Vampires and werewolves, swords and guns. It's tough to not like films with these basic elements, especially co-mingled. The 'Underworld' movies are exactly that. Immortal badass vampires fighting a never ending battle against immortal badass werewolves, for misdeeds committed long in the past, whose blood war will never end as long as both species exist. Inspired as much by Shakespearean tragedies and the real life Hattfields and McCoys as fellow action films like 'The Matrix,' a tale both classic and modern is laid out with intricate detail, weaving a story that encompasses nearly a millennium, where no crime or wrongdoing is forgotten.
Rather than present a tale in olden times, where many of the stories of these creatures exist, 'Underworld' brings the war between vampire and lycan to modern times, with modern weapons, and more modern plot twists.
The centuries upon centuries old war between the clans is about to reach a head. The vampires believe they have hunted and slaughtered the lycans to the brink of extinction, but little do they know, a clan of werewolves is planning a strike against their former masters that may set the balance of the fight back in their favor.
Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is a Death Dealer, a vampiric hunter out to remove the lycan threat, who stumbles across a plan that threatens her entire species, as she discovers Lucian (Michael Sheen), a lycan long believed dead is still roaming the streets. Kraven (Shane Brolly), an aristocratic vampire with a thirst for power more than blood, was long believed to have killed Lucian, which helped him attain his rank in the coven.
With this conspiracy set to destroy the Death Dealers, Selene sets to action, awakening Viktor (Bill Nighy), a vampiric elder who is much like a father to her. But the lycan plan is already in motion, to create a hybrid species, through Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), a descendant of the Corvinus family that spawned both species. Decades worth of deceit will unfold as Selene seeks out both the truth, and the destruction of the lycan threat.
Underworld is an interesting film, though hardly original. It borrows freely (and often) from 'The Matrix,' but doesn't exactly borrow from the source material from the two monsters that it bases its characters off of, Dracula for the vampires, and the Werewolf (no, not the 'Teen Wolf') for the lycans. Throughout the entire series, these immortals are dispatched from slits to the neck, slices to the chest, or even severe mauling. I suppose one could make the case that this was an attempt to move away from the long established lore of these beasts and create a more believable story. You know, one where point blank bullet wounds have nothing on a slice to a shoulder. This lack of authenticity to the creatures themselves is my sole complaint about the film (and also carries through the series). (Movie rating: 4.0/5.0)
A bit early to be jumping the shark, the 'Underworld' sequel 'Underworld: Evolution' did just that. While it did take a few of the elements that made the first a real success, it went far beyond the mythos of the two species at war, and devolved into a super powered monster mash.
Viktor has been slain, along with Lucian, and Selene and Michael are on the run. While the lies that have created the fallout have been resolved and handled, there are more severe repercussions to the centuries of deceit. The first vampire, Marcus (Tony Curran), has been awakened, by the blood of a lycan, and has become a bit of a mutant hybrid, similar to Michael, though far more powerful. Marcus has long felt trapped due to his feelings concerning his brother William, the first werewolf, and with the lycan blood memories, he sets out to free his long imprisoned brother from his bonds, to undo the damage that Viktor had done.
'Underworld' worked wonders to me, with its dark, mysterious tone, methodical, brooding pace, and character development galore. All that was thrown out the window and run over, repeatedly, in 'Evolution.' The film picks up right where the previous installment left off, but that seems to be the only real link between the two. Action sequences in this sequel again feel like 'Matrix' rip-offs (especially the hand to hand combat shots early on), while every sequence in the film has to be bigger and better than the last, which is a failed objective, as the film gets worse and worse.
The biggest problem in 'Underworld: Evolution,' in my opinion, is the lack of a developed villain. With Lucian gone, Viktor slain, and Kraven dispatched early, the role of the big baddy goes to Marcus, who is never scary, daunting, intimidating, or cunning. He's a hybrid on a mission, who will kill anyone in his way. There is no possible emotional connection, as he never acts human, even when he is in his human form, so there is no sympathy for his particular plight. He's somewhat reminiscent of Nemesis from 'Resident Evil: Apocalypse,' in that he's around every corner, he's freakishly unstoppable, and is entirely unbelievable, so he gives off no real tension. That, and he has a character design equally as ridiculous as Nemesis, replete with his ugly little upturned nose.
