A film review by Craig J. Koban January 25, 2012

 

UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING ½j
 

2012, R, 89 mins.

 

Kate Beckinsale: Selene / Stephen Rea: Dr. Jacob Lane / Michael Elay: Detective Sebastian / Eve: India Eisley

Directed by Bjorn Stein and Mans Marlind / Written by Len Wiseman, John Hlavin, Allison Burnett, and J. Michael Straczynski

SCREENED IN
3D

UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING - the fourth film in the werewolf versus vampire horror series – is so mercilessly dead on arrival that feelings of depression swept over me within just a few scant minutes of watching it.  

The film will most likely be considered required viewing for devotees of the franchise, but as for the rest of us non-UNDERWORLD fundamentalists, AWAKENING is a deafening exercise in testing our collective patience.  Very few film franchises have made me care so little about its events, characters, and themes as the UNDERWORLD quadrilogy, and AWAKENING all but cements this assertion; it’s one of the most crude, bombastic, puerile, perfunctory, and wholeheartedly unnecessary sequels I have ever seen.  

The film’s sheer incompetence at even modestly involving me is matched only by its festering soullessness. I was frankly surprised by the popularity of the original 2003 installment, which spilled over into more unmemorable sequels in 2006’s EVOLUTION and 2009’s RISE OF THE LYCANS (which, to be fair, was a prequel).  Even though the films have never really stayed with me, what I do remember from all of them was that they had an aesthetic style that was so repulsively and redundantly dark, dreary and sullen that I wanted to cleanse the screen with Lysol after viewing them.  

The producers of AWAKENING have made the categorical blunder of continuing the series’ morosely colorless visual palette with 3D augmentation, which we all know has the negative side effect of washing out even the brightest of screen images at the best of times.  Watching the first three UNDERWORLD pictures I strained to make sense of what was happening in the midst of all of its impenetrably murky cinematography; the addition of 3D all but makes this new film unendurable.  There are instances where you just can’t make any coherent sense of what’s happening within the frame.  It’s one thing for a film to gorge on mindlessly stylized action sequences of grotesque and pornographic levels of carnage within dimly illuminated shots, but the even murkier multi-dimensional visuals here makes AWAKENING rancorously uninviting as a film experience; this is the poster film on how not to use the technology. 

As for the film’s story itself?  AWAKENING continues the film’s mythology of a centuries-old battle between werewolves (lycans) and vampires (which was mostly detailed in 2009 prequel film).  AWAKENING begins some six months after the events of EVOLUTION when humanity has discovered the existence of the un-dead and lycans and the war between them.  Their response to the creatures is predictably fearful and hostile and mankind begins a systematic hunt and extermination of all non-human life forms on the planet, which has now made this series a three-way battle between humans and the two warring beasts.  One of the beasts, however, strives to escape such hellish circumstances: she is Selene (Kate Beckinsale) the “death-dealer” werewolf killer from the first two UNDERWORLD pictures that - at the beginning of this film - is trying to escape her kind’s obliteration with her lover, Michael (played by Scott Speedman in the first two films, who wisely decided not to show up again here and is replaced by hilariously obvious body doubles and CGI tweaks).  Michael is a hybrid, a part vampire/part lycan beast, but Selene loves him all the same.  Unfortunately, just before Michael and her can escape to safety they are intercepted by a governmental task force and are captured.  

 

 

Twelve years pass in cryogenic freeze for Selene and Michael, but she manages to free herself of her frigid prison cell to discover that she and her beloved were being held and used as guinea pigs at a research facility headed by Dr. Jacob Lane (Stephen Rea, desperately requiring a pay check to be in this dreck) that wants to use lycans and vampires to come up with a serum to end the war altogether.  The seemingly good doctor, though, has more vile plans – and secrets – which involves him using Selene’s own daughter, an all-powerful hybrid herself (India Eisley) for his twisted research.  This is the straw that broke the death-dealer’s back, as Selene finds a way to escape the facility (with daughter in hand) to seek out the remaining vampires in existence and plan a daring counter-attack.  She does so while, of course, dressed in unendingly form fitting leather to make her appear as if she just stepped off the pages of a S&M magazine spread. 

Beckinsale was wise to avoid appearing in the third UNDERWORLD picture (which easily made my list of the Worst Films of 2009), but her willingness to return in this fourth entry strikes me as puzzling (unless you evidently equate a hefty payday for the actress).  My central complaint about the first two UNDERWORLD entries was that Beckinsale’s porcelain beauty almost worked against her character: she’s almost too beautiful to taken seriously as a feral and deeply hostile kick-ass action heroine.  She is able to posture and grimace as if her character has edge, but she never really pulls it off convincingly.  Beckinsale always looks fetching in her UNDERWORLD attire, but beyond that her character is a poser and nothing more than a male masturbatory fantasy; in essence, a Maxim Magazine-esque sex kitten dressed in erotically charged clothing and slicing and dicing through multiple male adversaries.  What AWAKENING cements is that Selene’s only real defining character trait is that she is a sultry looking movie prop…and that’s about it. 

Perhaps what’s missing here is some much needed over-the-top camp value that actors like Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen brought to the other films.  AWAKENING does have another Brit show up in fangs and pale makeup, Charles Dance, as a substitute, but he never appears to have any self-deprecating pleasure with the role.  Neither does Stephen Rea, who looks positively morose throughout the film.  It’s sad to see accomplished actors like Dance and, in particular, Rea utter cookie-cutter lines of expository-heavy dialogue that reeks of flavorless banality.  

Les Wiseman, who directed UNDERWORLD I and II, took a back seat this go around and served as producer and co-writer, leaving directorial duties to the Swedish tandem of Bjorn Stein and Mans Marlind, who have an alarming lack of command over helming the action in AWAKENING.  They bring little in the sense of editorial cohesion or a sense of unique style to the film and nearly all the action sequences are handled with a compassionless detachment from the material.  The frequent battles between humans, werewolves, and lycans are unrelenting splatergoriums of grotesque carnage (this is the most violent film of the entire series), but the film’s unnerving ballet of blood-spewing and viscera-leaking overkill is more nihilistically numbing than exciting.  Beyond that, there is not one moment in the film that generates a tangible scare, which is hard, I guess, in this film’s swamp-like visual stew of wretched 3D artifice and hideously phony-looking CGI-monsters. 

UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING is an ugly and pointless film, one that neither significantly contributes to the already shaky narrative foundations of the original films.  Its existence is owed to that of quick cash grab opportunity to take a well-known series and release a new sequel in 3D to collect some high-surcharged box office money.  As far as valueless movie products go, AWAKENING is as bankrupted as they get.  The ultimate sin, though, is that this film sets up another future entry in the series.  

How sad.  How. Very.  Sad. 

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