The Underworld movies are actually good (VIDEO)
What if I told you that the Underworld movies are good? You’d scoff perhaps? Maybe you’d compare them to those dreadful Resident Evil movies? You might even make a joke about them just being an excuse to ogle at Kate Beckinsale in PVC.
The problem with all those reactions is that they’re WRONG. Except about the fifth movie. Feel free to apply all those pieces of cheap reasoning to Underworld: Blood Wars.
Before I start I feel it is worth mentioning that whilst I do touch on Underworld’s internal mythology, it is too big to deal with in one video. However the fact that Underworld has a thoroughly developed lore is a tick in the plus column for me.
Let’s first establish why Underworld is a good franchise overall: Every movie and sequel is different to the others. The first movie is seemingly an action film about vampires versus werewolves, but slowly reveals itself to be complex game of political machinations with an underlying conspiracy going back generations. The second movie, Evolution, is an exceptionally executed action road trip thriller. The third movie, Rise of the Lycans, is an epic in the mode of Lord of the Rings and Spartacus, but with werewolves and vampires. The fourth movie is a straight up Sci-Fi dystopia.
Personally I found the issue with the fifth movie was they tried to combine the first and fourth movie without good reasoning and ended up with a fucking mess. There was also a sense that nobody making the film cared about it or the world in it. What separates the Underworld movies in my mind from the Resident Evil movies is the attention to actual craft.
The films have genuinely well staged and edited action. If I was brave enough I’d argue the second movie, Evolution, to be a modern action classic, but I fear the scoffing. Either way, generally speaking, there’s little to no shaky-cam. The hand to hand stuff is well choreographed and the gun play is visceral. The Underworld movies commit to motivated gore and it is glorious. The series also has had a commitment to blending traditional special effects with modern CGI visual effects. Think about all those animatronic werewolves and the physical sets. And all those lovely squibs… Sure the effects aren’t always great, but they’re always appropriate for a B-movie horror aesthetic. There is a climactic sequence in Evolution set in a snowed under, water logged castle that is just magnificent. Go find it.
Now this is when someone says that good action doesn’t matter without a good story driving it, and that in turn has to be driven by good characters. Admittedly the characters in Underworld are actually incredibly dry. However Selene at least always functions well enough to drive the story. She’s a radical with a conservative heart. She knows what is right, but she usually waits for others to take charge in doing the right thing. She holds onto harmful power structures longer than is sensible. Her lack of faith usually results in everyone she cares about (or is trying to save) getting killed. She and the other various protagonists over the series do have hopes, dreams and make mistakes frequently.
Whilst this is all expressed in a muted and dour fashion this is not to say these films are humourless. Bill Nighy, Tony Curran and Shane Brolly all camp it up and chew the scenery to death. It’s a lot of fun and the movies utilise their camp effectively. If you don’t smile or laugh when Bill Nighy starts growling and gnashing his teeth, you’re either a liar or refusing to meet the films on their own terms.
But what are those terms? I’ve already established these are movies with good action, effective enough character work and a balance of tragedy and camp. That makes them fun and watchable, but what elevates them to good? Why aren’t they just vampire movies that attempted to cash in on the stylisms stolen from The Matrix?
I always enjoy the snarky references to The Matrix applied to these movies, because it shows a certain level of ignorance about them. Goths have had an ownership to black and leather long before The Matrix rocked up. And the fact that Underworld has a constant blue filter akin to the constant green filter in The Matrix is for a similar reason: to suggest unreality.
Underworld has a few references to dates and perhaps some geographical references in later movies, but for the most part the time periods and locales are unspecified. The first and second movies seem to happen somewhere a bit like the States via somewhere a bit like Eastern Europe. The opening flashback of the second movie and the entirety of the third movie seem to occur in some alternate history in an alternate world. The fourth movie is equally vague and just happens in a world made of codified Sci-Fi tropes. The Underworld movies position their world as akin to ours, but separate and less defined and with monsters. It’s essentially folklore and fairy tale and that’s clearly deliberate. It’s all well and good for me to point out that Underworld positions itself as folklore, but those sorts of stories are told for a reason, to pass on a moral message through time. So what is Underworld’s message?
As stated earlier, the first Underworld movie is about a conspiracy behind a war between vampires and werewolves. We’re told by Selene in the opening narration that werewolves are dangerous and that vampires live peacefully amongst humans. Selene mostly trusts this because her surrogate father Viktor told her all of it. There is also a vampire Kraven who is manipulating his way to the top of their society and she suspects him of working with evil werewolf leader Lucian. Except it turns out Lucian is actually the good guy. He wants peace with the vampires and freedom for his own people and always has done. He’s even tried to work openly with the vampires for this. However Viktor violently suppressed Lucian and his people and Kraven is manipulating their fight for emancipation for his own gain.
This is when one notices the vampires all live in mansions and drink blood from wine glasses all day, whilst the werewolves are stuck living in the sewers. I think the morals of Underworld are clear: beware the politically manipulative, power and wealth is based on a history of violence, slavery and oppression that the powerful will be particular in how they portray later on. And the poor deserve a lot more than they get and will have to fight to get it. Underworld’s beliefs aren’t so much subversive as they are downright revolutionary. Now one could easily connect this to anti-capitalist beliefs as easily as you could compare it to the American Revolution. Folkloric stories and their values can sometimes be vague like that as they depend on who is doing the telling.
However, one thing is noteworthy about Lucian’s revolutionary plan. It involves creating a hybrid vampire-werewolf. He believes that such a person could unite the two sides. It’s clear he doesn’t intend to use this person as a weapon as he infects Michael Corvin, who doesn’t sympathise with either side and will retain his sentience after the transformation. Lucian honestly believes that their best hope is someone that embodies all species and societies, including an originally human background. If that isn’t a ringing endorsement of diversity, multiculturalism and tolerance, I don’t know what is.
The fourth movie actually supports this idea. When Lucian’s plan ultimately fails, another faction of werewolves actually take power and become the oppressors of the vampires. The whole situation reverses because the werewolves who took control weren’t interested in understanding the vampires or being equal with them, they just wanted to have the power to oppress them right back.
As stated at the beginning, the Underworld mythology is a lot more complex and rich than I have time to go into. There are various nuances about the vampire’s and werewolves’ physical abilities and societal practices I have trampled over here, but my point essentially remains.
So there you go. The Underworld franchise is made of movies that all differentiate themselves. They have functional characters and great action set pieces that blend the traditional and new. They have a broad lore that reflects the traditions of folklore, with strong morals and values. However they don’t take themselves too seriously as they revel in explosive gore, campy acting and B-movie aesthetics. Even all the leather and blue filters are motivated. The Underworld movies are good. Except the fifth movie, because fuck Blood Wars.