Underworld: Awakening (2D) (US - BD RA)
Gabe awakens in a future where the Underworld movies still aren't very good
Six months after the events of Underworld: Evolution, humans have captured the priority vampire target, Selene (Kate Beckinsale), and put a global military crusade to exterminate vampires and lycans dubbed ‘The Purge’ into effect. The vampire survivors are forced underground where they wage guerrilla warfare against the human government. Selene and her vampire-lycan hybrid lover Michael Corvin are attacked underwater where they and frozen (somehow). Twelve years pass, and the humans have annihilated 95% of the vampire race, and believe the lycans to be entirely extinct. Selene is freed from cryogenic suspension and escapes the medical corporation, Antigen, where her cells are being used to create an antidote for the viruses that created the original vampires and lycans. Selene has strange visions that she follows, believing them to be linked to Michael. The visions lead her to a building where she encounters another surviving vampire named David (Theo James). Together they discover the visions aren’t coming from Michael, but a young girl named Eve (India Eisley) – the secret hybrid daughter of Selene and Michael.
The original Underworld got away with being generally disappointing based on its amusing concept, which came at a time when mainstream entertainment wasn’t crossing vampire and werewolf lore all too often, and Anne Rice’s romantic notions of vampire lore were dying off. Sure, Blade had already kicked and chopped his way through two action packed films, proving that the public had a taste for kung-fu action in their vampire films, but Blade is a dude, and he only fights vampires, not werewolves, leaving Underworld with at least a hint of unique quality. The first film was popular enough to re-gather the original creative team and spawn a sequel in 2006…alongside two other kung-fu fighting lady vampire movies, Kurt Wimmer’s Ultraviolet and Uwe Boll’s BloodRayne. This is not even to mention that between the first and second Underworld films a third Blade film was released, and Kate Beckinsale fought vampires and werewolves in skintight leather for Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing. Clearly the nominally unique qualities had run their course, and audiences were left with a sad and shockingly lifeless movie in Underworld: Evolution. By the time the third film in the series was released, a prequel not staring Kate Beckinsale (note: I never saw Rise of the Lycans, so for all I know it might have been a masterpiece), Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight vampire vs. werewolf love story was a full-on phenomenon, True Blood had run a season on HBO, and any remaining good will towards the original film had evaporated into the vampire vs. werewolf ether. I find it very hard to believe anyone was really looking forward to Underworld: Awakening.
It’s an interesting enough concept to skip this far ahead in the timeline following a prequel, but there’s also a sense that Wiseman is trying to reboot the failing franchise. The previous films count towards the exposition here, but there’s not a lot in the way of callback once the story gets movie. This is also more or less the same story all over again, just set against a different timeline, with the vampires and werewolves trading social standings. The bigger problem is that there’s just isn’t a lot of story, which is a consistent theme throughout the series, especially in the case of the second film, which treaded between action scenes on the goodwill of the original film’s stolen concept. At its base Awakening is a chase flick in the Terminator mould, only without the added value of interesting characters (the rate at which major characters die is actually somewhat amusing) to . There’s an overwhelming sense of nobody really caring about the product, and simply going through the melodrama motions to find the next action sequence, like the cut scenes from a video game. And not even a good video game. There’s also no levity to speak of, not even a failed attempt at a joke. It’s genuinely depressing that it took four writers, including J. Michael Straczynski to put such an empty script together. At the very least things move very, very quickly (the runtime, minus credits, is 78 minutes), leaving us little time to grow too bored with the complete lack of intrigue.
The action theoretically works well enough, but is utterly numbing, featuring nary a single unique or even memorable image. Directors Måns Mårlind (who also directed an empty but gorgeous Swedish film called Storm) and Björn Stein deftly avoid shaky-cam clichés, but still manages to over-cut most of action, creating confusing, weightless, bombastic mash-ups in place of anything dynamic or expressive. As if they wasn’t content enough to confuse the audiences eye (and keep in mind that this was shot for 3D), many, many sequences, action and otherwise, are flooded with strobe lights. The big action beats are designed to maximize the 3D photography, which is funny because the production design is so exceedingly slick that in 2D the lack of differentiation creates a relatively flat look. Worse yet it looks cheap (the budget was reportedly $70 million), cheaper even than Daybreakers ($20 million), a film which Mårlind and cinematographer Scott Kevan liberally nab their images, as if there weren’t enough Blade-swiping Underworld films to work from. These films (along with the Resident Evil series) have never been all that gory aside from a few choice cuts, which is always a disappointment. Awakening has its share of sloppy bits, I believe more than any of the previous films (keeping in mind I haven’t seen the third one), and I admit I was quite happy to see werewolves defaced and internally exploded. Perhaps someday one of these films will really push the limits of its R-rating and get by on ridiculous gore. Assuming they continue to refuse to write interesting scripts. The special effects are weak at best, especially the heavily advertised super-lycan, but are generally serviceable considering type.
