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Underworld: The Essential Collection
Sony Pictures // Unrated // December 20, 2011
List Price: $45.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
For most, a photograph of this new Underworld: The Essential Collection box will be all the review they'll need: it's the same discs, cases, and content made available with these guilty pleasure flicks since the first days of the Blu-ray format, only equipped with a limp, inessential bonus disc and a snazzy box to give it some gusto. I say most because, unless I'm incorrect, the majority of the series' loyal following will have already added these to their collection, either around their release or by way of the many inexpensive sales (both new and third-party used) since. But for the uninitiated, let's chat a bit about why Len Wiseman's series holds its own as a guilty pleasure. And there's surely a little guilt built around delving into the Underworld series, as sub-par dialogue and over-the-top science and mythology are justified by the orchestration of vigorous action sequences within its signature stylish, gothic brood, spearheaded by a heroine that spruces up its sillier inclinations.
First, the plot: Selene, played by Kate Beckinsale, is a member of an ancient vampire family who's bent on wiping out the werewolves that killed her Hungarian family hundreds of years ago -- which happens to be part of her job as a "Death Dealer", a heavily-armed, skilled warrior in the militant wing of the coven. Instead of lounging around drinking blood and scheming from a distance like her aristocratic brethren, including their slimy new leader, Kraven (Get it? A play on the word "craven"!), she's doing the dirty work in the midst of the underground civil war brewing between the two factions, wielding silver-crafted shurikens and intense firearms. What she eventually discovers about a recent movement in the werewolves' tactics becomes the crux to the series: they've been hunting a doctor named Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman) for purposes that slowly become evident the deeper Selene investigates, tying back to the origins of the werewolves and their leader at the time, Lucian (Michael Sheen).
Despite having bloodsucking vampires and voracious werewolves, the Underworld series really doesn't have a whole lot to do with the horror genre; not only is there next-to-no suspense in terms of watching the beasts kill humans, I'm struggling to remember even a handful of instances where you even see those attacks on-screen. Instead, Wiseman uses what's commonly known about the two breeds of monsters -- werewolves' allergy to silver and unpredictable transformations, vampires' aversion to sunlight and heightened strength -- and thrusts them together into a milieu of gunfire, fang-bearing, and quick-footed chases through the depths of a human-dominated world, concerning itself much more with the heaviness of its action than with any dread or anticipation (aside from a few jump-scares, which, oddly, feel out of place). In terms of its chic post-Matrix style and gnarly design, not to mention its progression through a clear 21st-century action-movie framework, it doesn't try to suggest that it should be anything else than a swath of brawls-'n-bullets with a horror lore backbone. And taken as such, it's an exhilarating world.
Wiseman's universe in the original Underworld, as well as the relationship that develops between its two main characters, Selene and Michael, offers little in terms of innovation; he trades out Shakespeare's Montagues and Capulets with a bloody modern-era war between vampires and werewolves, both immortal and near-invincible, and laces it with a little bourgeois vs. lower-throng class conflict for good measure. Bullets (and other projectiles) fly through the air of cobalt-tinted buildings and craggy tunnels, the under-the-city battleground for a conflict which we're unsure of the purpose at first: people for food? Freedom of territory? Or something else. Answers come in streams of mythology exposition, sure, and it's an intriguing-enough backbone to propel the action and its underlying motives, but it's all stuff we've seen before ... only draped in high-contrast, stony visuals and sporting a horror / sci-fi pulse, and not something that evokes all that much investment.
The real draw to Underworld -- generating, now, an almost cult-like following -- lies in Wiseman's talent for combining the story's stock machinations and convoluted mythology (and biology) with a tense, clear eye for stylized action sequences involving the warring vamps and lycans, and he produces tightly-crafted and not entirely brainless energy for its two-hour runtime. Granted, it demands patience with lackluster tell-all action-movie dialogue; Beckinsale, Speedman, Michael Sheen and the better actors of the ensemble can handle, even bolster, the theatricality, while the less-seasoned players weaken the mood when they chew and fumble their gamey lines. But in terms of delivering a straight-faced romp involving a minxy leather-clad vampire heroine who falls for a werewolf, investigates the antiquated relics of her coven's past, and kicks plenty of ass in the process, this could've been a lot more limp and campy. In short, a serious amount of fun can, and should, be had with Underworld.
