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Released in 2003, Underworld had pre-release buzz from horror fans, as some were excited about the idea of a retelling of Romeo and Juliet with werewolves and vampires (and Kate Beckinsale in tight leather, for that matter). However, almost immediately upon its premiere, the tide turned, and Underworld was quickly branded as one of the worst films in recent memory. Despite that, it still did well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel, and in the four years since, the film has been reappraised, aided by an extended cut which added more character development. While it's never going to be a great film, it's certainly not deserving of the lashing it has received.
Kate Beckinsale stars as Selene, a vampire warrior at the front lines of the war between vampires and werewolves (referred to as "Lycans" throughout the picture). She lives in a wealthy coven ruled by Kraven (Shane Brolly), who is in fact only a steward to the hibernating lord of the manor, Viktor (Bill Nighy). Kraven has a one-sided infatuation with Selene, which only grows worse when she discovers that the Lycans are following a human, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman). Selene tracks Michael in his apartment in time to save him from being torn to shreds by Lycans, but not in time to stop him from being bitten by Lucian (Michael Sheen), a powerful elder werewolf long thought dead, and at Kraven's hands, no less. Selene, finding herself drawn to Michael, is caught between the life she knows and the life that could await ahead of her if she sides with Michael over Kraven and a reawakened Viktor.
The last word you would use to describe Underworld is "original." The film's story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, albeit with a supernatural twist. Many films have borrowed tales from the Bard for their own use, so that's no real problem in this case. But on a stylistic level, Underworld feels like a mishmash of Blade, The Matrix, and several other more recent high profile movies. Director Len Wiseman (now afforded a little more respect due to his successful handling of Live Free or Die Hard) shows a serious lack of a directorial voice in his debut effort. On the other hand, he's smart enough to at least steal from movies with an interesting visual approach, which means Underworld is far from bland. And all the sweeping slow motion does lend the film a certain sense of grandeur.
The actors undoubtedly help out the production. Kate Beckinsale really takes charge of Selene, making her a mix of no nonsense soldier and confused vulnerability. She plays the role straight, but with a hint of a smile that lets you know that she knows just what kind of movie she's in. It doesn't hurt that she looks absolutely stunning, and wears skintight leather all the way through. If it weren't for her, the entire project would have been pointless.
The other pillar in the film is Bill Nighy as the haughty vampire elder Viktor. Nighy, most famous for his role as Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, is one of my favorite actors and really throws himself into this role. Nighy plays Viktor with all the entitlement that someone of his stature would possess, speaking to friend and foe alike as if they were bugs he was just waiting to crush under his heel. It's a delicious performance that just drips (pun intended) with delight.
The supporting cast is a little more uneven. Shane Brolly is particularly one-note as Kraven. Of course, the character as written is not particularly nuanced, but he plays every scene with the same silly pout on his face and it gets old very quickly. Michael Sheen (who recently received accolades for his performance as Tony Blair in The Queen), on the other hand, turns in a far more subtle performance as Lucian. Coming across as a natural leader, he is frightening, but at the same time compassionate. He's a villain the audience can really empathize with, something you rarely see in movies these days. Scott Speedman seems a little out of his depth here, which happens to work in his favor because his character is frequently out of his depth. He wouldn't have been able to carry the film on his own, but luckily he doesn't have to.
I really can't understand why people claim to hate Underworld so much. It's competently made, looks cool, and most importantly, it's a lot of fun. Perhaps it takes itself too seriously, which caused people to take it more seriously than it should have been. But if you take it as a two hour chunk of cinematic bubblegum, you might find it to be much more enjoyable than its reputation would suggest. I've been a fan of both films in the series, and if they make a third with Kate Beckinsale (which, sadly, doesn't sound like it will happen), I'd see it in a heartbeat.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The version of Underworld presented here is the unrated cut (not a director's cut, Len Wiseman insists) that was released the year after the film came out. This is my preferred cut, although some might bemoan the lack of the theatrical version. For those interested, there is a Superbit edition of Underworld which has the theatrical cut and an excellent DTS sound mix.
Sony's 2.35:1 AVC-encoded 1080p transfer of Underworld is simply astonishing. Right from the opening moments, the level of clarity and detail is eye-popping. The deep blues that predominate the film are perfectly rendered, and the image has excellent shadow detailing, important for a film with this much darkness. I cannot stress enough how much detail is visible here, you can see drops of sweat in Michael's hair, and tiny tufts of hair on the Lycan's bodies. There's a fine layer of film grain that gives the whole thing a very cinematic presentation and ensures that it doesn't look too processed. In short, this is a perfect transfer and unquestionably of reference quality.
