A Look Back At The Underworld Franchise

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The Underworld franchise, which began in 2003, is coming up on the release of its fourth chapter, Underworld Awakening, on January 20. 

The franchise has garnered die-hard fanatics over the last nine years with Kate Beckinsale – as the svelte, ass-kicking Selene – being not just the masturbatory fantasy of many a teenage boy, but a powerful female symbol as well.  Each installment in the series is visually striking and unapologetically violent, reminiscent of a graphic novel come to life.  The camerawork, lighting and production design give each entry a baroque and blue effect that has given the franchise a visual signature. 

The Underworld films also embrace their R-rating wholeheartedly and are box office successes in spite of their rating. It’s all too often that contemporary horror films are watered down to appeal to the masses. Filmmakers are regularly sacrificing substance to get people in seats. It’s obvious that the creators behind this series – in this case Len Wiseman, Kevin Grevioux and Danny McBride – are making them because they are passionate about the story and are not willing to compromise their vision to net a larger audience.

While this series has never been my cup of tea, it is not without its collective merits. The effects in the films are too cartoonish and computerized. I prefer to see the use of props and make-up in lieu of CGI.   The plot of the Underworld films delves further in to the back story than it needs to for a film of its kind.  They are dense, laden with political drama and characters that you do not particularly care for, beyond Selene and Michael (Scott Speedman).  Underworld would have benefited from keeping things simple and straight-to-the-point, to keep viewers minds from wandering during long stretches of exposition that kill the pacing.  The action sequences are exciting and well done, however.

With a fourth film just around the corner, let’s take a look at the events that have transpired so far…

 


Underworld

A centuries-old blood feud continues between the Vampires and the Lycans (werewolves). Michael, a medical intern, is being hunted by the Lycans for experimentation.  We come to learn he is derived from a blood line that is of great interest to the Lycans.  When Selene, a Death Dealer (vampire assassin), learns of the Lycans’ intentions, she, at first, captures Michael to keep him out of the Lycans’ hands.  Inevitably, she winds up protecting and falling for the guy. What ensues is an all out battle to the death between the species with Selene and Michael caught in the middle.

The first film is the best in the franchise. It’s by far the sleekest, in appearance, and the action sequences, particularly the subterranean shoot out and the scene where Selene shoots through the floor, are keenly orchestrated. It’s also the longest of the three films, at 121 minutes, and the most trying for my limited attention span. The first Underworld is also the most story-dense of the series as it establishes the machinations of the vampire species.  We learn they have endured and been governed by “time-hopping” elders who fall into hibernation and awake centuries later to rule their clans, which is a clever touch.  But you’ll find yourself taking notes as to who is who and what they’re place is in all of the drama.

This first entry established Kate Beckinsale’s Selene as the franchise’s sex symbol, in spite of the fact that she doesn’t disrobe (that comes later) – sometimes, leaving a little to the imagination goes a long way. 

Worldwide gross: $95 million

Underworld Evolution

The second in the series, released in 2006, picks up where its predecessor left off. Selene, our hero, works in conjunction with Michael, now her vampire/Lycan hybrid counterpart, to try to put an end to the war between the series’ two species. Selene mentors Michael in the ways of quelling his blood lust and protects him from himself and others. The love story, between the two of them, fully blossoms here.  Evolution adapts to a chase formula, as Selene and Michael find themselves on the run from a vengeful vampire elder who takes the guise of a giant bat creature.

The second film, as I mentioned earlier, is much richer than the first.  It’s certainly more violent than the first, too. The opening sequence – a flashback sequence – is filled with a rash of decapitations. There are lots of impalements and various other forms of bloodshed throughout.  Kate Beckinsale continues to kick ass, but at its core, Underworld Evolution doesn’t offer all that much story-wise.  The creature effects are terrific and the action is amplified, yet when you look at the structure of the story, it’s rather vapid and uninteresting.  The only point it serves is to grant Selene new powers; the journey to this point is flimsy. 

Worldwide gross: $111 million

Underworld Rise of the Lycans

Several centuries before the first film takes place, a vampire elder captures a werewolf that gives birth to the first Lycan, a creature that can shift into a beast at will, without the need for a full moon.  This Lycan, named Lucian (returning cast member Michael Sheen), is bred to raise more Lycans and they become slaves to the vampires.  A forbidden romance blossoms between Lucian and the daughter of a vampire elder, Sonja (Rhona Mitra). The girl’s involvement with Lucian is exposed and becomes the source of much controversy.

This third installment, a prequel, takes us back to the beginning of the war between vampires and the Lycans and plays out like Spartacus.  This installment lacks Kate Beckinsale, which is the film’s biggest detriment. Beckinsale’s presence has become a mainstay in the Underworld films and the decision to move forward without her, in the third installment, caused uproar among fans of the franchise. This entry in the Underworld series is the least enjoyable of the three. It is the shortest of the three films, but the pacing is too sluggish. 

Worldwide gross: $91 million

With this prequel out of the way now, we have Underworld Awakening which picks up 12 years after the events of Underworld Evolution.  The humans are now aware of the vampire and Lycan species and Beckinsale is back as Selene, which will appeal to the fans.  There are rumblings she has a daughter in this film, so no doubt the creators are setting out to keep the Underworld franchise going.

Worldwide gross: ???

Box Office

Weekend: Sep. 19, 2019, Sep. 22, 2019

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