As a long-time horror movie buff, I have to admit I'm ambivalent at best about the direction the genre has taken as of late. It seems like there are only two kinds of horror films being made hese days -- remakes, and action--horror hybrids. Ever since 'Blade' became a sleeper hit in 1998, we've seen a rash of the latter, hyped-up thrill machines that usually feature some leather-clad anti-hero (a la Neo in 'The Matrix') who must do battle with all sorts of computer-generated monsters (vampires, werewolves, zombies) while deciphering some convoluted mythology. Think 'Resident Evil,' 'Doom,' 'Van Helsing' and even 'Freddy vs. Jason' -- more action than horror, these films are made for short attention spans and videogame lovers, with not much in the way of true plot and character development to get in the way. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I can't remember a single moment in any of these movies that actually scared me.
'Underworld: Evolution' is the latest entry in the not-scary action-horror cycle, and is of course a sequel to 2003's 'Underworld.' Though the film was not a huge box office hit, it did very well on DVD, and now we have what is more or less a direct continuation of the story, as well as a bit of prequel. As the follow-up begins, the epic war between the "Death Dealers" (vampires) and the "Lycans" (shapeshifters, aka werewolves) continues to rage. But 'Evolution' also takes us back to the ancient feud between the two tribes, as our vampire heroine Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and her would-be lover, lycan-hybrid Michael (Scott Speedman) attempt to unlock the secrets of their bloodlines. But their growing attraction to each other -- forbidden between creatures of different clans -- will only complicate the coming "battle to end all wars" between the two warring immortal tribes. As is always the case with these crazy monsters, the resulting bloodbath won't be pretty.
'Underworld: Evolution' sees the return of just about the entire creative team behind the first film, which is certainly to its benefit. Not only stars Beckinsale and Speedman, but also director Len Wiseman (Beckinsale's real-life husband), screenwriter Danny McBride and many key production personnel. That helps give 'Evolution' a sense of continuity oftentimes lacking in other horror franchises (such as the 'Blade' trilogy), and in some ways helps make it superior to the first film. The pacing is more consistent, the action more sustained and the actors all seem more comfortable in their roles though not yet bored with the characters. Wiseman's direction, too, is more assured -- he knows this mythology well enough now, so gone is a lot of the draggy exposition of the first film (though there still is too much) and he handles the stunts and action with panache.
Still, I can't help feel the same about 'Underworld: Evolution' as I do about most of these action-horror flicks. The big problem is that there is just no real emotional dimension to the characters or the story. We just don't feel that much empathy for Selene and her plight, and even less for the lycan dramas of Michael. It's all CGI action scene after CGI action seen -- good looking, but a bit soulless (odd, for a film about immortals). The film's almost fanatical mix of genres doesn't help either. Oftentimes, Wiseman seems so weighed down by trying to hit so many different beats -- action, suspense, horror, romantic, tragedy, drama, comedy -- that no single moment is given enough time to breathe. Perhaps that is the albatross every action-horror film must bear -- in the race to be everything to everyone, you end up being nothing much to anybody. Ultimately, that's the way I ended up feeling about 'Underworld: Evolution.'
Finally! After reviewing three other Blu-ray titles to decidedly lukewarm reaction ('The Fifth Element,' '50 First Dates' and 'xXx'), the fourth time is the charm. Granted, the dark, almost monochromatic visual style of 'Underworld: Evolution' does come with some caveats, but at least this time I wasn't left frustrated and disappointed with the video quality of a Blu-ray disc.
Presented in 2.40:1 and encoded at 1080p, 'Underworld: Evolution' overall looks quite striking. As befitting a brand-new film (especially one extensively tweaked on a computer), the source material is pristine. Not a blemish or artifact to be found, aside from a bit of film grain in the darkest scenes (but more on that later). Given that 'Evolution' is such a dour-looking thing, blacks are predictably excellent. Contrast is also quite good, with the bright scenes displaying nice, clean whites but little of that blown-out look that sometimes plagues CGI-assisted movies like this. Colors are also nicely rendered, though admittedly this film lacks a broad palette. The vast majority of the film is bathed in deep blues and purples, with fleshtones subdued. Still, for what it is, this transfer handles color reproduction very well -- hues appear largely free of noise, smearing or other inconsistencies.