Underworld: Awakening was shot for 3D using the RED EPIC HD digital camera system, which, to my eyes, appears to be the industry standard for a digital look that doesn’t ape 35mm film. This 2D release looks utterly perfect, even when trying to look gritty and imperfect. The near future world of the film is generally quite slick, including extremely smooth silk and lycra costumes, and steel and concrete sets, which puts the RED system’s ability to create soft and subtle blends to the test admirably. Even skin and hair textures are generally smoothed over, but there are still a number of textured set elements and gore effects to give the transfer a chance to show off its detail abilities. One definitively positive thing I can say for RED is that it seems to save filmmakers from darkening their films to a point of confusion (see: Thor, anything by . That soupy black look isn’t so much a problem when post production controls can ensure the important highlights are still discernable. The sharpness of these highlights is quite impressive, creating fine lines without any major blown-out white levels. The Underworld series has always been visually defined by practically monochromatic blue colour schemes. The whites are replaced with light blues and the blacks with dark blues. It’s silly, but it’s a theme. This new film mostly follows suit, but skews its blues a bit more toward teal, and replaces many of its light white highlights with, you guessed it, orange. That’s right, we’ve got another orange and teal movie. O&T doesn’t entirely define the colour scheme, there are regular deep red elements, green sneaks into the mix on occasion, and if I’m honest the orange is a little more yellow than orange, but for the most part we’re talking more of the same thing we keep seeing out of the action genre. Design flaws aside these hues look incredibly crisp and pure, without any bleeding or compression artefacts.
It’s not at all surprising that a film so focused on outstanding slickness features an extremely aggressive DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack, but it should probably still be said – this is an extremely aggressive track. The action scenes are the obvious standouts, with their back to front machine gun fire effects, their front to back fiery explosions, growling werewolves, and zippy vampire chick flying from channel to channel, but even rather innocuous sequences feature intricate sound design practices. POV shots feature rear channel breathing effects that recreate the sound of being within one’s own head, and the sound of approaching danger and general dystopian ambience. The monster noises are ridiculously weighted by LFE enhancement, ensuring a simple growl will vibrate the room even at moderate volume levels. There are some minor inconsistencies in the basic dialogue, and volume levels of the center channel seem abnormally low for type. During dialogue heavy sequences I found myself forced to turn up the receiver, only to quickly turn it down again when the action picks up again. Paul Haslinger’s throbbing, omnipresent score is repetitive, but very well mixed, even with the loudest action noise, and features plenty of its own LFE enhancement.
The extras start with a commentary track featuring directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, and producers James McQuaide, Richard S. Wright and Gary Lucchesi. This is a busy enough track, and from what I can tell everyone is to be participating (it’s hard to tell some of the voices apart) and in good spirits. Everyone seems to be proud of their work, but recognize their limitations, and are aware they aren’t reinventing the wheel here. The jokes are lame, but there’s plenty to learn from the behind the scenes process, and little time is wasted patting each other on the back. If flat commentary isn’t your thing there’s also a Blu-ray exclusive Cracking the Underworld picture in picture experience. This includes pop-up trivia notes that fill us in on the mythology of the Underworld universe that sometimes pops up on-screen text, and other times shrinks the screen to fit an additional screen that features footage from the original movies. Unfortunately the people that are most likely to care about the in-film option are fans, and I’m guessing fans already know this stuff, and likely even own the previous films. Kind of a waste, but the double screen moments at least tend to pertain to the current on-screen action.
Next up is a series of five behind the scenes featurettes. Selene Rises (12:10, HD) covers the history of the lead characters throughout the series, with producers Gary Lucchesi, Len Wiseman and Richard Wright, directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, costume designer Monique Prudhomme, and actors India Eisley, Theo James, Michael Ealy and Kate Beckinsale herself slobbering all over Beckinsale’s performance. Casting the Future of Underworld (12:30, HD) features the same interviewees, along with actors Charles Dance, Stephen Rae and Kris Holden-Reid, discussing some of the new characters and cast members, and their place in the apparently continuing series. Resuming the Action (8:50, HD) features many of the same interviewees, along with second unit director and stunt designer Paul Barry discussing the film’s action, giving due credit to Barry and his stunt crew. Building a Better Lycan (10:20, HD) once again features many of the usual interviewees, along with make-up effects supervisor Todd Masters and his crew, discussing the process of making the film’s werewolves, complete with plenty of behind the scenes footage. Awakening a Franchise: Building a Brutal New World (18:50, HD) features a last interview with the usual suspects, along with celluloid effects supervisor Adreas Gutsche, sterographer Kasimir Lehto and production designer Claude Paré discussing the film production design, special effects cinematography, including a new RED camera that was produced just for the film in order to shoot 120 fps in digital 3D HD.
The extras end with a blooper reel (3:20, HD), Lacey Sturm featuring Geno Lenardo ‘Heavy Prey’ music video (3:30, HD), and trailers for other Sony releases.
The Underworld movies continue to parallel the equally mediocre Resident Evil series. Besides the odd coincidence of both series being (largely) put together by writer/director/producer and lead actress husband and wife teams (if Milla Jovovich wasn’t born in the Ukraine I could say British husband and wife teams), Resident Evil and Underworld are proudly mediocre action horror films, and have followed the same video game inspired fight/cut-scene/fight/cut-scene/boss fight formula. With Awakening the Underworld movies are now apparently making movies that bide time until the tease of a sequel, leaving audiences to pay good money to essentially watch an elongated trailer for the next film. At least the first two Underworld movies felt like complete films. This 2D release looks and sounds fantastic, so I suppose it doesn’t make the worst reference disc.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 8th May 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English and French, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Audio Description Track
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Directors and Producers Commentary, Cracking the Underworld Picture in Picture Experience, Five Behind the Scenes Featurettes, Blooper Reel, Music Video, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Måns Mårlind, Björn Stein
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Sandrine Holt, Theo James, Michael Ealy, India Eisley, Stephen Rea
Genre: Action and Horror
Length: 88 minutes