Underworld Review

Warning: This disc features RCE encoding, so you are advised to make sure your player can properly read this disc before buying it.

Underworld is a curious beast: a movie made with a relatively low budget and supposedly a lot of conviction on the part of the cast and crew, yet it feels like a big budget, soulless Hollywood outing. What makes this so bizarre is that the end result seems to have been exactly what the director envisioned. It is yet another heavily stylized gothic action movie that takes a lot of inspiration from the Blade movies, with a pinch of The Matrix thrown in for good measure. It's heavily self-conscious style-over-substance, but provided you are willing to check your brain in at the door, you might just enjoy it.

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 attempting to abduct a mortal, Michael (Scott Speedman), and as she investigates further she uncovers treachery and answers to questions that have gone unanswered for centuries. Gradually, she becomes aware that the state of her world and how it became the way it is are not what she has been led to believe.


Script-wise, Underworld is quite weak. The concept of Vampires and Lycans and the racial tension resulting from their long-standing feud should have made for great source material, but the problem is that writer-director Len Wiseman and his two co-writers don't seem to be quite sure what to make of it. As a result of trying to make the film stylish and hip, no-one in the film is really allowed to express any true feelings. What passes for emotion is almost always expressed through supposedly thoughtful glances. A good deal of the characters are woefully under-developed, with the main personalities seeming to be little more the cardboard cut-outs, such as the deranged, outburst-prone villain, the gruff and stern elder and the vicious young upstart. Furthermore, 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. Dialogue has a habit of coming across as quite pretentious, and quite often you can almost feel the writers patting each other on the back for coming up with such insightful material. The problem is that the material is rarely insightul, and more often than not comes across as clichéd. Another major problem rears its head in the form of tacky scenes in which 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 the fact that she is able to make her lightweight character seem a little deeper than it actually is. It's true that her character spends the entire film looking discontented, but she does it so well you can't help but like her. She also looks good in latex, which is always a plus. The rest of the actors in the film suffer, though, mostly due to underwritten roles or a tendency to overact in the worst possible way. Michael Sheen is quite effective as the unbalanced werewolf leader Lucian, but Shane Brolly and 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, does a decent job as Selene's friend (or is that attendant?) Erika. Considering how underwritten her part is, she actually makes more of an impression than any of the men in the film.


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. Virtually every shot in the movie can be paused and admired, and although the film has its fair share of slow-motion sequences, they never come across as being as pretentious or annoying as those in the Matrix films. On the down-side, some of the CGI work is noticeably ropey, particularly the various shots that show the Lycans morphing between their human and werewolf forms. Still, credit where credit's due: the production team has managed to make the most of a relatively limited budget and create a product that actually looks like it had a much higher budget than it did. It's also nice to see that the vast majority of the creature effects (barring a few morphing shots) were done with animatronics rather than CG - something of a breath of fresh air these days. Production design is extremely strong, making heavy use of both constructed sets and existing locations in Budapest.

Ultimately, like The Matrix and its wretched sequels, 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, although it is definitely a film that will annoy those in the mood for deep thinking or innovation. Underworld is certainly not a poor movie - in fact, it shows a lot of potential. 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.




Picture

Underworld is presented anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. A pan & scan version is available separately, but who cares?

This transfer is excelltn but for a couple of minor quibbles. The most noticeable aspect of the transfer is its stunning black level and contrast. Since so much of Underworld takes place at night and features a virtually monochromatic colour palette, a lesser transfer could have caused havoc. Luckily, this is not the case. The sharpness is very good with just a smidge of edge enhancment, which probably won't be noticeable to most viewers. The image has been slightly filtered, but certainly not to the extent that the likes of New Line go to when they set out to ruin (sorry, "enhance") their latest blockbuster. The grain structure seems to be intact, looking natural and film-like rather than erratic and digitized. There are a small number of minor compression artifacts, which show up occasionally in the form of mild mosquito noise around the edges of some more detailed objects. They are relatively insignificant, however, and although the transfer isn't quite reference quality, it is unlikely to disappoint.