If I have any complaints, they are twofold. First, this transfer is simply too dark at times. I had trouble making out fine detail in the shadows, where falloff to black was the sharpest. Whereas other high-definition material usually has a three-dimensional appearance even in low-lit interiors, here the darkest shots began to flatten out. I'm sure the bleakness of the film's visual style was an aesthetic choice on behalf of the filmmakers, but in terms of image quality, it doesn't help.
My second gripe is that I still noticed some film grain in the transfer (or
perhaps video noise, as the two can be hard to distinguish between). Again,
the darkest scenes were the worst, with the picture appearing unstable and a
tad fuzzy. I don't know if this is due to the fact that Sony is going with 25GB
single-layer discs and MPEG2 compression for its initial Blu-ray offerings,
but whatever the cause, these problems keep 'Evolution' from hitting a true
home run. Still, this is the best-looking Blu-ray title I've seen yet.
(Note: As originally reported by The Digital Bits, some users have experienced poor image quality when viewing Blu-ray discs on the Samsung first-generation BD-P1000 Blu-ray disc player when connected via the deck's HDMI output. Apparently these problems, including decreased resolution and diluted color reproduction, are largely corrected when switching to the BD-P1000's component outputs.
It has also been confirmed that both Samsung and Sony are now aware of the issue, and the problem most likely stems from a faulty internal scaler chip in the BD-P1000. Samsung is reportedly working to fix the problem on future shipments of the unit, and also plans to issue a firmware upgrade to correct the problem on current players.
When assessing the transfer of any Blu-ray or HD DVD disc title, we here at High Def Digest always compare the HDMI versus component output on every disc to detect any depreciable differences in image quality, as well as to confirm whether or not the Image Constraint Token (ICT) has been activated on a particular disc title or not (which would down-convert the component output's resolution to standard DVD quality).
If and when Samsung makes an official announcement of a firmware upgrade that corrects the problem with the BD-P1000's HDMI output, all of our Blu-ray reviews here at High Def Digest will be revisited to reassess picture quality. In light of the continuing problems with the Samsung, and given the fact that it is currently the only Blu-ray player available on the consumer market, some readers may wish to reserve judgment on this or any Blu-ray title until picture quality can be reassessed.)
Like all of Sony's first Blu-ray releases, 'Underworld: Evolution' has been gifted with a very nice uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track (English and French Dolby 5.1 surround options are also included). It is a generally terrific presentation, with excellent fidelity and very aggressive sound design.
Across the entire mix, dynamic range is excellent. From loud, bombastic effects to the subtler sounds, the sense of fullness is impressive. Low end is also very strong, with very powerful deep bass. But no big surprise here -- the action scenes is where this mix really shines. All channels are actively engaged throughout, with effective placement of dialogue, effects and the score in all five channels. Imaging is also up there with the best modern sound mixes I've heard for home theater, with near-transparent pans between all speakers. I was also pleased that the dialogue was generally well-balanced in the mix. Discrete surround effects are also present, with even minor ambient sounds and other atmospheric details fully audible. Very nicely done.
I'm still not that clear on Sony's strategy when it comes to what supplements they decide to include 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: Evolution' offers a good example of what Blu-ray is capable of. Though the transfer isn't absolutely perfect, it does look more consistently pleasing than any other Blu-ray title I've reviewed so far. The soundtrack is also very good, and all the extras from the standard DVD release seem to have been ported over. If you have to choose between the standard DVD release and this Blu-ray version, I could unequivocally recommend you go with the Blu.