There are numerous plot holes, as well, in this clunky sequel. Why is Marcus only inspired to free his brother now, when he has been the lone awake elder (two asleep, one awake) a number of times? Why are the lycan blood memories so clear to Marcus, when Selene's are so vague and unfocussed when they awoke Viktor? Why can Michael be in the sunlight, when the other hybrid, Marcus, cannot? Does it really matter what creature they were first, I mean, part vampire is part vampire, right? Can Marcus regenerate himself just as Michael does? And what is so special about Corvinus' blood, that allows him to live forever, yet he is neither bat nor wolf? Hopefully we don't see a sequel to this sequel, as I would rather be curious as to these gaps, than be presented with a bastardization of a bastardization. (Movie rating: 2.0/5.0)
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
When 'Underworld: Evolution' ended, there wasn't much room (or need) for a sequel to continue the story. The solution? Prequel!
The 'Underworld' series was ripe for such a treatment, to flesh out the backstories that were alluded to so much during the first film. While the story has to follow a strict line, for continuity purposes, that doesn't mean that it will be boring, as the reasons behind the actions of every character that appears in this film and either of the films that proceed are fleshed out and rationalized.
The third installment in the series covers the origins of Lucian, the child born from a wolf, who separates himself from his savage brethren in his mentality, to the point that he falls for Viktor's daughter, Sonja (Rhona Mitra). Their love is a forbidden one, as Viktor (as well as many other vampires) find the lycans to be nothing more than the objects of slavery that they have been forced into. The actions here will mark the beginnings of a war that will not end as long as both species exist.
'Rise of the Lycans' is one of the better prequels I've seen, as it gives a significant amount of new meaning to the first film, fully fleshing out the tragedies of some of the lead roles, while even expounding upon the sequel a few times, in particular the Tanis (Steven Mackintosh) character, who we find in exile in 'Evolution.' Lucian's goals in the original film make far more sense knowing his plight that was at first only alluded to and shown in "blood memories." His persistence over the centuries to co-mingle the bloodlines is representative of his search to replace his lost child, much like Viktor did with Selene, replacing the child he sentenced to death in Sonja. The ironic thing, though, is that despite the fact that these characters never forget what has happened to them to make them who they are, they seem to forget the outcomes of their last go around, as both leaders, again, lose what they held dear.
'Rise of the Lycans' doesn't depend on CGI and wall to wall action like 'Evolution' did; rather, it focuses on the all too human story that is brought to conclusion in 'Underworld.' That is a good thing, especially considering the "on the cheap" CGI work that this film boasts. The downside to the film is the lack the series' original draw: Kate Beckinsale. While Mitra is fast becoming a fan favorite to horny males everywhere, she still has nothing on the perfect Beckinsale, and her ever so brief appearance at the end of the film, tying the stories together, is certainly not enough. Perhaps we may one day see another prequel, fleshing out the relationships between Selene and both Viktor and Kraven. Considering how nicely this entry tied into the series, I can only hope. (Movie rating: 3.5/5.0)
'Underworld' first hit Blu-ray in late 2007, with an AVC MPEG-4, 1080P transfer that was very solid, though with a few flaws that prevented it from being fantastic. Since this disc in this trilogy is the exact same, it should come as no surprise that the qualities are the same as the standalone.
Detail is on high alert from the very first scene, arguably the most famous of the movie, with Selene perched atop a building. Here, you can see the tiny hairs on her fingers distinctly, and the random frizzed hairs on her wet head stand out from the rest of her mane. The detail level in the film will fluctuate a bit, due to elements outside of anyone's control (more on that later). The film is draped in blacks and blues, to give it a heavy, gothic feel, and these colors do play a part on how the rest of the colors in the film are seen. Skin tones regularly have a light tinge, and randomly, the whites of eyes or the soft black in the stubble on the face of Kraven do as well. Some shots lack this aesthetic choice, and when in the middle of a scene that otherwise is adorned in blues, it can be a bit annoying. The only other color that has any duty whatsoever in the film is the sweet, rich crimson that comes from the blood splatters in all of the action, the furniture dressing the vampire haven, or the tubes that are replenishing Viktor, which look absolutely gorgeous in the otherwise bleak film.
There are a few bits that prevent this from being a perfect transfer, many of which may be a problem in the film itself, that would require artificial tweaking to "fix." First, while blacks are absolutely deep, they're so deep that they crush anything around or in them. The grain level for the film can spike a bit, which does smudge some detail at times, and is never appreciated around these parts (I don't mind heavy grain at all, but I prefer a film to be consistent). Lastly, the film has a wee bit of noise, greens that dance in the solid blues, that are fairly obvious. Still, this film has never, and possibly will never, look any better than what we shown on this disc. (Video rating: 4/5)
'Underworld: Evolution' was one of the earliest Blu-ray discs on the market, bowing in the summer of 2006, before the superior encodes currently used were in effect. The funny thing is, this MPEG-2 encode does hold up fairly well, though it fails to reach the heights of the other films in this series.
