People like action/goth/fantasy/horror/graphic-novel movies. What better than an epic and timeless battle between -- screw good and evil -- vampires and werewolves! There can be warring clans, astounding feats of strength, dizzying pans across moonlit metropolises, and raven-haired heroines in precision-tailored rubber jumpsuits. A love story. Familial rebellion. Treachery. Is somebody getting all of this down?
The answer, apparently, is no. What is so sad in Underworld is that many of the ideas are solid enough, but in their execution come across like an 11-year-old's telling of a classroom incident where someone "almost, like totally got in trouble." We open with Selene, played by Kate Beckinsale (Serendipity, Pearl Harbor), a vampire charged with exterminating Lycans (werewolves). She discovers that for reasons unknown Lycans have been stalking a particular human, a Dr. Michael Corvin, played by Scott Speedman (Dark Blue, Felicity). Selene undertakes to protect him, action sequences commence, and I'll not risk boring you/spoiling it with specifics.
The shots are well done, with an apropos sense of melancholy communicated through monochromatic color schemes, isolated subjects and slick and dirty textures. Director Len Wiseman's vision displays a balanced sense of the flamboyant, the irrevocable and the sinister, and there is a measured and violently attenuated performance from Beckinsale.
Yet even the film's strong points mostly just underscore its weaknesses. These have little to do with plot -- though there is the small matter of a movie about war between vampires and werewolves centering on the exploits of a vampire and a human. Still, that alone is not fatal. There's also the acting. Shane Brolly, as the aptly named vampire Kraven, is wincingly bad. You feel as embarrassed for him as if you'd been caught taping Full House. Speedman narrowly escapes a similar showing, but only because he has just three minutes of dialogue and three seconds of agency in the entire movie.
Moreover, the individual characters are never really characters. The backstory is completely tacked on, and doesn't at all encompass the sort of innovative histories, weaknesses and rules that are the staples of the genre. Annoyances abound. Wiseman makes Corvin a doctor, and then never brings it up again. He stages an elaborate unveiling of new UV bullets designed by the werewolves, but you never see them used. The movie's climax is comically gory. There is a sense that if the sight of Scott Speedman turning around in the rain is hot enough, and Kate Beckinsale's close-ups are tremulously devastating enough, then all will be well. Would that it were so.
On the bright side, a sequel is in the works.