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I somehow managed to avoid ever watching more than five minutes of Len Wiseman's 2003 vampires vs. werewolves slugfest Underworld. I never particularly felt like I missed anything, and I feel even less so now after having watched the sequel Underworld Evolution, which spends an inordinate amount of its first act recapping and showing extensive flashbacks from the first movie just to be sure everyone gets caught up. It's not like the plot of either movie is so complicated that you couldn't piece it together from the trailers. You've got vampires on the one side and werewolves on the other, and they fight each other. A lot. There's a hot chick in a tight leather catsuit who likes to carry lots of automatic weapons and occasionally slice things up with a very sharp sword. It's all sleekly photographed and highly stylized, with action scenes choreographed to throbbing goth-techno music. Yeah, it's like The Matrix but with monsters, and without those… ummmm, what were they called again?... oh yeah, ideas. Those pesky little things, they'd probably just get in the way.
Kate Beckinsale returns as the star character Selene, a badass vampiress who's gone soft and fallen for a vampire/werewolf hybrid (Scott Speedman, the sensitive hunk from Felicity) who may be the key to ending the ages-long war between the rival monster clans. The story this time has the two of them on the run from uber-vampire Marcus, whose monster costume looks suspiciously a lot like Gary Oldman's did in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Marcus wants to kill them out of revenge or spite or something, but his real master plan is to rescue his long-imprisoned brother William, an uber-werewolf, so that the two of them can gang up and rule the world together. I'm not quite clear on why, if the lead vampire and the lead werewolf are such close brothers, the rest of the vampires and werewolves have been at war for centuries, but maybe that was explained a little better in the first movie. Or maybe not. Maybe you're just not supposed to think about it too much.
Let's get right to the heart of the movie, Beckinsale looks incredibly sexy running around in her leather dominatrix outfit and blasting the hell out of stuff with a machine gun. She and Speedman have one pretty hot (unfortunately not overly explicit) sex scene that Wiseman (her husband!) must have felt really uncomfortable directing. Aside from some cheesy CGI werewolf transformations, most of the monster effects are pretty good, if not particularly original. The movie has plenty of gruesome blood and gore sure to please horror fanboys, though most of the action scenes are spent watching the heroes shoot at monsters they know can't be killed by bullets. Either that would make the heroes complete morons, or that's just one more of those things you're not supposed to think about too hard. Another is why, if the evil William's imprisonment was meant to last literally forever, his cell was designed with a key.
In a perverse casting twist, lovable character actor Bill Nighy (Love Actually, Shaun of the Dead) plays an evil vampire. Sadly, he's under so much prosthetic makeup that he doesn't get the chance to do much acting. Another prominent British thespian Derek Jacobi also shows up to bring some semblance of class to the proceedings. The efforts of both are wasted in a muddle of dumb plotting, bad dialogue, and an endless stream of loud, repetitive action scenes. Jacobi of course is renowned for his extensive Shakespeare work, which only brings to mind that famous line from Macbeth about "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing". It's almost as if the Bard had seen movies like this.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Underworld Evolution debuts on the Blu-ray format courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Why they've elected to put the sequel on Blu-ray without the original is one of those marketing decisions we mere mortals will never understand.
Blu-ray discs are only playable in a compatible Blu-ray player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in an HD DVD player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Underworld Evolution Blu-ray is encoded in High Definition 1080p format using MPEG2 compression on a single-layer 25 gb disc. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
I haven't been too impressed with many of the initial Blu-ray releases but this one pleasantly surprised me. Despite being burdened with PCM audio and over an hour of video supplements, the disc looks pretty good for the most part. The image isn't always razor sharp, but is fairly detailed and has a consistent High-Def appearance. Some scenes look better than others, however. Detail and texture in facial skin pores, for example, look great in some shots but soft elsewhere. That may be a stylistic decision, so I won't hold it against the transfer.
