Worryingly billed ad nauseum as Romeo and Juliet for vampires and werewolves, it comes as a relief that Len Wiseman’s moody action-horror plays down the love interest in favour of some good old-fashioned chases and eye-catching set and costume design. While the Romeo and Juliet undertones are prevalent – the clash of two cultures, two star-cross’d lovers falling for each other with predictably catastrophic results – the film instead riffs on Blade (1998), The Matrix (1999) and urban gothic throughout, leading to a film with grand pretensions but precious little substance.
Selene is an urban vampire engaged in a centuries-old battle with an equally formidable pack of werewolves. Along the way she must discover why the werewolves are interested in tracking down Michael (Scott Speedman) and then uncover a conspiracy between a vampire traitor and a wolf leader. Speedman is really just the Macguffin, allowing Danny McBride’s script to play with genre conventions. The casting of Beckinsale as Selene is a clear attempt to subvert gender roles in modern gothic horror, and she equips herself relatively well alongside the muscular Speedman and majestic Bill Nighy. By shying away from casting big names, the film at least feels less like a star vehicle than a concerted attempt to explore and defamiliarise vampire and werewolf mythology after years of simple shoot-’em-up narratives and end-of-level set pieces.
Moreover, while the rain-sodden visual scheme and industrial-inflected set design may recall Blade Runner (1982) and a thousand other such films, the low-level lighting and monochrome costume design drains all colour from the film’s visual palette to offer a striking echo of the narrative’s key themes.
There are plenty of rip-roaring set pieces, not least the stunningly atmospheric opening sequence in a metro station, and the scene where Selene shoots through a floor to escape one of the werewolves wouldn’t look out of place in a Bond movie. Yet while Wiseman probably wouldn’t want to hear it, Underworld has B-feature written all over it. All the boxes are ticked – grim and shadowy cinematography, eye-catching PVC costumes, crumbling urban set design – and the performances differ so wildly that there is a lack of consistency or clarity that undermines the story Wiseman is trying to tell.
While not wholly unsatisfying, there is certainly a lot less to Underworld than meets the eye. To start with, the film ends too briefly, setting up the inevitable sequel and refusing to explain neglected plot points. More ominously, however, there is an attempt to copycat similar films which feels both unadventurous and downright silly. It’s all well and good having your characters look and dress like evictees from The Matrix and Blade, but that should not necessitate a wholehearted embrace of those films, aesthetic violence and slow-motion cinematography included.
Worst of all is the acting, which is ropy at best, thanks in no small part to some terribly clunky dialogue. Michael Sheen, last seen as the equally Machiavellian Tony Blair in Channel Four’s The Deal, plays the werewolf leader with flaring nostrils and by shouting VERY LOUDLY. Things do not improve during one of those irritating hiatuses two-thirds of the way through films where the mad scientist ‘explains’ what is going on for the imaginatively impaired. Much of the film involves people and monsters running around firing silver nitrate bullets at each other, eventually regressing into a muddled miasma of crashing rock music and blurry flashbacks. The Crouching Tiger-style finale can only hint at what might have been. Ultimately, Underworld is hamstrung by its lack of narrative clarity, its incessant cannibalisation of superior experiments in the genre, and a precious lack of the sense of humour that might have lifted this film out of the poor and into the promising.