If you think the image is good, wait until you hear the uncompressed PCM 5.1 soundtrack. This is the most aggressive sound mix I have heard on any high definition disc on either format. The opening fight sets the stage, with gunfire blazing across all the channels, swiftly panning with the cuts and camera moves, and bass that makes you feel like you're getting punched in the stomach. Most impressively, the track is equally adept at the quiet scenes as it is in the loud ones. The balance is pitch perfect, with dialogue and ambient effects never fighting for space. The aural detailing is precise and immersing. I can only award this mix five stars, but it's easily worth ten. You owe it to yourself to purchase this disc just for the sound.
Sony has ported over all of the supplements from the 2004 2-disc unrated DVD edition. Note that the unrated DVD set cut a few supplements, including several commentaries, that were available on the initial DVD release of the theatrical cut (presumably since those commentaries were recorded for the shorter theatrical cut and would not cover the additional footage). None of those missing extras are included here.
- Commentary with Director Len Wiseman and Actors Kate Beckinsale and Scott Speedman: This commentary was recorded specifically for the unrated cut, and captures some nice interplay between the three participants. Wiseman and Beckinsale are now married, and thus have an easy rapport. Beckinsale is especially charming, focusing on many of the more hilarious aspects of shooting the film (such as how she couldn't shout "Get down!" during an action scene without cracking up, as it's such an action cliche). Speedman does his best to keep up, but mostly ends up as the butt of the jokes Beckinsale and Wiseman fire out. A lot of fun and worth hearing.
- Fang Vs. Fiction: This absurd "documentary" was originally produced for The History Channel and aims to merge standard vampire/werewolf lore with the mythology introduced in Underworld in an attempt to...I don't actually know. Make the film more credible, maybe? It begins well enough, with a short history of vampire mythology. After the segment on Vlad The Impaler, the whole thing falls apart. The show contends that vampires and werewolves are undoubtedly real, and begin to interview "real" vampires and werewolves, which is just ridiculous. The werewolf interview in particular is painful to watch. What starts off interestingly enough ends as an advertisement for adult role-playing. It's just sad.
- Making of Underworld: One of those made for cable promos, this making-of is short and light on information. Most of the interviews are recycled from the other featurettes on this disc, which go into more detail than this does.
- Visual Effects: this featurette focuses specifically on the CGI effects used in the picture, many of which are more subtle and well integrated than I expected. Also included is some footage of the failed live action shot of the Lycans boarding Amelia's train which is pretty funny.
- Creature Effects: My favorite of all the featurettes, this one takes a look at the physical makeup and costumes used for the Lycans and Viktor. Tons of behind the scenes and pre-production footage is available here, including Bill Nighy getting molds made of his entire body, along with several humorous reactions.
- Stunts: A look at the wirework and fight choreography used in the film. Again, we get a lot of footage of the actors training, including some hot shots of Kate Beckinsale firing guns. Interviews with Bill Nighy, Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Len Wiseman, and the stunt coordinator are also included.
- Designing Underworld: An interview with Bruton Jones, the film's production designer, interspersed with pre-production drawings, films clips, and interviews with Wiseman.
- The Look of Underworld: This featurette is more about Wiseman's visual ideas (example: "I wanted it to look like a living, breathing graphic novel."). Most of it seems to stem from Len's drawings and how those get translated to the screen.
- Sights and Sounds: A montage of behind the scenes footage from various scenes in the film.
- Outtakes: The standard crop of on-set jokes make their appearance, but by far the highlight is Kate Beckinsale shaking her booty for the camera.
- Storyboard Comparison: An A/B storyboard comparison of a few different scenes from the picture.
- Music Video: For "Worms of the Earth" by the band Finch. As is the case with most songs made for movies, it's filled with plenty of footage from Underworld. The song isn't very good, either.
A guilty pleasure is still a pleasure, and Underworld is one of the best. Kate Beckinsale, Michael Sheen, and Bill Nighy make this silly action movie a whole lot of fun. And if you're a fan, you owe it to yourself to buy this Blu-ray disc, which features reference quality sound and picture of the unrated cut of the film. And with all of the features from the unrated DVD ported over, this disc is easily Highly Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.