If you’re not a fan of the Underworld horror-flick franchise, you’ll likely be lost from the get-go when the fourth installment, titled Underworld: Awakening (Screen Gems/Columbia; 89 minutes; R; widescreen; 2012), starts unspooling at the multiplex. Nor does the 3-D version provide an extra dimension that significantly deepens this outing beyond its surface shocks.
Actually, it’s the third stanza if you’re concerned with the chronological movements of its characters, specifically the battles between the opposites who flesh out Underworld’s undercard: sleek, trigger-happy vampiress Selene (Kate Beckinsale), whose peepers turn bright blue when she puts the bloody bite on her victims, and the furry lycanthropes (a.k.a. wolfish guys and dolls) who are her sworn enemies. And that’s because the third-in-line entry, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009), was a centuries-earlier prequel to the modern-day events found in the first two movies from 2004 and 2006.
Confused? Well, forget it, just like the sequel’s writers (including tentpole creator Len Wiseman, who is also Beckinsale’s hubby) did by offering only tenuous connections to Underworld’s movie mythology. This go-round opens with the humans in wipeout mode after they discover that the joint is crawling with sawtooths and werewolves. So they orchestrate a bloody “purge” of the monsters, with Selene hoping to be reunited with her lupine lover Michael (played in flashbacks by Scott Speedman, who did not return to the series) before they are captured.
Things don’t go so well, however, as the movie fast-forwards a dozen years to reveal that Selene has wound up in a deep-freeze setup at a medical institution in which scientists are attempting some DNA splitting, ostensibly for humankind’s survival. Selene thaws out during an escape orchestrated by a mysterious “Subject 2” who was also imprisoned at the institution; her benefactor turns out to be Eve (India Eisley), a 12-year-old lass who could be the genetic bridge in understanding vampires and lycans. But Dr. Jacob Lane (Stephen Rea), head of the medical think tank, has his dark reasons for wanting to retrieve Eve and place her back under the microscope.
The script makes some half-hearted stabs at adhering to the Underworld backstory, with nods to bloodlines, mixed pedigrees and next generations to suggest a warped take on family values. And the stylized noir trappings found in the first two features are back for an encore, with shiny blues and blacks dominating the film’s palette, all the better to showcase the frequent geysers of red corpuscles spraying into the air.
Unlike the lite bites found in the Twilight movie adaptations, the throat-ripping escalation ’twixt vamps and wolves is captured in ferocious full throttle by Swedish tag-team directors Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein, who maintain a steady body count yet are hard-pressed to come up with even one visually interesting camera shot. (Perhaps the best image is the topsy-turvy view as Selene emerges from her cryogenic state.) There’s also a neat chase sequence down an urban boulevard as a van-driving Selene is pursued by some computer-generated galloping werewolves, who at least look nearly as horrific as the creatures from stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen’s heyday. This sequence also seems to be juggling a Night of the Living Dead homage, in which Eve gets attacked by a lycan and seemingly becomes one of them—but this is a spoiler-free zone here, folks.
Yet as cranked-out sequels go, Underworld: Awakening grows more routine by the minute—and since the movie itself is barely 80 minutes, not counting the endless credit crawl, the weaknesses are still apparent despite the on-screen carnage. The sideline gimmick involving Selene’s bursts of psychic activity, for instance, seems like quick short cuts to move the plot, although they come across like outtakes from That’s So Raven. Newbie-to-the-cast Michael Ealy plays a clichéd detective with a past (“You question me less when you know a bit more,” he barks to a green copper), while an uncredited (by choice, perhaps?) Wes Bentley (American Beauty) turns up briefly as a scientist.
And while Beckinsale still looks provocative as this franchise’s
pistol-packing mama, it’s harder to explain why impressive actors
continually get pulled into the Underworld, such as The Crying Game’s
Stephen Rea as the dour doc and Britain’s Charles Dance as a vampire
king, unless they are in a slumming-for-a-paycheck mood. Fast but
pointless, especially with a WTF climax that paves the way for a fifth
entry, this fourth fang bang is in desperate need of a blood drive.