Underworld is yet another movie that is clearly marketed to cash in on the success of "hip" action films such as The Matrix, and it is likely to be dismissed as a clone by many people. However, its similarities to the Wachowski brothers' overrated trilogy are superficial at best, having much more in common with the Blade movies, but also bringing in some fresh ideas of its own.
An unseen war between Vampires and Lycans (werewolves) has waged for centuries. The former leader of the vampires, Viktor (Bill Nighy), is in a state of hibernation, and the vampires are now governed by the obnoxious Kraven (Shane Brolly). Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is a Death-Dealer, a vampire who specialises in the assassination of Lycans. One night she witnesses some Lycans abducting a mortal, Michael (Scott Speedman), and as she investigates further she not only falls in love with Michael but also uncovers treachery and answers to questions that have gone unanswered for centuries.
Script-wise, Underworld is quite weak. A good deal of the characters are under-developed, and the film switches clumsily between different subjects. A lot of plot elements are not properly investigated, the most apparent being Selene's affair with Michael. Considering how pivotal this relationship is to the plot, it is barely explored at all, making one wonder what is really at stake for Selene. Another major problem is the tacky scenes where Selene visits the resident vampire weapons specialist, which feel as if they were lifted straight out of a James Bond film.
The acting, too, is somewhat hit-and-miss. Kate Beckinsale, who is not the first person most people would think of when casting a gun-toting action heroine, copes reasonably well with her role and comes off looking good thanks to her charisma, but the rest of the actors in the film suffer, mostly due to underwritten roles or their tendency to overact in the worst possible way. Shane Brolly, Michael Sheen and Bill Nighy ham it up something rotten, and Scott Speedman is about as uncharismatic a lead as you could hope to meet. It certainly doesn't help that his character's role in the movie is mainly reactionary. Sophia Myles, though, deserves a round of applause for doing a decent job as Selene's friend (or is that attendant?) Erika, and even making me laugh on a couple of occasions.
From its trailers, Underworld looks like a rip-off of The Matrix crossed with Blade. In reality, the trailers are extremely misleading because, although there are two or three shots that are literally carbon copies of those in The Matrix, that's about it. The cinematography, by Tony Pierce-Roberts, is excellent, with a moody atmosphere comprised mostly of deep blacks and blues. On the down-side, some of the CGI work is noticeably ropey, particularly the shots showing the Lycans morphing between their human and werewolf forms.
Ultimately, like The Matrix, Underworld is extremely self-conscious and has its fair share of "style over substance" moments. However, all is not wasted, and the end result is mildly satisfying. Underworld is certainly not a poor movie -- in fact, it shows a lot of promise. The intent is certainly there, but the end result leaves something to be desired. Considering that the final frames of the film pave the way for a sequel, and Kate Beckinsale has expressed interest in participating in further movies in the series, it would be nice to think, when the time comes for the inevitable Underworld II, that Wiseman and co will be able to deliver an excellent vampire movie rather than one that is merely good.
It's still better than The Matrix Reloaded.