This is a dark movie, yet shadow detail is well defined. The photography's color palette extends all the way from blue to blue. They don't even use different shades of blue. It's the same monotonous blue overcast from start to finish. We get the occasional red blood or fiery orange explosion to mix things up a little, but almost every single object in every single shot from the first frame to the last is the same shade of blue. Again, that's a stylistic choice (as tedious as it may be), not a transfer flaw. Ironically, the limited color range may be one reason the disc looks as good as it does; it was probably easier to digitally compress than other films with more complex visual designs. That doesn't mean there aren't compression problems, though. Parts of the movie are rather noisy with compression grain, especially when a lot of action is occurring on screen, but the effect is not as bad as some Blu-rays. Minor edge enhancement ringing is also visible in some scenes, and there's a bit of blatant color banding in the sunrise towards the end (one of the few non-blue images).
Overall, the disc looks comparable to an HD broadcast over cable or a mediocre HD DVD. That may be faint praise, but it's better than most Blu-rays released thus far.
The Underworld Evolution Blu-ray disc is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over a Blu-ray player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in uncompressed PCM 5.1 format or in standard Dolby Digital 5.1. The sound design is as loud and obnoxious as you'd expect from a big budget horror picture, with lots of thunderous bass and aggressive surround activity. It's not a particularly refined mix, unfortunately. The movie simply progresses from one loud scene to the next in a cacophonous mass of noise. Dialogue is mixed rather low, requiring you to boost the volume to levels that will be uncomfortable during the action scenes. Sound effects in the front soundstage, especially gunshots, are also not as crisp or defined as you'd hope. Fidelity is merely average for a horror movie of this type, even the PCM track. The audio is about as good as it needs to be to get the job done, and may impress bass junkies or those who judge sound quality by how often their surround speakers get used, but simply isn't one of the best soundtracks found on home video.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, Spanish, Portuguese, or Chinese.
Alternate language tracks - French DD 5.1.
All of the bonus features on this Blu-ray title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression. All of the supplements from the DVD appear to have carried over, which is a rare thing for a Blu-ray disc and especially surprising considering the featurettes add up to over an hour of video content .
- Audio Commentary - Director Len Wiseman, production designer Patrick Tatopoulos, editor Nicholas de Toth, and Second Unit director Brad Martin deliver a very chatty commentary. The participants make an effort not to merely recite the action on screen, which is very much appreciated. The talk goes into a lot of detail about the technical logistics of shooting a big special effects picture. Director Wiseman claims not to be a fan of CGI and brags about the miniature and practical effects in the movie, all of which seems pretty disingenuous considering that almost all of those shots were actually CG-assisted, and that the movie has plenty of mediocre CGI monster effects.
- Bloodlines: From Script to Screen (13 min.) – An explanation of the franchise's convoluted storyline "mythology".
- The Hybrid Theory (12 min.) – Focus on the visual effects, with much patting on the back for not using as much CGI as they might have.
- Making Monsters Roar (11 min.) – A look at how the creature effects were achieved using a combination of costumes, prosthetics, and animatronics.
- The War Rages On (9 min.) – Detail about the elaborate stunt scenes.
- Building a Saga (12 min.) – Kudos to the production design team.
- Music and Mayhem (11 min.) – Appreciation of the sound design and score.
- Music Video - "Her Portrait in Black" by Atreyu, a generic heavy metal tune.
We also get a couple of HD previews for unrelated Sony movies, though oddly the trailer for Underworld Evolution that has popped up on most of Sony's other Blu-ray releases is nowhere to be found.
No interactive features have been included.
Hidden on the disc is a selection of HD test patterns. You can access these by entering 7669 on your remote control from the disc's main menu. Use the Skip button to page through the patterns. Please note that due to an error in the Sony encoder used to author the disc, blacker-than-black and whiter-than-white portions of the video signal have been clipped, essentially rendering the Brightness and Contrast calibration patterns useless.
One of the bluest movies ever made comes to the Blu-ray format as an early launch title. I sense a theme here. The movie itself is exactly what you'd expect of it from the trailers and no more, but the Blu-ray is one of the better-looking releases on the format and even includes a solid amount of bonus features. It might be worth a rental on one of those boring nights when all the good movies at the video store are already checked out.