Underworld (review)

Pretentious, Noir?

So, I’m confused. When you become a vampire, do they issue you the gothy, lacey, leathery all-black wardrobe? Or are only people who already dress in gothy all-black leather-and-lacey stuff susceptible to vampirism? I ask because I wonder about myself. Does my penchant for ripped and faded blue jeans and crisp white cotton shirts exclude me from achieving immortality through the vampire path, or would my conversion to a bloodsucking creature of the night include a new disposition toward skintight black leather catsuits and black bustiers and flowing black cloaks?

The answer is not immediately apparent from Underworld, though it does seem to indicate that vampire covens are rather like goth nightclubs where Eurotrash hipsters lounge around smoking and showing off their wardrobes and bitching about who’s sucking who and complaining about the management. And also vampires live in cities where it never stops raining and the streets are cobblestoned and everything’s in a shabby-chic state of early urban decay and no mortals are to be found except in one scene right in the beginning, when their presence is required to make a point.

That desolation is probably meant as Significant by director Len Wiseman, whose roots as a maker of TV commercials and music videos is all too obvious. In this all-style, little-substance barrage of hand-to-hand combat and gun battles that play like a first-person-shooter video game — all of it in excruciating, Wachowski-esque slow motion that helps drag the film’s running time out to an unnecessary two hours — Wiseman doesn’t even have anything original to offer visually. Underworld could easily have been patched together from clips from a hundred other films, from Dark City to Blade to, most tiresomely, The Matrix. Instead, the originality — if you can call it that — comes in the Dread Solemnity of Danny McBride’s script, which Wiseman does nothing to alleviate.

You see, this is the Serious, Real story of vampires and their centuries-long war with the lycanthropes, or werewolves, whom they call Lycans, which sounds exactly like “lichens,” which makes you think they’re battling… what? Moss? Fungus? And forget mysticism or the supernatural: These creatures, vampires and werewolves alike, are victims of a virus, which makes you think that it should perhaps be two viruses at work, because why would a single virus turn some people into vampires and some people into lichens– er, Lycans? But never mind that, either: This is really a story that the filmmakers have the nerve to compare to Shakespeare, a Romeo and Juliet under the pale moonlight and over the rainslicked cobblestones, the tagic tale of a vampire and a Lycan in love, which has been forbidden for, like, ever.

And so — since this is Serious and Real and Significant and all about loneliness and tragedy and what have you — Serious Actress Kate Beckinsale (Laurel Canyon, Pearl Harbor) is deployed as Selene, the sad vampire in black leather who’s badass with her guns loaded with silver bullets (all the better to kill Lycans, my dear). She intones many a magnificently overblown voiceover detailing her vampiric sadness but even she can’t make us believe, in the two or three scenes she has with her Romeo, that she’s in love with him, or is even aware of his presence in any personally meaningful way. Romeo is Scott Speedman (Dark Blue, Duets), who’s such a blank slate of an actor that you can understand why he would be beneath Selene’s notice, though that’s not at the intention here. One kiss out of nowhere does not a legendary romance make, no matter how Lonely and Tragic and Other everyone is so desperate to convince us they are.

Neither the vampires nor the Lycans are particularly frightening, at least no more so than anyone armed to the teeth with semiautomatic weapons would be. They’re not particularly sexually threatening, for all the supposed romance and lust we’re supposed to imagine is at play. The only thing they are is hilariously over the top, with the flouncing and the leather and the angst of millennia and the running around in the rain.

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