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Underworld: Awakening
Tonight's Feature Presentation

UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING (2012)

Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Stephen Rea, India Eisley, Theo James, Michael Ealy, Sandrine Holt, Charles Dance

Written By: Len Wiseman (also story), John Hlavin, J. Michael Straczynski, Allison Burnett

Directed By: Mans Marlind & Bjorn Stein

The Short Version

Kate Beckinsale is back as the world’s most fashionably deadly modern vampire.

Underworld: Awakening is way better than I was expecting it to be.

Its ties are still clear and strong, but it is none the less a departure from how things were before.

Less Goth, less arcane, more adrenaline.  That sums it up.

Series fans won’t be able to resist Kate’s return, and this holds its own as an action piece, too.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEESE POPCORN.

Even if you’re dubious about the stuff when you first open the bag, it’s so easy to snack on that your reservations quickly go out the window.


Pairs Well With...

VODKA & CRANBERRY JUICE.

A decidedly modern cocktail that’s got a nice blood red color to it.  No bottom shelf vodka, either.

“I don’t recognize this world.”


Back in 2003, Underworld became one of the major landmarks for the concept of bringing old school gothic monsters into the modern world and doing it right.  After one “day after” sequel three years later, the next follow up went the way of the prequel and set itself back in the Dark Ages.  Once that happened, many fans began to wonder if they’d ever see the modern Underworld again… and if they’d ever see Kate Beckinsale back in that tight black costume, for that matter.

Then Underworld: Awakening was announced, with a major emphasis being put on the fact that Kate Beckinsale and the modern world were coming with it, along with a pair of directors whom most people had never heard of before.  At that point, the questions became: would it be recognizable, and would it be any good?

The answers are yes and yes, with the additional note that it’s also taken some very different directions.

Our story begins with the vampiric Death Dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale, Van Helsing) bringing audiences up to speed on the events of Underworld and Underworld: Evolution, allowing new audiences to keep up.  (Though people already familiar with both with catch some nuances that newcomers won’t.)  Through her voice over and some helpful inserts of television news reports, we learn that shortly after the events of Underworld: Evolution, human beings suddenly discovered proof that vampires and Lycans – werewolves – were in fact real and living among them.  Reacting in typical human fashion, people declared these “infected” creatures to be inhuman and began “cleansing” the infected in “purges”; in other words, people went on a genocide campaign.  Selene and her vampire/Lycan hybrid lover Michael tried to escape, but there was an explosion, and everything went black…

Flash forward twelve years.  Selene is suddenly awakened from some form of suspended animation, and discovers that she’s been held captive for all that time by a biotech company called Antigen, which is allegedly trying to develop a vaccine against both lycanthropy (werewolfism) and vampirism.  Not wanting to be a test subject for people bent on eradicating her species, Selene escapes in violent fashion, with the hope of finding what became of Michael.  She knows that another “test subject” has also escaped, so she begins her search there, while the humans – and others – seek to hunt her down and bring her back…

I admit that I had more than a few reservations walking into Underworld: Awakening.  After all, how Underworld could it be once the reality of vampires and werewolves had been brought out into the open, and really how recognizable could the world possibly remain once that happened?  As it turns out, the powers that be decided to split the difference, coming up with a movie that’s still recognizable to Underworld franchise fans but which stylistically feels much closer to the high action of the Resident Evil sequels.  (And which in still other ways kept making me think that this movie turned out to be what Ultraviolet wanted to be and wasn’t.)  For most people, this can be chalked up as a “win,” though I can imagine others calling it a betrayal of what came before.  As for me, I’m going with the first group.

First, let’s look at what stays consistent.

Above and beyond all else, the two things that remain most constant from the first two Underworld films are the character of Selene and Kate Beckinsale’s portrayal of her.  Without question, messing with either of those two items would have be considered unforgivable by fans, but they can rest assured that what matters most is still there.  Ice cold resolve?  Check.  Quick thinking smarts?  Check.  Emotions definitely there but reined in by steel discipline?  Check.  Actions speaking louder than words?  Oh, hell yes.  Selene still kicks ass in supremely acrobatic fashion and slings twin guns with a style that John Woo can only dream of.  And yes, she still fits the costume.  (I will say, though, that really obvious digital fog to obscure nudity is no cooler now than it was when moviegoers lambasted its use in Rollerball.)  If you forgot why half the people who saw the original Underworld developed an instant crush on Kate Beckinsale (including that film’s director, who married her), Underworld: Awakening is happy to remind you.  If anything, both the character of Selene and the actress playing her have amped up their games.

