, naming certain key characters and locations, but it's very, very rarely of any interest. The video component is based entirely on clips from the other three flicks in the Underworld-iverse. Rather than do the usual picture-in-picture routine, the screen splits in two, and the audio for the feature film proper completely drops out. All it does is illustrate points from the trivia track, so if it says something about how vampires can interpret memories through contact with blood, you see a couple of quick excerpts from the other movies that help hammer that home. There's nothing unique or original to "Creating the Underworld" at all. Unless you're diving into Underworld: Awakening without having seen any of the other movies, this feature is completely, wholly, totally pointless.

  • Featurettes (63 min.; HD): Underworld: Awakening piles on five featurettes that can be viewed individually or played all at once.

    "Selene Rises" (12 min.) chats about Kate Beckinsale returning to the role that made her a household name, how the character of Seline has changed, and how she can still wriggle into a skintight catsuit a full decade later. "Casting the Future of Underworld" (12 min.) aims its cameras at the new members of the supporting cast, including Stephen Rea, Michael Ealy, Theo James, India Eisley, Charles Dance, and Kris Holden-Ried, at least some of whom might pop up in future sequels. "Resuming the Action" (9 min.) tackles the amped-up stuntwork and the challenges that presented to an honest-to-God 3D shoot like this. There are also peeks at storyboards and test footage. "Building a Better Lycan" (10 min.) delves into the design and fabrication of the physical lycan suits, including the push for a sense of reality, the animatronics that add an extra layer of expressiveness, and the stilts that make the beasts that much more towering and imposing. The last and most lengthy of these featurettes is "Awakening a Franchise: Building a Brutal New World" (19 min.), where the focus is almost entirely on production design, the challenges of 3D photography, and the bleeding-edge hardware that helps to realize Underworld: Awakening's ambitious visuals.

  • Audio Commentary: Underworld: Awakening's commentary track features directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, producers Richard Wright and Gary Lucchesi, and executive producer-slash-VFX-supervisor James McQuaide. It's a really chatty and very personable discussion, although it's not one where I found myself scribbling down page after page of highlights or anything. Among the topics this time around are the logistics of making a movie with two directors at the helm, how grueling a shoot this was, what with its intense emphasis on action and its groundbreaking use of the RED Epic in 3D and all, the ways in which they wanted to push Seline as she never had been in the franchise before, and how the first-ever appearance of a blooper gun on-camera is way more awesome than it sounds. A decent if kinda unmemorable listen.

  • Blooper Reel (3 min.; HD): I'm sitting here trying to think about this, and I don't know if I've ever seen slo-mo outtakes on a blooper reel before. Are
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    you breaking new ground, Underworld: Awakening? Toss in some werewolf puppet humping, and I'll say this is one of my favorite blooper reels I've seen in a really long time.

  • Music Video (3 min.; HD): Last up is a high-def music video for Lacey Sturm's "Heavy Prey". It also features Geno Lenardo in case that helps push you over-the-top or something.

Oh, and a code for an UltraViolet digital copy is tucked inside too.

The Final Word
Shameless cash grab or no, Underworld: Awakening seems like it ought to be a step in the right direction. The bloated runtimes of the other flicks are trimmed down to seventy-something minutes minus credits, and the glowering self-seriousness and uninvolving, dense mythology of the franchise make way for pretty much wall-to-wall action. Awakening takes that all too far, though. What's supposed to pass for characters and a story are all wafer-thin, the pacing grinds to a screeching halt whenever something's not getting gunned-down or blown-the-hell-up, and even the intense emphasis on action rarely gets my pulse racing. The first couple of Underworld movies are overwrought and ridiculous yet still kind of entrancing, and this one just doesn't deliver those same sorts of "wow-exclamation-point"s. Unless you're a completist, Underworld: Awakening isn't one you're likely to want to come back to over and over again, so the smart money says you're better off with a rental. Rent It.
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