'Underworld: Evolution' doesn't sport as dark a palette as 'Underworld' or 'Underworld: Rise of the Lycans,' but it is still draped in blacks and blues like goth were going out of style. The black levels were a tad on the crushing side, while a few shots (especially those of stubble) had a bit of a bluish tint. Daytime shots and other non-dark elements seemed out of place, with reds that don't pop as strongly as in the other films in the series, and a few scenes with some overblown skin tones that seemed to glow a bit. For the rest of the film, skin tones stayed pale, gloomy, and blue. The whites of eyes, in particular, absorb the aesthetics of the film, as they are rarely natural and, well, white.
There are a few shots of CGI (particularly the wings of Marcus) that seemed to be blurry and unnatural, while the rest of the special effects were fairly seamless. Noise is prevalent throughout, be it light or dark shots, though the bleaker moments were a bit busier. The source itself is clean, free from dirt, scratches, or other random negative elements. I only noticed a few softer shots in the film, during the helicopter crash sequence, while the rest of the film maintained a respectable amount of detail and sharpness, to the point that I even caught a moment when Selene's contact lens shifted, so it made the wrong part of her eye look bright blue. (Video rating: 3.5/5)
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
'Underworld: Rise of the Lycans' debuts on Blu-ray encoded in an AVC MPEG-4 (1080P, 2.35:1 aspect ratio) codec that is heavy on stylization, and on detail.
The entire film is adorned in a blue tint that permeates any and every object on screen, while the film mostly takes place in dark and damp interiors or deep night exteriors, so one could easily say it looks as bleak as Sonja's fate. The whites of eyes are blue. Teeth are blue. Stubble...you get the point. The black level for the film is amazingly deep. There are some moments of color, like grinding sparks, or gushes of blood, that pop right off the screen due to how bright they are compared to their surroundings.
The film is also draped in something other than blues that may give some viewers the blues: noise. A ton of noise. The grain level for the film is minimal (save for a few scattered extremely dark/rough shots that look grainy and soft), but the amount of blue and green noise that dances across skin tones, or in the foreground of every shot is near impossible to ignore. Skin tones are sickly, as the makeup effects and film tint create an unusual tone. The source is clean from dirt, and is also free from artificial "enhancements." A few scenes made me wonder about the contrast levels for the film, but all in all, this transfer looks very naturalistic, and is sure to drive grain haters bonkers, despite the grain not being the distracting element. (Video rating: 4/5)
Is it acceptable to say that this is one of the more bad ass sounding discs on the market, to this day? Sony hit an absolute home run with it's PCM 5.1 mix of 'Underworld,' that smokes the competition with a hail of gunfire.
Bass levels are intense, with solid rumbles that accentuate the other sounds in the film, rather than overpowering them. It's rare to find a film that has such a perfect balance of its sound elements, with dialogue that is comprehendible no matter the amount of atmosphere, score, or action going on around it. Surround usage is top notch, with localized effects sounding distinct, spread out across the room, gunfire blasting from every corner, shells hitting from each of these angles, and movement effects that dance through the soundscape seamlessly. The opening subway shoot out is about as good a demo segment to any film as there can be!
Gunfire always sounds realistic, yet is diverse, with automatic weapons providing frequent pops, while other weapons provide heavier booms, and sometimes amazingly high pitched screams. Also fantastic is the fact that the casings for every round hit the ground slightly after they impact their targets, never lost in the sometimes catastrophic amount of other actions taking place. This track isn't all about the gunfire, either, as thunder rattles the landscape, and a certain transformation sequence sounds absolutely repulsive in its sheer gooeyness. In short, if you're wearing any socks, prepare for them to be rocked. (Audio rating: 5/5)
'Underworld: Evolution' defaults to a lossy Dolby Digital track, though an uncompressed PCM 5.1 mix is available through the menu. While this track does sound excellent, it does not reach the heights that were found by the perfect track found on 'Underworld.'
