Underworld: Evolution Review
"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."
This was the final line in my review of the original Underworld, a beautifully shot but muddled vampire action movie in the Blade vein, written just under three years ago, and it would have been nice if my hopes for its sequel had been fulfilled. Sadly, as it turns out, the exact opposite is true. Far more so than its predecessor, Underworld: Evolution is a convoluted, confused and thoroughly unsatisfying mess of a film, visually impressive but devoid of any other merits.
The plot, which takes up the story from where the original Underworld ended, quickly proves to be more or less completely incomprehensible. A brief recap: for centuries, vampires and lycans (werewolves to you and me) have waged a secret war, but recently, it has been brought out into the open and started to involve humans. One such human is Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), a descendant of Alexander Corvinus (Derek Jacobi), who was the father of Marcus (Tony Curran) and William, the first vampire and lycan respectively. Pursued by both sides, he becomes infected by the blood of both and becomes a super-strong hybrid whose powers threaten to overwhelm him at any moment. His only ally now is Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a vampire whose entire world has been turned upside down by the revelation that the vampire leader, Viktor (Bill Nighy), was in fact a traitor who was planning to sell his clan down the river to the Lycans. Now, with the clan on their tail for the killing of Viktor, and Marcus reawakened and after them too, Selene and Michael find themselves with only each other to rely on as their enemies close in.
Are you following all this? Like its predecessor, the film is filled with betrayals and double betrayals, as "history as we know it" is continuously rewritten to the point that it becomes impossible to keep track of what what the characters thought was happening, what they now think is happening and what is actually happening. The actual back-story, with its melding of folklore with a more modern, science fiction-inspired slant, is actually quite a rich one, but its presentation is hopelessly botched, to the extent that it's incredibly difficult to care about what's going on. Had director Len Wiseman simply decided to make the film a fun romp that relied on action and eye candy rather than plot (something that the Underworld series' closest cousin, the Blade franchise, got right in spite of its flaws), it would have been considerably more entertaining, but both the movie and its characters take everything, including themselves, so seriously that you eventually end up wishing that they would just lighten up. They seem to exist in a world in which nobody ever smiles and nearly every utterance is followed by a long and meaningful stare.
All of this turns out to be a perfect opportunity to watch a roster of British thesps overract in the most embarrassing manner. From the original, Bill Nighy returns briefly for yet more grimacing, head-tilting and enunciating every syllable with the utmost care, while Derek Jacobi, who didn't appear in the previous film, simply looks lost, confused and a touch nauseous. Kate Beckinsale does her best with her thinly written character, yet, despite her continual unabashed trumpeting of her husband-director's pet project as some sort of masterpiece, her heart really don't seem to be in it. Scott Speedman, meanwhile, continues to look bemused, and bears slightly too much resemblance to a surfer to be at home in a world populated by vampires and set in that mythical part of eastern Europe in which peasants live in wooden huts and pale-skinned, bloodsucking demons inhabit ornate gothic castles.
The original Underworld's strongest asset was its gorgeous monochromatic photography, and the visuals prove to be the saving grace of its sequel too, although the effect is less eye-popping this time round. Whereas the first film was granted an extremely sleek, comic book-like appearance courtesy of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts, Simon Duggan's work on number two is considerably less polished, juggling the look of its predecessor with more sepia-tinted scenes that look a bit out of place. (It is, however, nice to know that, contrary to what its predecessor suggested, the sun does in fact shine in the realm of Underworld.) The framing is less careful and, while the computer graphics effects have been improved, the camera tends to linger on them for far too long, drawing attention to their shortcomings. Wiseman also tends to go overboard in his use of slow motion, trying desperately to make every shot seem cool, but most of the time falling flat on his face.
Despite the claims of all those involved, Underworld: Evolution does not flow on organically from the first Underworld, and spends so much time trying to second guess the audience with left field plot twists that it ends up tying itself in knots. Considerably less effective than its already flawed predecessor, it takes itself too seriously to be entertaining, while its narrative is too muddled to be taken seriously. The sort of movie that pleases no-one, Underworld: Evolution might be pretty to look at, but is ultimately best avoided.
The extended unrated cut of the original Underworld boasted a superb transfer, so my hopes were understandably high for its successor. Unfortunately, while Underworld: Evolution's transfer is good, it's far from brilliant. The black level, colours and encoding are all excellent, but the telltale signs of edge enhancement, filtering and noise reduction are ever present, delivering an image that looks considerably more diffuse and digital than would have been preferred. One thing's for sure: the upcoming Blu-Ray release will be a significant improvement.
The main audio track is an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track, and it's a good one, featuring all manner of split-channel effects, while the deeper sounds are augmented by solid subwoofer action, and the dialogue is crisp enough to make out every precisely delivered syllable from Bill Nighy. The overall effect is slightly more restrained than the audio of the first Underworld, but given how excessive that particular mix was, this may actually be something of a blessing.
A French 5.1 track is also provided, as are English and French subtitles for the film. Unfortunately, these captions are overly large and bright yellow, making them somewhat distracting. The extras are not subtitled.
Up first is an audio commentary featuring director Len Wiseman, production/creatures/effects designer Patrick Tatopoulos, second unit director Brad Martin and editor Nicolas De Toth. The commentary is informal, laidback and not particularly informative. Wiseman claims to have "grown up" on DVD audio commentaries (which, unless he is about 16 years old, is not particularly likely), and claims not to be a fan of directors who simply narrate the on-screen action, but despite his best intentions, he and his cronies rarely progress beyond simply providing the odd factoid or anecdote or, on a number of occasions, lapsing into silence as they watch the movie.
The other major bonus feature is a series of 6 behind the scenes featurettes looking at the making of the film, which can be watched separately or as one programme. The format is fairly conventional and features most of the main cast and crew members enthusing about how wonderful the franchise and its back-story are, covering the genesis of the script through production to post production, unsurprisingly devoting a considerable amount of time to the numerous stunts and monster effects. With a total running time of around 75 minutes, this is a pretty in-depth and informative piece, and one that, despite the overly congratulatory tone of the interviewees, largely avoids the annoying EPK style of backpatting that tends to be found in featurettes for popcorn movies such as this. Still, given that the film itself is such a disappointment, it's somehow a little difficult to be too enthused about its production process.
In addition to a music video for "Her Portrait in Black", a song performed by a metal band called Atreyu, preview trailers for a considerable number of other Sony releases are included: When a Stranger Calls, Ultraviolet, London, Click, Underworld, Hostel, The Boondocks, Marie Antoinette, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the Benchwarmers, Silent Hill, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and The James Bond Ultimate Collection. Given the amount of space occupied by these tie-ins, one has to wonder to what extent the shortcomings of the transfer are due to their inclusion.
There is little to recommend in Underworld: Evolution beyond lush visuals and Kate Beckinsale in a buttock-hugging PVC suit (which in itself no doubt constitutes a lush visual for many people). Sony Pictures' DVD is of a decent enough standard, but the image quality fails to live up to that of its predecessor and the extras, while quite extensive, are rather trying to have to plough through.