Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Underworld: Awakening (Movie Review)

I'm a big fan of the "Underworld" movies. It's hard to beat vampires in leather and trench-coats leaping from tall buildings and blowing away werewolves with handguns. But this cool concoction gets even better when you add a dash of character and story worth caring about.

Star-crossed love has been a consistent theme in all three of the previous films, and two of those featured a pivotal romance between Selene, the ultimate werewolf killer among vampires, and Michael, the first vampire/werewolf hybrid in history.

Underworld: Awakening opens a few months after the events of Underworld: Evolution. The existence of vampires and lycans (werewolves) has now been made public, resulting in a worldwide attempt to exterminate both species. Michael and Selene make hasty plans to escape and live in secret far away, but are captured in the attempt. Selene is frozen by scientists for experimentation and is freed 12 years later. She immediately begins looking for Michael, but instead finds her 12 year old daughter, removed from her womb and allowed to grow up in the confines of a laboratory. Together they hope to escape and find Michael.

First off, I should say that if you haven't seen the previous films in the series, don't bother with this one. Although they briefly try to "catch you up" in the beginning, you really have no reason to invest in Selene if you haven't watched her story from the beginning. This, in itself is not a mark against the movie, just something viewers should be aware of.

The action in this flick is some of the best yet, especially where Selene is concerned. She has tons of cool drops, jumps, flips and fight choreography that make the first 30 minutes possibly the best action in the series so far. If you were hoping to have that itch scratched, you're in for a treat.

The visual look of the series is also intact, with washed out, cold color schemes even during the daytime. Costumes and props all look great. It's the signature look of Underworld from start to finish, gory action and all.

What seems to be missing is the movie's heart. As I mentioned, the previous films all had a romance at their core. Two people in love that the people around them viciously aimed to tear apart. This movie was completely missing that element, and the absence was obvious through most of the movie, which often seemed like a horror/action flick on auto-pilot rather than the emotionally driven pattern (or attempted pattern) of the rest of the movies.

Scott Speedman, who played Michael in the previous films, was not involved in Awakening, and as of yet I've been unable to hunt down a reason why. The Hollywood politics of this remain a mystery for now. Instead, in the brief moments Michael is seen, he is represented by a stand-in (human or digital, I'm not sure) always partially obscured by an object or special effect.

The script feels like the result of trying to scrape together a replacement for Michael, the result being his role clumsily divided among multiple characters. Selene's daughter is a hybrid like her father, and so brings the special abilities that he had to the movie in his absence, and two male characters serve as "stand-in male support characters", though without any romantic connections to Selene. (Though I often thought things like, "I'll bet that was Michael sitting next to her in the first draft.")

Many other elements also feel like uninspired repetition of earlier characters and story elements.

Selene encounters a vampire coven leader who stands in opposition to her agenda, with age, hair and wardrobe almost identical to the Victor character in the first three films.

As each film progresses and Selene becomes stronger, the final threat she faces must increase as well. First it was an ancient and powerful vampire. Then it was the first and very oldest vampire. But in this flick, her final foe is just a really big lycan who heals extra fast. Honestly, I was never concerned for her safety for even a moment.

The fact that the existence of vampires and lycans is now public knowledge is an interesting new twist, and I don't think it hurts the movie. In fact, it may just be the game-changing breath of fresh air the franchise needs. On the other hand, this is the "Underworld" series, taking its name from the HIDDEN war between vampires and lycans. So this change seems to go against the original premise of the movies.

Bringing a daughter into Selene's life is another big game-changer. Even if Michael were present for most of this story, a child usually changes the core story from a romance to a story about family. I'm not against this idea, but it seems like the writers aren't willingly invested in it so much as they've been forced into it.

Selene really could have carried one entire movie by herself, dealing with the tragic loss of Michael as it rips her part. After building up this romance for two movies, we should have spent one entire movie mourning its loss with Selene. Instead, Michael is quickly yanked out of the picture and Selene is forced to give lip service to her grief while also dealing with the sudden existence of a daughter. Bringing her daughter into the story before we could see Selene fully deal with the loss of Michael cheats those of us who have invested in the romantic side of these films, and I believe it was a big mistake.

Of course you might say, "they had to cram a lot into this movie since they never know if they'll be making another one later". But the writers seem very confident that they'll be making at least one more, as this movie virtually ends on a cliffhanger. (A poor choice, given our reduced lack of investment in these characters.) With a run time of only 88 minutes, a disappointing final fight and the ending they chose to go with, this feels like only the first half of a complete movie. If that's the case, and they can manage to get Scott Speedman back next time, there is still plenty of opportunity to restore this series and end it very well, placing this movie in the role of "set-up" for the grand finale. And I'd be cool with that. But this is a hard one to recommend to anyone but big fans of the previous films.

I'm scanning my brain for something I might remember in this flick that might lead to worthwhile discussion afterward, but I'm coming up with nothing. In many respects this feels like your average "Resident Evil" movie: Cool gory action with zero substance. Pure, mindless escapism, if that's what you're in the mood for.

For fans of the genre, it's not bad. A cool flick that even has moments of visual greatness worth a ticket or rental. But it's definitely missing something substantial.

Rated R for strong violence and gore, and for some language.

Quality: 8.0/10

Relevance: 5.5/10

And to listen to this review this weekend, visit spiritblade.net/podcast

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