This track has a shitload of elements that constantly provide a barrage of audio that hits constantly from all angles. From the opening, in the establishing flashback, the mix is incredible and full, and the film maintains this compliment throughout. The surround speakers are utilized quite frequently, with plenty of atmosphere and later motion effects, such as helicopter pans, that make these oft overlooked portions of a sound mix seem as prioritized as the front channels. Dialogue, effects, and score hit from each speaker, and all are clear, with the dialogue never drowned out by the other sounds.
There are numerous louder effects that play nicely, while even the softer little nothings hit with clarity. The bass level for the film actually felt a bit underwhelming to me at times, as there were numerous moments where it should have rocked the house, especially in the copter crash, yet just a soft rumble was emitted. That said, the truck sequence is an absolute bass filled beast, with the roar of the truck giving as much rumble as the flaps of Marcus' wings and flying sounds. Sony put out a solid effort on this early release, to be sure. (Audio rating: 4.5/5.0)
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
Presented in a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, 'Underworld: Rise of the Lycans' is on par with the other films in the series when it comes to flat out audio performance. Dialogue is perfectly clear, and obviously prioritized, no matter the amount of other sound elements in any scene. The mass of atmospheric effects, score, and dialogue all mixed quite well, with no portion sounding overpowered or drowned out.
There are some solid motion effects in the film, with rears also being utilized frequently for random ambiance. The scenes in the lycan quarry/work yard sound absolutely fantastic, with the impacts of tools hitting from each speaker randomly. The bass level is ever-present, creating a bit of a tense atmosphere, and kicking it up a notch when necessary, especially during scenes with Lucian shifting from human to lycan form. I found myself quite pleased with the high end sounds as well as the low end, with no real moments of audio distortion to complain about. This installment is very much dialogue driven, more so than any of the others in the series, and doesn't have as many moments to use panning effects, as there were no guns to be found in the dark ages, so this film definitely gives off a different kind of audio presence compared to either earlier entry. (Audio rating: 4.5/5)
The 'Underworld Trilogy' Blu-ray set is a compilation of the three existing standalone releases, bundled nicely in a black cardboard box that lacks any frills. Looking at the backs of each package, it is funny to see how Sony has changed their design template, as each volume in this set is an exact duplicate to the previous releases, down to the UPC number.
Although this Blu-ray edition of 'Underworld' ports over all of the significant supplements from the 2-disc Unrated DVD, several features from the movie's other two DVD releases have been dropped. Included among the items that didn't make the cut is the thoroughly entertaining writer/director commentary from the original R-Rated DVD, as well as a handful of bonuses that were previously included with the Unrated DVD (some TV commercials, a bite-sized comicbook, and a production sketchbook).
On the bright side, this edition does include a feature length commentary track with director Len Wiseman, actress Kate Beckinsale, and actor Scott Speedman. The chat is compelling for the first few minutes as the participants establish a good pace and an entertaining tone, but the group soon seems to get lost in their own minor memories from the production. Things improve at about the halfway mark, after Speedman ducks out (in order to make an audition for... wait for it... an Olsen Twins teen comedy). Beckinsale and Wiseman have a quick-witted rapport that immediately makes their resumed conversation worth your time.
The first of the disc's video-based supplements, "Fang vs. Fiction" (48 minutes) is an AMC network documentary about the genesis of werewolf and vampire legends over the centuries. This one's mildly intriguing until it suddenly veers into promotional territory and loses its steam. Also frustrating, the structure of this made-for-TV doc includes a good deal of repetitive information structured around its original commercial breaks, which not only slows down the proceedings, but hinders the playful tone the documentary is attempting to create.
Next is a group of seven featurettes that, combined, comprise a full length behind-the-scenes documentary (87 minutes). First up is "The Making of Underworld" (13 minutes), a brief exploration of the script and characters. A fairly standard featurette with lots of talking heads and compliments, this one's a decent-enough but generally fluffy introduction to the film.
Things get a lot better with next group of segments -- "The Visual Effects" (10 minutes), "Creature Effects" (13 minutes), and "The Stunts" (12 minutes). I found the exploration of the film's atypical use of practical effects to heighten the reality of the creatures and stuntwork particularly interesting, and if you find behind-the-scenes material like this interesting, I recommend you concentrate your efforts on these three featurettes first.
After the effects videos, we're treated to a trifecta of middle-of-the-road interview segments that follow the creation of the film's asthetic -- "Designing Underworld" (11 minutes), "The Look" (19 minutes), and "Sights and Sounds" (9 minutes). These aren't bad per se, they're just average and get fairly repetitive. The only thing that really captured my interest was a look at the post-production processing work that gave the final image its blue-steel look.