Sound

Columbia Tristar provides an extremely strong 448 Kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 track, making my initial disappointment at the exclusion of a DTS track unfounded. French Dolby Digital 5.1 is also included.

This is one loud track, with crazy amounts of split channel effects, exceptional bass and crisp clear dialogue. This is easily one of the strongest audio mixes I have heard recently, and while it is likely to make old ladies' dentures rattle, it really is superb demo material and more than complements the image quality.




Menu

The menu is exceptionally well designed, adapting the stylish theatrical artwork into its background motif. The transitions are somewhat overlong, but they are animated well enough that they are quite fun to watch. Background music is played, but as the clip only lasts a few seconds it soon becomes extremely repetitive.

Annoyingly, when playing the movie, you are treated to warnings about the audio commentaries being the opinions of the participants and not the company, in both English and French, regardless of whether or not you have selected to listen to a commentary.




Packaging

The packaging designers have wisely chosen to stick with the theatrical poster design for the front cover. The look of the whole package is stylish and polished. A single sheet is included inside with chapter listings on one side and advertisements for other titles on the reverse.




Extras

Director and writers' commentary - Director Len Wiseman teams up with writer Danny McBride and Kevin Grevioux, co-writer and actor. The track is quite insightful if a little on the dry side, although Kevin Grevioux's voice is so deep that it is at times a little hard to actually make out what he is saying. That said, he is the least talkative of the three.

Technical commentary - The participants this time round are creature effects designer Patrick Tatopoulos, visual effects supervisor/executive producer James McQuaide and sound designer Claude Letessier. Two of the participants, as you can probably gather from their names, are French, but their English is incredibly fluent so there are no problems with understanding what they are conveying. As you can probably imagine, this track is a good deal more technical than the previous one, but it is also more energetic. Especially at the start, the participants spend a little too much time praising everyone involved, including each other, but overall this track is quite interesting, especially from the point of view of seeing just how much can be achieved with (by Hollywood standards) a relatively small amount of money.

The making of Underworld - A 12-minute featurette, clearly made for TV, which touches briefly on most aspects of the production but fails to provide any real in-depth information. It mostly takes the form of interviews intercut with footage from the film and, especially in the first few minutes, the majority of the people interviewed spew out all sorts of praise for each other and for the "masterpiece" they feel they have created.

Creature effects featurette - Put together by the film's director and producers, this 12-minute featurette goes into a considerable amount of detail, looking at how the make-up and animatronics are created and applied. It is quite interesting to see some of the early tests that were done, including an amusing clip showing someone walking around on the extended stilts that would eventually end up being used to create the werewolves' legs.

Stunts featurette - Along the same lines as the previous featurette, this brief 11-minute look at the stunts of the film packs in a decent amount of information and behind the scenes footage.

Sights and sounds featurette - This is esentially a 9-minute reel of behind the scenes footage, consisting of clips of scenes being set up, scenes being performed and various crew members goofing off in front of the camera.

Music video - A nondescript music video featuring a band I have never heard of intercut with footage from the film.

Storyboard comparison - A split-screen comparison of a number of scenes, showing both the storyboard drawings and the finished version. It's quite surprising to see just how much the final product differs from the initial blueprints, especially in terms of camera angles used.

The original theatrical trailer and two TV spots are also provided, as well as trailers for The Forsaken, John Carpenter's Vampires, Vampires: Los Muertos, Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2: Apocalypse.




Conclusion

Underworld, while not a masterpiece, is a relatively enjoyable and stylish movie that makes the most of its somewhat low budget. Even if you didn't particularly enjoy the film itself, the audio-visual presentation is so good that it might be worth buying on that merit alone, especially considering that a title like this is likely to be available at a good discount before the year is out.

Film
6 out of 10
Video
9 out of 10
Audio
10 out of 10
Extras
7 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

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