Underworld Awakening is the fourth movie in the derivative (but fun) Vampires vs. Werewolves franchise. The third film was a prequel, filling us in on the Lycan's rebellion against their blood-sucking masters, but Awakening returns to the modern-day chronology and reintroduces us to Selene, an angel of death who hunts for lycanthropic foes as part of the Vampires' on-going war with their former slaves. Having fought off the challenge of William, the original Lycan, and Marcus, the first Vampire, in Underworld Evolution, Selene and her human/Lycan hybrid lover Michael Corvin come up against an even greater foe: humankind.
Humanity has become aware of the threat posed by these "immortals", and not even Selene's uncompromising brand of bullet-ridden destruction can protect her any longer, as both she and Michael are captured and put into deep freeze. The former awakens over a decade later to find that the world has changed; humans have been experimenting with their captives' DNA to create the ultimate pure blood Vamp/Lycan hybrid, in the unassuming guise of Eve, a young girl. Selene's reappearance was not planned however, and she must contend with the apathy of her own kind, as well as the mortal threat of the Lycans and the humans, if she is to protect her new charge and uncover the truth about Eve's creation.
As with the previous film, creator Len Wiseman has handed over the directorial reigns but has retained his role as the producer/writer of the show. Swedish duo Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein have taken the helm and delivered yet another slice of stylized action horror, and after the prior movies you'll know what to expect: a stern-looking Kate Beckinsale (reprising her role as Selene) dressed in ridiculously tight PVC outfits firing lots of guns at lots of people. But the initial surprise of the humans vs. immortals angle is diluted by the fact that it starts off like yet another Resident Evil movie, with the ultra-powerful heroine killing dozens of faceless human lackeys before she gets put on ice. This series is nothing if not imitative, but when Awakening begins you wonder if they've gone a bit too far this time (it doesn't help that Resident Evil is a Sony stablemate of Underworld).
Thankfully the flimsy story begins to assert some small part of its own personality once Selene is reanimated, and it expands the contemporary mythos of the franchise by giving her a human ally in the form of Michael Ealy's earnest cop. It also introduces the monstrous "Uber Lycan", a 12-foot-tall beast bred to tip the balance of the war in favour of our furry friends. He's played by Kris Holden-Reid when in human form. We don't see much of Michael Corvin though, the character (who was the main focus of the first two films) having been practically written out of this one due to Scott Speedman being "unavailable". What little we do see of him is through stock footage and CG doubles.
In keeping with its predecessors, there are some serious acting chops on display which help give the movie a shred of dramatic weight. Charles Dance is a classy surrogate for series regular Bill Nighy, playing Thomas, the decadently dressed (is there any other kind?) leader of one of the few remaining Vampire covens. Stephen Rea features as the head of Antigen, the research laboratory that's carrying out the experiments on the undead. He rarely gets out of gear but it's nice to have him all the same. An honourable mention goes to India Eisley for her innocent, wide-eyed Eve, and also to Theo James for his straightforward but effective role as the Vampire who's determined to help Selene and Eve kick as much Lycan arse as possible.
But hey, let's not kid ourselves. If you're still reading at this point, you don't care about tight plotting, good dialogue or decent acting; all you want is the action, and Awakening delivers it in spades. The running time of the movie is ridiculously short, but it packs in a number of enjoyable scenes that stick to the formula of concise editing coupled with plenty of Matrix-lite slow-motion money shots. There's no Shakey-Cam™ here, and there's even a nice call-back to Selene's 'cutting through the floor' escape in the first film. The visual effects look very good, again staying true to the series' roots by using practical effects wherever possible, with some decent CG too. The violence is cartoonish in some places and disturbingly graphic in others, with a harder-edged tone that came as a surprise to this viewer. The other films aren't exactly cute and cuddly, but the body count has been ramped up for Awakening and Selene gives no quarter, hacking and slashing her way through the skimpy running time.
It's all good brainless fun, having literally been given an extra dimension with the 3D version, and with the series' biggest box-office haul so far (some $160 million worldwide) Underworld will surely return. Again.
Underworld Awakening was shot natively in 3D on the Red EPIC and finished on a 2K DI, and is presented in its original theatrical widescreen aspect of 2.40 for this 3D Blu-ray version. Unfortunately the monochromatic colour grading (typical of the franchise) robs the image of any real 'pop', and the heavy reliance on darkness (another series trademark) punctuated with flashing/strobing lighting doesn’t allow for the consistently immersive tableaux that 3D is crying out for. The image does have a palpable sense of depth when the lighting is permitted to stay constant, but there are occasional convergence issues, not least on the wide shot of Selene as she looks on over the ‘Purge’ at the beginning of the show. Still, there are plenty of stand-out 3D moments during the action-packed final reel, and I flinched more than once at the blood-drenched carnage that was flung my way.
There’s no trace of any edge enhancement or any grain/noise, and fine detail levels are excellent. Blacks are a bit disappointing, having been replaced with a pervasive dark blue crush that tends to flatten shadow detail. (The image still looks plenty dark in the right places, but it's often blue rather than true black.) The encode itself is fairly solid, with some slight banding visible on a few shots. The 2D version, included on the same disc through MVC encoding, doesn't fare as well. The picture looks horribly washed out without the reduced brightness of the 3D to counteract it, and banding also becomes a major issue. I've awarded 7 out of 10 for the 3D video quality, but for the 2D version you can reduce the score another couple of notches to 5.
The audio comes in the form of lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, and it’s almost perfect. The numerous surround effects pan seamlessly across the rears, the smaller moments treated just as deftly as the out-and-out discrete effects, and the frighteningly deep bass extension is similarly nuanced. The dialogue is smoothly integrated into the carnage, although there’s audible interference in some scenes that resembles air-conditioning on full blast. An extra ADR session or two wouldn’t have hurt, but it’s a minor complaint. If I could give it a 9.5, I would.
Extras come in the familiar layout of audio commentary, featurettes, pre-viz sequences and so on. The commentary features directors Mårlind and Stein, plus producers Gary Lucchesi and Richard Wright, and VFX supervisor James McQuaide. It can get a little hectic when they all try to speak at once, but the pace rarely lets up and lots of little titbits are divulged. The selection of featurettes look at the return of Selene (12 mins), how the cast was assembled (12 mins), the action of the movie (8 mins), the resurrection of the franchise (18 mins) and the creation of the Lycan effects (10 mins). We get to hear from all the main cast members as well as the directors, producers etc, and their comments are mostly fluffy and insubstantial, kind of like a sweary EPK. There are six pre-visualisation sequences for your perusal, rendered in typically crude CG, three of which are viewable in 3D (though the effect is somewhat underwhelming). A cheesy music video (Heavy Prey by Lacey Sturm) is included, along with the standard dull blooper reel. Trailers for The Grey, Piranha 3DD and Lockout round off this half-decent selection.
It's fair to say that the Underworld films will never win any serious critical plaudits, but it's also fair to say that they were never meant to. However, in the case of Underworld Awakening the story is very thin, even for this particular franchise. Yet on the upside the movie shifts along so quickly that it doesn't get a chance to tie itself into all sort of narrative knots, and the bloody action is staged with notable competence. Fans will be pleased, if not quite overjoyed, with this latest instalment.
The Blu-ray 3D presentation doesn't measure up to the best examples of the format, but when it works, it works very well. Sadly the 2D version on this disc is hampered by very poor blacks. The 7.1 sound is a sonic delight whichever version you watch, thankfully. The extra features don't have a great deal of depth, although hardcore fans will appreciate their inclusion.
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7 out of 10