Rounding out the package are a collection of tame "Outtakes" (4 minutes), a group of five "Storyboard Comparisons" (7 minutes), and a yawn-inducing music video for Finch's "Worms of Earth" (3 minutes).
(Note that all of the video-based supplements listed above are presented in 480i/p video only.)
I'm still not that clear on Sony's strategy when it comes to what supplements they decide to include on their Blu-ray releases and why, but I'm not complaining this time. All of the extras from the recent standard DVD release of 'Underworld: Evolution' appear to be included here, and though none are particularly revolutionary, they do provide a good look at the making of the film.
First up is a screen-specific audio commentary with director Len Wiseman, production designer Brad Tatapolous, second unit director Brad Martin and stunt coordinator and editor Nicolas De Toth. Wiseman earns points right off the bat for saying he hates commentaries that merely regurgitate what you're seeing on the screen instead of offering real insight into the making of the film. Thankfully, Wiseman and his team largely succeed here, so he is not left with his foot in his mouth. The track is lively, informative, and packed with plenty of detail. Granted, it does veer towards the technical -- the effects, stunts, etc., and Wiseman is predictably fawning over the cast - but this is a very strong commentary well worth a listen for fans.
Next up is the heart of the video-based supplements, a series of six featurettes totaling about 45 minutes: "The Hybrid Theory: Visual Effects," "The War Rages On: Stunts," "Bloodlines: From Script to Screen," "Making Monsters Roar: Creatures," "Building a Saga: Production Design" and "Music and Mayhem: Music and Sound Design." Though there is a slight bit of crossover with the commentary here, all of these pieces offer a nice visual counterpoint, which really helps us to visualize the film's development and production (lots of blue screen, wire work, jokey moments between the cast and crew, etc.) Some of the creature stuff is also cool, and video is still the best way to present material like this.
Rounding out the extras is a music video for Atreyu's "Her Portrait in Black." I found the song instantly forgettable, but it does nicely show off Kate Beckinsale's ass-kickin' moves with plenty of film footage.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
A brief vent: when accessing any of the special features via the "pop up menu," a large grey slab of text pops up on the screen and covers the majority of the picture. IT IS SO ANNOYING. Isn't one of Blu-ray's selling points the fact that you can access all of this cool stuff while still watching the movie?
Audio Commentary with director Patrick Tatopoulos, writer/producer Len Wiseman, executive producer James McQuaide, and producers Richard Wright and Gary Lucchesi - This commentary was recorded with everyone present, which is kind of odd given the proclivity for home video producers to record people separately and splice them all together ('Zodiac,' I'm looking at you). I actually prefer this route. For every commentary where people talk over one another and nothing gets accomplished, there's one like this, which is fairly clear and easy to follow. These gentlemen all seem to appreciate each others' contribution to the film, and share insight into the development and production of this sequel/prequel. One of my favorite stories is the amount of hand wringing that went into the color of Rhona Mitra's hair (apparently, a story is told about her character in the first film and she's blonde).
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans – From Script to Screen (HD, 9:18) - This is a pretty standard electronic press release-type situation, with lots of talking heads and behind-the-scenes anecdotes. It's funny to hear about how much haranguing went on to decide the "direction of the franchise."
Origin of the Feud (HD, 19:58) - This feature runs down the basic character motivation and history of each of the characters in this installment. It’s mostly dull and the attempt to add insight just comes off as adding to the convoluted nature of the series. You could skip this and miss nothing.
Recreating the Dark Ages – The Look of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (HD, 13:01) - This is about the production design and practical effects of the movie, with much discussion being given to the fact that Patrick Tatopolous was the production designer and creature designer of the previous two films and had to be replaced… because he was directing the film. Thankfully, they shot in New Zealand and a lot of the creative backbone of the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy transferred over to this monster mash. This feature is fairly interesting, although purely from a technical standpoint.
William Controll's 'Deathclub' Music Video (HD, 4) - You can skip this if you like.
There has been some division over the merits of the films in the 'Underworld Trilogy,' but my mind has always been made up. A fantastic introductory film, a colossal disaster of a sequel, and a prequel that may be one of the better prequels ever made. The Blu-rays in this set are the very same ones that were released individually, so the video is solid, while the audio is exceptional throughout. I cannot see many fans buying this set, as most would have picked up each entry as they came along, as they've been released over a two year period, but for new Blu-ray adopters, or those holding back for whatever reason, this trilogy is definitely worth picking up.