Underworld: Blood Wars Review: Good performances and ideas but is still just standard series fare
I suppose it’s moot for most writers to criticize Underworld: Blood Wars, the fifth — but not final — sequel in the juggernaut dark fantasy film series that started in 2003 and just keeps going and going. Because the fans love these movies. The critics don’t. But when the people speak, we who watch films for free and speak caustically on them are pretty much rendered irrelevant.
But, as Sony didn’t pre-screen Underworld: Blood Wars for us journo-types, this writer dropped his own coin today to check it out. And with that purchase, I have stepped down from my inky, privileged tower and can speak as one of the average schmoes sitting in the multiplex seeing the film. So my opinion actually matters this time, dammit!
Refreshingly, though I am certainly no great admirer of this franchise, I didn’t totally hate Underworld: Blood Wars. In fact, I found it to be one of the more frustrating films of this type I’ve seen in some time. Because what it gets right, it gets very right. Series newbie director Anna Foerster brings a sense of urgency to the film’s many key actions sequences and adds a fetishized sensuality to the framing of both Kate Beckinsale’s PVC-coated Vampire “Death Dealer” Selene and her chief nemesis, the “Evil Queen” ghoul Semira (played with lip-licking grandeur by Laura Pulver). But, like Selene, Foerster is quite obviously at war with a battery of external forces who have handicapped her desires to make this well-trod universe bigger and bolder and even more beautiful, instead pummeling any sort of ambition and vision back into the tried and true, blue and black mold of standard Underworld franchise fare.
Like in all of the Underworld films, the plot here is wildly simple and yet is larded up with so much klutzy exposition that it seems far more complex than it actually is or needs to be. In it, Selene (Beckinsale as usual gives this, her signature role, her all) is still on the lam from the brutish Lycan dynasty and her own Vampire clan alike, with both factions trying to get their mitts on her long-lost hybrid daughter Eve. When the Elder vamp Thomas (the always watchable Charles Dance, seemingly happy to be back in kinky Game of Thrones-esque garb) and his son David (Theo James, who with his generic good looks and painted on stubble, makes for a serviceable if bland hero) convince the High Council to let Selene come “home” to help them do battle with the bloodthirsty Lycan leader Marius (fellow GOT alumni Tobias Menzies), the duplicitous Semira sees this as her big chance to steal the powerful vampire’s blood. Much over-stylized kung-fu fighting, gun-battles and throat-slittings ensue, with David whisking the wounded Selene away to a Northern vamp coven for protection.
And then more Lycans come. And then machine guns are fired. And then there’s more kung-fu fighting. And then more vampires start pontificating. And shooting. And then it’s over.
In respect to the near-monochromatic sheen of the series, Underworld: Blood Wars certainly looks visually splendid. The sets — both real and digital — are magnificent too, a mix of medieval and modern architecture that have obviously been carefully designed. The costumes are the usual “Hot Topic” night club trash gear (it always makes me laugh that the fate of the universe is always at stake — pun intended — and yet every monster in the movie looks like they spent two days getting ready for Fetish Night at the local Goth bar) and every image looks like a comic book brought to fluid life. But at only 90 minutes, this movie feels hacked to oblivion, like we’re watching it on fast forward. Not one shot lasts more than three seconds. You never get a chance to “see” anything. The movie just keeps moving and moving and moving (as does Michael Wandmacher’s busy, epic but empty score), defiantly refusing to let Foerster’s lens stay on anything long enough for us to fully appreciate it or emotionally connect to it. It’s a damn shame, really…
Ultimately, despite a generally good cast in fine form, Underworld: Blood Wars collapses for the same reasons the other movies do. There’s too much but not enough and there’s no real respect for the wonderful things it DOES have going for it. Watching it, I kept wishing the film simply focused on the battle of wills between Semira and Selene. That’s why the first Blade movie (which Underworld certainly stole its DNA from, along with The Matrix) worked so well. Despite that film’s action and bloodletting, it was really just about two opposing forces who were, in essence, two sides of the same coin; a classic battle of good and evil. Pulver and Beckinsale are SO mesmerizing, the film would have benefited from more of their central, operatic drama being exploited. But sadly, Cory Goodman’s script doesn’t steer it that way. Underworld: Blood Wars ends up being just another 3D car commercial version of a genre film; slick, fast, and forgettable. But again, if the producers let Foerster back in to the fold to make another one, and allow her to really go for it, I’d definitely show up again. I’d even spend my own money to see it. Again.