When Sony released the original flick on Blu-ray in 2007, early in the life cycle of the high-definition format, it quickly became a reference disc -- not so much for the video, though it does aptly present the cold blues and deep shadows of the series' signature visuals, but for the aggressive PCM audio track. Over the past five years, several other astounding audiovisual beasts have thundered onto the scene, flexing the crispness and low-end fury of Master Audio and TrueHD tracks. In comparison, Underworld isn't quite the powerhouse it once appeared to be, but it still packs plenty of wallop in that regard. You've heard crisper gun shots and more furious explosions by now, and the aged track does creak a bit here and there, but the engaging surround activity and the balls-out fury of its harsh, loud activity and pulsating score still sustains its stature as a quality HD disc. Notable extras include a solid commentary with Wiseman and the Beckinsale-Speedman duo, as well as the "Creature Effects" and "Stunts" featurettes that stand out from a mass of mediocre other supplements.
Check out DVDTalk's full review of the Blu-ray here.
On the other hand, its sequel, the aggravatingly boisterous Underworld: Evolution, seems destined from the opening cards to inject its fans with a concentrated, over-the-top dosage of tepid been-there, done-that indulgence, a brainless fix that operates as if mimicry of its predecessor can get the job done well enough for a sequel. What's frustrating is that it almost works. Giant winged vampire hybrids, volatile high-speed chases through snowy mountains, round after round of bullets emptied into immortal bodies and, perhaps most notably, some very pronounced skin-bearing from Beckinsale and Speedman adorn this sequel, picking up right after the end of the original with Selene and Michael on the run from the vampires. Any gaps left from the first film in terms of cast or characters types are refilled by other, similar personas; Shuttle and Red Road's Tony Curran takes up the villain mantle from Michael Sheen as a vamp-hybrid elder, while Shakespearean legend Derek Jacobi (Hamlet) offers his services a huffy elder vampire.
What Wiseman forgets to bring over from the original, and what bars it from feeling like a complete motion picture, is the same amount of control over its already sparse sensibility, leaving the story -- crammed tight with bland, overestimated importance that ties back to the ancient vampire origins -- obscured under outlandish more-is-more action and moronic biological developments that strain even the story's fantasy-bound suspension of disbelief. Sure, there's heaps of sleek violence slathered in blue lighting, improved werewolf transformations, and plenty (more) of Beckinsale delivering the goods in her fitted leather garb, and I suppose that's enough for some. But ultimately, I felt far less engaged with the cinematic evolution at-play here, and once it folds in twist after dizzying twist that tie to the mythos and science of the universe, not to mention playing easy emotional cards, any sort of even halfhearted investment in the story fades into the blitz of chaotic action in its final act.
A bigger budget (roughly double, to $50m) means beefed-up visuals, heightened production design, and the opportunity for more robust audio than even the booming original film, which Sony confidently projects through the sequel's very early Blu-ray -- one of the first, in fact, released in the summer of '06. Sure, you can see some of the format's (and the studio's) early hiccups buried in the transfer: crushed blacks, flatness of dimension, and compression noise prevent it from being impressive. However, there's slickness in the photography that still comes through in the MPEG-2 HD transfer, from the flecks of icy blues in eyes and metallic sheen and textures in medieval helmets to the caliber of detail in the visual effects. And the audio design's no slouch within the PCM track, either, though it's admittedly not as strong as the first film's fury. Taking the fact that it's an old disc into consideration, it still gets the job done. Extras include another respectable commentary from Wiseman and his crew, as well as a pack of aggrandizing featurettes about the visuals, mythology, and creature formation.
Check out DVDTalk's full review of the Blu-ray here.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans:
Let's face it: this series relies heavily on watching an artillery-packin' Kate Beckinsale saunter-'n-sprint her way through gritty buildings and dark caverns in her leather digs. So, what's an Underworld movie without guns, a modern setting, Len Wiseman in the director's chair ... or Kate Beckinsale? Then you've got Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, the similarly-toned period prequel that focuses on the origin of the war between Selene's coven and the lycans, where machine guns and high-tech hand-thrown weapons are replaced with massive swords and hefty crossbows. Set in The Dark Ages, it's mostly built around the brooding, dour castle housing the aristocratic vampires and their feral werewolf slaves, but on top of that, it also visualizes what's only been seen through sepia-tinted, distorted flashbacks: the flourish of the relationship between Lucian (Michael Sheen), the leader of the lycans, and Sonja (Rhona Mitra), the daughter of one of the vampire elders, Viktor (Bill Nighy graces us with a return).
