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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 25th 2003:

The remarkably derivative nature of Len Wiseman’s Underworld has already been widely commented upon. And the film-makers, quite respectably, aren’t bothering to dispute this much, as Underworld is a film which wears its influences very openly on its sleeve: the opening seqeunce alone sees the main character wearing a full-length black coat while engaging in a bit of pistol-in-each-hand action. The Blade movies also appear to have been watched in some detail, and – while this may be a coincidence – the basic setting and plot are very reminiscent of the World of Darkness role-playing setting.

In a city of seemingly perpetual rain and darkness (probably Manchester) an age-old war between vampires and werewolves is being played out. The vampires look elegantly wasted, like the better class of goth, while the werewolves just look like roadies. Our protagonist is Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a vampire warrior dedicated to exterminating the ‘lycans’, as she calls them, a task which seems to mainly revolve around posing and looking concerned. But events take an unexpected turn when, just prior to the arising of a slumbering elder vampire, she discovers the werewolves are pursuing young doctor David Corwin (Scott Speedman). Is their interest connected with the rising of the elder? Can the two sides ever learn to get along? And did Selene remember to put enough talcum powder inside her rubber catsuit before getting dressed?

Well, anyway, concepts don’t get much higher than this one, and with some terrific cinematography and art direction, and a ferociously ambitious script, this should have been a terrific piece of action-horror. The fact that it’s merely fairly watchable is therefore a real disappointment. Part of the problem is that the story has virtually no grounding in reality – nearly every character is a vampire or werewolf, thus depriving the story of that vital frisson which happens when the fantastic and the mundane interact. And while the script is by no means simplistic or dumb – quite the opposite, the story has loads of characters, each with their own agendas and backgrounds, and incorporates vast chunks of back-story remarkably well – the characterisation is rather one-dimensional.

In particular, while Selene cuts a very striking figure, all handguns and reflective buttocks, we’re given no hint as to her background or motivation until well into the film, which makes it difficult to empathise with or care about her. It doesn’t help that Kate Beckinsale is (sorry, Brian, if you’re reading this) arguably badly miscast as an icy undead killer, resembling more closely a nursery school teacher who’s got lost on the way to a fetish party. That said, Michael Sheen isn’t half bad as the leader of the werewolves and Bill Nighy (an actor long respected in our house for his brilliant performance in the BBC’s Lord of the Rings) adds a much-needed touch of class as a ruthless vampire lord (though he looks a bit awkward in his fight scenes).

And, as I said, it does look very good, and the special effects and makeup are very impressive and imaginative. It’s just a pity the script can’t match this level of ingenuity: the set piece battles between vampires and werewolves should be breathtaking and surprising, but (with the odd honourable exception) they all boil down to people in leather jackets firing automatic weapons at each other from opposite ends of corridors. Yawn. It’s a failing that pretty much sums up Underworld – nice idea, shame about the execution. But commendably ambitious all the same.

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