When I was just a budding, twelve-year-old horror aficionado (sneaking gory scares over the weekend at friends houses), I remember imagining a cinematic clash between vampires and werewolves. Obviously, a generation of fans for flicks like 'Near Dark' and 'The Howling' shared the same imagination. But while dozens of tooth-and-claw screenplays swamped Hollywood throughout the '80s and '90s, sadly most of the projects fell apart before a reel of film was shot. As fate would have it, a decent incarnation of this pairing never received a legitimate treatment and the idea continued to fly under the radar for decades.
That is, until 'The Matrix' stormed theaters in 1999. Bizarrely enough, the insatiable desire for lead-flinging, leather-clad super freaks was the key to finally greenlighting Hollywood's first big budget, vampires-n-werewolves feature. Rookie writer/director Len Wiseman was the lucky gambler who hit triple sevens, as he just so happened to be selling a project that borrowed plenty of elements from 'The Matrix,' while also managing to pit horror's greatest heavyweights against each other. The result was a 2003 action-horror flick called 'Underworld.'
The film itself focuses on Selene (Kate Beckinsale), an icy, vampiric Death Dealer caught in a centuries-old war of deception and propaganda. Over the years, the war has evolved beyond the claw-to-claw battles of the past -- instead, modern technology and firepower has made this a war of distance and convenience. It doesn't hurt that a hibernating vampire named Viktor (Bill Nighy) has ensured his aristocratic coven with plenty of toys and riches to fuel their war with the werewolves. His chief lieutenant, Kraven (Shane Brolly), leads the clan's Death Dealers into the thick of battle with the thuggish Lycans, who dwell in the sewers and plot attacks against the vampires.
Meanwhile, Lucian (Michael Sheen), the central canine baddie, is attempting to genetically manufacture a strain of vampirism that can successfully create a werewolf/vampire hybrid. As it is, any time either creature tries to turn the other, the victim dies since their system can't integrate both diseases. Lucian is tracking a human named Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), a young man who is oblivious to the raging war in his backyard. When Selene discovers their plot, she must stop the Lycans, discover the truth about their conflict, and strike a balance between the two clans.
On the surface, 'Underworld' has a lot to offer action-horror fiends -- it features plenty of shootouts and tussles, stuntwork galore, and a nice dose of seamless effects work. The storyline is well developed and keeps things clipping along at a welcome pace, while the script itself isn't weighed down by heavy-handed dialogue. Last but not least, its lead actors are engaging (particuarly Nighy and Beckinsale), and the film's visual asthetic provides an eye pleasing, post-modern take on gothic designs through and through.
Unfortunately, a number of issues undermine these selling points, at least for a hardcore genre fan like myself. First off, in its most obvious nod to 'The Matrix,' most of the action in 'Underworld' is disappointingly limited to bullets and other weapons. While this would arguably be fine if there were a glut of vampire-vs-werewolf films already out there, I personally felt robbed of the opportunity to finally see a big-budgeted toe-to-toe clash that involved the natural abilities of both creatures. On the few occasions where the beasts fight do hand-to-hand, the results are short and uninspiring.
Speaking of uninspiring, the film's predictable use of a successful vampire/werewolf hybrid is surprisingly boring. Everyone comments on how much more powerful he is, but the on-screen action never seems to live up to its promise.
Then there's the film's average ending that blatantly leaves major plotlines unresolved until a sequel can settle them. In fact, by the time the credits roll, the entire film begins to feel like an extended prologue for Wiseman's eventual follow-up, 2006's 'Underworld: Evolution.'
But of all these issues, my biggest problem with the film is that despite all appearances, it really isn't a horror flick in any shape or form. Instead of focusing on a human stumbling on to a frightening conflict, we're forced to immediately side with one of the creatures. As a result, the tension and fear factor deflates long before the first act has run its course, and the film devolves into a pseudo-telling of Romeo and Juliet that places more emphasis on a contrived love story than on the war itself.
In the end, 'Underworld' is entertaining enough and certainly well-produced, but with so much promise, it's hard not to be disappointed by its merely average results. Although this one has a better story than its poorly conceived sequel, it still doesn't give horror fans the true titan clash we've been looking for.
(Note that the version of the film included on this Blu-ray release is the Unrated Cut, featuring an additional 13 minutes of footage. There is an extension to the film's finale that gives this cut some value, but otherwise most of the extra beats are character-based and add little to the overall story.)
Presented in 1080p using the AVC MPEG-4 codec, 'Underworld' features a rousing transfer that packs quite a punch.
Color fidelity is excellent and the picture exhibits a level of stability that rivals the best transfers on the market. Fine objects and texture details are astounding at times -- bristled hairs on the back of an actor's neck, tiny chips in a werewolf's claws, and brickwork on distant buildings all provide a surreal level of clarity that occasionally make the picture feel like instant high-def demo material. High end whites aren't overblown and source noise is never a problem -- in fact, this transfer even outshines the Blu-ray release of 'Underworld: Evolution' since it's not held back by the bothersome instability, noise, or softness that Peter noted in his review of the MPEG-2 encoded sequel.
Sadly, the presentation still stumbles in a few key areas, although to be fair, many of the problems I have with the video can be traced back to the cinematography and the abundance of correction work applied to the final footage. Black levels become bottomless pits where objects suddenly disappear and the oft-two-tone palette sometimes absorbs details and textures rather than bringing them to light. While the oppressive black levels help the filmmakers achieve their desired effect -- a comic book like experience -- the crushing makes the resulting comic book feel over-inked and undersaturated. Adding to the problem is an obtrusive level of grain that spikes in darker scenes. Again, these issues seem to be the result of directorial decisions and can't fairly be attributed to this transfer, but they nonetheless prevent 'Underworld' from standing toe-to-toe alongside true high-def demo transfers that have more to offer the viewer.
Still, compared to all three previously DVD releases of the film (a fuzzy R-rated release, a highly compressed unrated release, and a much improved Superbit edition), this Blu-ray edition of 'Underworld' is a clear upgrade, and fans of the film aren't likely to be disappointed with its very strong high-def debut.
Fortunately, the uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround mix (48 kHz/16-Bit/4.6 Mbps) featured on this Blu-ray release is demo material. Right from the opening scene, dynamics take center stage, demonstrating the raw power and dexterity of the film's soundscape. Bass booms are resonant and earthy, adding a real depth to gunfire and roars, while treble tones are clean and steady, injecting a welcome clarity to dialogue and environmental elements like water.
The constant barrage of sound from every channel creates a wholly convincing soundfield -- directionality and accuracy are spot on, and I had a great time closing my eyes and immersing myself in the soudscape. While the track is largely aggressive, even the film's quieter scenes impress. Channel movement is natural, conversations are nicely prioritized, and there's a palpable acoustic atmosphere that fills the soundfield. All in all, fans who own any of the previous DVD editions will be extremely pleased with the bombastic and instantly noticeable upgrade.
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.)
Although audiences have long been split over the movie itself, this Blu-ray edition of 'Underworld' is a definitive upgrade over each of the three previous standard-def DVD versions. The picture is excellent, the audio package is reference level, and the disc comes packed with features from the 2-disc Special Edition DVD. This one's an easy recommend for 'Underworld' fans, and is arguably worth a look for all.