Underworld and Evolution creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos takes the helm from Wiseman for Rise of the Lycans, which suffers the burden that falls on all prequels: the outcome is already in the books, so there's little suspense or immediacy in seeing what happens. Familiar faces (many of which return) will obviously make it out alive, and not-so-familiar faces won't -- which carries a lot of impact here, since a major development/twist in the original Underworld revolves around the prequel's finale. Mostly, it becomes about how they can flesh out the mythology to satisfy fans while aping what the others do right; that includes casting Doomsday star Rhona Mitra as an action heroine substitute for Beckinsale, in which she eventually comes out wielding a sword and form-fitting armor to sate those base desires. And Rise of the Lycans works, if for only one reason: it gives fans of the series an intense, familiar action film executed with enough straight-faced intensity and gritty production-design curios to watch, and enjoy, before another revisit to the original Underworld. It doesn't stand on its own, there's no doubting that, but it satisfies where it needs as a medieval werewolf flick and a (backwards) extension to the Underworld universe.
Years under Sony's belt in the Blu-ray spectrum, along with the updated tech in terms of transferring to high-definition, can be seen in the progression of quality between the Underworld films -- and the digitally-shot photography in Rise of the Lycans certainly gives it another leg-up. All are similarly reliant on intense contrast, stark blues, pale skin tones and dense texture, but this disc preserves them the most elegantly out of the bunch; the 2.35:1-framed image handles the shifting contrast well enough, with only a few instances of black crush or washed-out levels, and some of the chiseled details in production design and close-ups can be staggering (when peeking out through some grain). An abrasive Dolby TrueHD clanks, throbs, howls, scratches, and snarls its way along with plenty of ferocity to support the visuals, while also keeping tabs on subtle echoes and dialogue preservation. Extras include yet another solid commentary with Tatopoulos, Wiseman wearing his producer's cap, and other crew members, as well as a few bland featurettes and other interactive features.
Check out DVDTalk's full review of the Blu-ray here.
Timed to coincide with the release of the fourth film in the series, Underworld: Awakening (DVDTalk's review can be found here), Sony have bundled together the previous three Blu-ray releases and tucked them in a blue-gray textured box that somewhat resembles the craggy coffin imagery which appears throughout the series. Once more, for good measure: these are the same releases already available, all individually sealed as if they were simply plucked from the stock assembly line and thrown into the snazzy box. The box itself, admittedly, is kinda cool; while flimsy, the rich colors and stony textures give it a neat appeal. No, it's not worth seeking out if you've already got the other Blu-rays, but it's a nice touch for those who have yet to chip in for the series.
There's one add-on thrown in the package, designed to draw the interest of fans: a bonus Blu-ray disc (in a paper envelope, no less) including Underworld: Endless War, a series of animated shorts that take place in the Underworld universe. Lasting less than eighteen minutes, the serialized three-part anime stretch jumps between time periods -- the 1890s, the 1960s, and 2012 -- as it follows Selene on the hunt for a higher-tier werewolf mark. Draped in soupy blues and stormy grays, the animation's locations look the part, kind of, but the stock, angular anime faces and bodily movement simply don't match up with the character's dispositions as they've come to be known. As for the overall production ... well, Endless War is lazy, hollow, and fairly unnecessary, and it feels surprisingly rigid and drawn-out for its short length, with only a few quick flashes of vampire-on-werewolf violence that make it not a complete waste of time.
Click each image below for DVDTalk's original coverage of the Blu-rays:
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Warrior women -- specifically Kate Beckinsale -- in form-fitting leather, vampires and werewolves waging Shakespearean battles across time, and heaps of bullet-flying and teeth-bearing tangled in an unruly nest of mythology spanning to the medieval era ... that's Underworld for you, a slick universe of action-horror chaos spread out over gothic, grimly-lit sets ripe for destroying. At its best, it's polished, composed, and enthralling to behold in its blend of gunfire and mythos; at its worst, it's obnoxiously plotting, dramatic overblown, and too boisterous for its own good. You take the good with the bad, and overall it's a framework ideal for style over substance in its fast-moving, comic book caliber energy.
But more likely than not, you've already made up your mind about the flicks, and want to know if Sony's recent Blu-ray set merits the price tag. There's only one very specific group who should get this new box, though: those who don't own any of the films on Blu-ray, and who avoid purchasing used discs (the whole series can be found for probably around $15 through third-party outlets). Everyone else? Skip It, unless you can get it cheap; it's the same discs already available, and the box and eighteen minutes of limp anime narrative-beefing on the Underworld: Endless War bonus disc ain't worth the extra coin.