by D. Patrick Seitz
Vampires suck. Werewolves bite. Underworld does both!
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I remember the Ghostbusters cartoon. Actually, it was called “The Real Ghostbusters,” in obvious response to the unveiling of some cut-rate Ghostbuster wannabe cartoon, but for our purposed, merely calling it “the Ghostbusters cartoon” will suffice. Remembering that Lorenzo Music voiced both Peter Vankman and Garfield won’t enrich your understanding of this review in any way, but it’s a piece of trivia worth knowing.
Anyhow, the memory of a specific Ghostbusters cartoon episode floats among the flotsam of my soupy childhood. The Ghostbusters had travelled to some godforsaken hamlet to help the villagers round up the werewolves. Once they’d suceeded at that, the show dropped a precociously O. Henry ending on us when the concerned citizenry turned out to be vampires, and the vampire/werewolf grudge was revealed. Things got out of hand, the vampires and werewolves started biting each other and mutating into hybrids, and the Ghostbusters (no fools they) bid a hasty retreat.
It was that scenario to which my mind flitted when I first saw a trailer for Underworld. Somebody was finally going to give it the fleshing out it so richly deserved. Vampires and werewolves whupping on each other? What would be better?
Having now seen Underworld, I’m asking a different pair of questions:
How could a movie about vampires and werewolves whupping on each other be so boring?
No, seriously…how could a movie about vampires and werewolves whupping on each other be so boring?
To swipe Shakespeare and put it to my own nefarious and curmudgeonly purposes, let me count the ways…
Problem #1: The Plot…There’s Not A Lot
Here’s the basic gist of it. The vampires and werewolves (Lycen, as they’re called) have been locked in a supernatural West Side Story for almost a millenium, with the vamps having put the spectral smack down on the doggies in a major way a few centuries back. The werewolves limped home and the vampires imitated fashion models, wearing strange clothes, reveling in their ennui, and looking too damn good for their own good.
As Underworld begins, Lycen hunter Selene (Kate Beckinsale), notices that the werewolves seem to be stalking some random human. Trinity…whoops! I mean Selene…has nothing better to do, apparently, so she tracks down this random human (Micheal Corvin, played by Scott Speedman). She doesn’t do it quickly or efficiently enough to keep him from getting bitten by a Lycen, which gives us all sorts of inter-species conflict to wade through. Pity that we’d toss Selene and Michael into a silver-lined tanning booth without hesitation if it looked like such a betrayal would give us a character in whom we could invest. We later learn what prompts the Lycen interest in Michael, but we don’t much care.
Problem #2: The Weaponry
Although cool for different reasons, vampires and werewolves are both cool. If they didn’t intrigue us, they wouldn’t cling so perniciously to our imaginations and manifest themselves as pan-cultural concept. Their invulnerability is a major part of their appeal; if they were easy to kill, who’d fear them? Underworld has vampires and Lycen both armed to the fangs, as it were, and it kills the mystique. Yes, the film tells you that they’re blasting each other with bullets filled with silver nitrate and sun-mimicking UV rays, respectively, but you’re watching them cap each other and all you’re thinking is, “Wow, they’re about as supernatural as the Crips and the Bloods.”
Problem #3: Boring Protagonist
Kate Beckinsale is very easy on the eyes, but her character holds the audience’s interest about as well as a sieve holds water. It’s entirely in keeping with her character’s lot in life for Kate Beckinsale to portray Selene as withdrawn, quiet, and aloof, but that doesn’t make her any more interesting to follow for 100 minutes. Consistency of character doesn’t always lead to interest. Also, for most of the industrialized world, the name Selene (which might be spelled differently but sounds identical to a certain hawk-nosed Canadian singer with her own show in Vegas) is dripping with negative connotations. What if Keanu Reeves’s character in The Matrix had been named Michael Jackson instead of Neo? It would have proved more than a little distracting. Lo, such is the case with Kate Beckinsale’s Selene.
Problem #4: Where’s the Love?
Underworld has been touted as a love story. I even went into the theater, thinking, “Geez, I hope they don’t spoil the vampire-werewolfy goodness with too much sap.” I worried for nothing. I was like that guy in Mallrats who stared and stared at the Magic Eye picture and still couldn’t find the sailboat for the life of him. Despite being told it’s a love story, I didn’t see anything between Selene and Michael that resembled love. Or attraction. Or that even resembled, “Hey, there’s a person standing right there, so if I were to try and inhabit that space, I’d bump into them. I’d best not try that.” She kisses him at one point, quite inexplicable, and even that seemed more like means to an end that anything heartfelt. As the plot congeals, she risks all for this human whom she doesn’t even seem to like. If this doesn’t bother you, just picture a production of Romeo & Juliet where the titular characters really don’t even like each other, and hardly ever speak to one another. Sort of renders all that senseless violence a bit boring, huh?
Problem #5: Damned Hollywood Myopia
I went to the Internet Movie Database to do a little research on Len Wiseman and scope out his previous work before writing this review. I shouldn’t have bothered. Before directing and co-writing Underworld, the sum of Wiseman’s movie experience was his work as props assistant on Independence Day and Stargate. I was shocked. How does somebody with so little experience get the budget and the okay to helm such a project as this? Should a guy with less credits on his IMBD page than mine be given such power? And then I saw it. According to the trivia section of his IMDB page, he became Beckinsale’s fiancée back in June of this year.
Horribly cynical of me to assume that has anything to do with anything, I know. Suddenly, we’ve answered the titular question of Problem #3.
Further research led to additional intrigue. Michael Sheen plays the Lycen leader Lucian (say that ten times fast), the only interesting character of the bunch. It so happens that Sheen was Beckinsale’s longtime beau and father of her daughter, who was born in 1999.
That’s right, folks…Underworld is less interesting than those who made it a reality, and the means by which they all interacted. Prime on that list is Kevin Grevioux, who not only appears in the movie as uber-Lycen Raze, but who wrote the original script and abandoned a partially-completed master’s degree in genetic engineering to move to Hollywood and pursue his dreams. Unlike Wiseman’s, Grevioux’s is a bio worth reading. If the trend continues, he might be the next Mr. Kate Beckinsale.
Problem #6: Damned Hollywood Deafness
Not since Brotherhood of the Wolf have my eardrums been so needlessly assailed. From what I’ve gathered, it’s a shortcoming of the film’s sound editing, not merely a sign that you might have Marlee Matlin doing a cameo stint in the projection booth. There’s a scene where a police officer jams a heavy metal tape into the cruiser’s radio for no good reason, other than to give the audience something to listen to while the poor schmuck in the backseat started morphing into a werewolf.
I fear for the sequel, for sequel there shall most undoubtedly be. To watch a movie so blatantly set itself up for one is a little too nervy for my liking. Once a film has become a franchise, those involved have been given carte blanche to pump out additions until folks just stop showing up to watch them. Still, the heady decision to upgrade from individual film to series should be made after audiences have had a chance to laud a particular movie, not before.
I know folks will give me grief for this, but for all its failings, John Carpenter’s Vampires was a more enjoyable ride than this. That notwithstanding, I hope Kevin Grevioux finds additional success, as he seems the most talented and multifaceted of the bunch.
D. Patrick Seitz is a writer, actor, voice artist, and teacher who is about to enter the world of graduate school.
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