Also consistent is the storyline, which retains full continuity with all that came before.  Even as the surrounding world gets a major overhaul, the road that leads there hasn’t changed.  Indeed, though it quickly proceeds to provide the audience with a twelve year gap, Underworld: Awakening is a direct sequel to Underworld: Evolution, and picks up within what can’t be more than a few months of where that movie ended.  The canon is preserved, and the logic remains the same.

With that in mind, everything else goes “boom.”

In writing – or perhaps editing the script for – Underworld: Awakening (which has a disturbingly large number of credited writers and who knows how many uncredited ones), the powers that be apparently decided that the first three films dipped deep enough into the arcane lore of the vampires and the Lycans, and that the time for the gothic trappings and class war posturing had passed.  (There’s even a scene in the movie that basically says as much.)  As such, while the first three movies were all very much steeped in the past, Underworld: Awakening is very much about its world’s “now.”  The brief nod to coven politics carries spit with it; this one’s all about doing things Selene’s way, which as noted above is more about action than it is about intrigue.  This is a major departure from all that’s come before, and the end result is a quicker pace that feels more heavily steeped in action even though really the quotient is probably about the same as it was before.  It’s also much more visceral; there’s a raw undercurrent to everything that wasn’t there in the first two films and was only hinted at in the prequel.  Even as Selene retains her icy will, the fights have more emotional resonance to them, and don’t carry as much of a choreographed feel.  This extends into providing some rather vicious moments, including the nastiest on camera arm break I’ve seen since the heyday of classic Steven Seagal (hooray for visible bone!), some really brutal scalpel work, and two exceptionally mean endings to final duels that would be worth the price of admission even if nothing else was.

Another major change on the vampire front is that finally, for the first time in the entire series, a vampire actually bites a human as an attack meant to kill.  It took four movies to do it, but now the vampires are really vampires.  Even as a fan from the start, I must say that it’s about damned time.

Other changes are harder to discuss without spoiling things; I’ll just say that even if you worry early on that the Lycans have been reduced to mere brutish were-rats subsisting in sewers, you’ll be rewarded soon enough.  With that said, the Lycans have very obviously gone the CG route, and while the rendering isn’t bad, I for one still liked the guys in suits and make up from the first movie better.  It is, however, by no means a deal breaker, and is more than made up for by the portrayal of the hybrid, which remains a combination of makeup and physical effects and which has if anything improved as the series has gone on, with the end result being something that’s genuinely creepy that has more than a few shades of Night of the Living Dead tossed in for good measure.  Put simply, the hybrid turns out to be awesome, and even threatens to steal some of Selene’s thunder, which may or may not violate some laws of physics.

Cosmetically, I will say that I lament the passing of the blue tint that defined the first three movies.  At first, I thought that perhaps the gimmick glasses (you call them “3D glasses,” though I maintain that the effect is 4D because time is a dimension) had simply washed out the effect, but as I slipped them off to check I saw that no, that wasn’t the case, and that the tint was really gone.  Though it has no real negative effect on the movie, it is none the less a signature of the franchise that I will miss.  (And for those who appreciated the metal background of the first two films, this one has gone more for club electronica, though oddly enough given how the Goth overtones have largely been dropped from the story, someone still managed to dig up Evanescence for the end credits.)

Also gone are the constant ice blue eyes of the vampires; now they only turn blue while the vampires are “vamping out.”  Again, if you weren’t already a fan of the series, you won’t miss a thing, but if you were, it’s another sign that the times, they have a-changed.

With that said, I don’t think they’ve changed for the worse.  Indeed, after expecting mediocrity when I walked into the theatre, I walked out of Underworld: Awakening highly impressed.  This sequel not only keeps the flame burning, but indeed breathes new life into the franchise, and I can’t imagine that the hint of another sequel coming provided by this film’s ending will go unanswered.  Underworld: Awakening proves that this is a story that’s worth continuing.

Bottom line, Underworld: Awakening delivers the goods in high octane fashion.  Though for some it will more resemble the tone of a Resident Evil sequel than it does the Underworld movies that came before, this doesn’t turn out to be a bad thing, and all of the things that need to remain constant to keep this film’s identity as part of the Underworld universe are still there.  Indeed, I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to call Underworld: Awakening the best of the sequels so far, and something that’s definitely worth catching on the big screen if you can, and owning for the small when it’s available.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, January, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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