Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Movie Review: Underworld - Evolution

(image curtesy of Sonypictures.com)

A general rule of thumb for Hollywood movie sequels seems to be that the sequel must have a combination of more action, more nudity or more villains. In “Underworld: Evolution” we get all three components in good measure packaged in a frenetic presentation that was heavy on the action and very light on the logical narration. While it was more energetic that it’s 2004 “Underworld” predecessor, “Underworld: Evolution” provided nothing new to what could potentially be an interesting premise if done correctly. Although fans of the first movie might welcome this addition to the franchise, casual viewers could be put-off by the dense narrative and ambiguous character conflicts/motivations.

After an extended flashback sequence that gives the back story of the new characters that we will be seeing in this sequel, the film opens with the vampire Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and her vampire/lycan (werewolf) hybrid lover Michael (Scott Speedman) in an undisclosed Eastern European location. They are both on the run from the her old vampire coven thanks to the events of the last installment of the movie which at the beginning on this movie just happened a few days (or weeks) earlier. Despite the certainty that their presence will surely be detected, the fugitives enters a vampire coven safehouse in their location to rest and rearm while Michael struggles to comprehend and control his new powers as a half-vampire, half-werewolf hybrid.

After an encounter with the local lawmen, the couple finds themselves pursued by Marcus (Tony Curran). Marcus, the progenitor of all Vampires, was recently reawaken as another vampire/lycan hybrid after drinking the blood of the lycan killed by Viktor (Bill Nighy) on top of his crypt in the last movie. Learning what had happened from the blood memories of the lycan he drank from, Marcus proceeded to kill Kraven (Shane Brolly) whose thirst for power precipitated the events that led to his premature awakening and to preempt Kraven’s plan to assassinate him. It is also from their blood that Marcus learns about Selene who unknowingly holds the secret of the location of where his twin brother, William (Brian Steele) who was his counterpart as the progenitor of the Lycan nation, was being imprisoned as seen in the flashback sequence in the beginning of the film.

Barely escaping a vicious pre-dawn attack by Markus, Selene and Michael seeks refuge in an conveniently abandoned warehouse where Selene starts to recall vague images from her past after seeing the amulet that Marcus was after. The amulet, which was given to Michael by the Lycan leader from the last movie, was actually part of a key to the prison where William was held and that Selene’s father was part of the team that was commissioned by the vampires to build the prison. This realization further motivates Selene and Michael to find out more about the key and the mysteries behind Selene’s family involvement. To do that, they would have to journey to seek out Arnaud Tanis (Steven Mackintosh) who is the vampire coven’s archivist who may have the clue of the location of the prison that Selene is seeing in her flashbacks.

After another bout of gunfire and bloody fighting with the werewolf guards who protected Tanis’s lair, the fugitives persuaded Tanis to tell them the whole history behind the prison and the key components that Marcus would need to open it to release his twin brother William. Tanis proceeded to point the pair to another mysterious figure that have been operating in the background who currently hold the other half of the key needed to complete the key combination. As Selene and Michael leaves to find the mysterious figure that Tanis told them about, Marcus pays Tanis a visit looking for the same information. Unfortunately for Tanis, Marcus is less reluctant to use terminal force that the uninvited visitors who came earlier to get the information that Tanis has.

Acting on the tip-off from Tanis, Selene and Michael seeks out the mysterious player in the vampire versus lycan conflict only to find that the person acting behind the scenes is actually Alexander Corvinus (Derek Jacobi) who is the immortal human who fathered both Marcus and William. Alexander have been cleaning after both his sons in a way by making sure that no evidence is left behind after each vampire/lycan encounter that has been happening in the hundred of years both night covens have been in existence. It was during the cleanup after the death of Viktor that he came across the other half of the key component that Marcus needed to free his twin from his eternal prison. Sure enough that Marcus does come crashing to retrieve the completed key now that both halves were brought together in the same place.

With the completed key in his possession, the film quickly moves ahead to the climatic ending on the site of William’s place of eternal incarceration. It is sufficient to say that the climatic fight is as bullet-filled and gory as the rest of the action scenes we’ve seen thus far but now ramped up further a few notches in the frenetic energy quotient. There are a few cheap plot twist that happened proceeding to the climatic battle to set up Selene as being Marcus’s equal after the audience have been told before that both Selene and Michael had no chance to bringing Marcus and William down by themselves. The film finally resolves itself after 106 minutes of running time but not before pulling a throwback final scene not unlike the one we saw at the end for the last “Terminator” movie.

Visually “Underworld: Evolution” shares the same dark and cold color palate as it’s predecessor. Most of the scene were filmed in a bluish-metallic tint and dark shadows which made more sense in the urban environment of the first film than it does in the Eastern European environment in this outing. Most of the small details looked washed out in the eternal twilight that this film seems to revel in with the exception of the icy-blue eyes that Selene sports when every she gets angry at something (which is most of the time she is on screen). The drab and dreary background does however help to impressively frame the explosion of color from the gunshots and the gore that ensues with each action sequence.

Kate Beckinsale, reprising the role that have made her the latest entry into the anti-hero famme fatale category, returns with the same icy numb exterior that we saw in the last movie. She does get to do some actually acting during the plot twist towards the end of the movie but for most of the time she is content to deliver stiff poses while she is blowing everything else to kingdom come. It was also no different for a returning Scott Speedman who seems to be in the movie just to show how good he looks shirtless and not much else given that the storyline of his character struggling with his new powers was dropped so early in the film. Good news is that both characters do get naked in a love scene that happens in between them getting chased by Marcus. Bad news is that we don’t get to see that in the local cinemas as the scene was obviously one of the many cuts made by the Malaysian Censorship Board.

Tony Curran’s Marcus suffers most from a less than imposing looking human form to make the character believable as a strong foil to the icy Selene. This might be the reason why his character spends most of his time looking like the creature from “Jeepers Creepers”. With enough rubber prosthetics and low lights, anyone can be scary. Add to this the almost incomprehensible motivation that was driving this character, it made for a fairly weaker villain than the one that Selene had to face in the first film. Finally, Derek Jacobi brings an element of class to the proceedings (and does so without overacting, a seeming impossibility in an endeavor like this). His presence is a welcomed breath of fresh air even if his screen time is too limited.

One of the thing that I hated most about this sequel was the near absence of any semblance of a storyline involving the lycan tribe. The interaction between the two night tribes, the vampire and the lycans, was the main point that sold the first movie for me. This idea that both vampire and lycans existed in the same universe and in fact share a common heritage was a novel one to me and I would have been happier if they decided to explore more of that idea in this sequel. Instead, we get lycans reduced to petty chained bodyguards or the mindless beast that contributed nothing to the lycan’s side of the story. While the first “Underworld” movie gave us a balanced representation of these two night tribes, this sequel seems content to only tell the story from the view point of the vampire clan.

If there was one thing that this film has going for it, I would say that it has to be the CGI and action scenes. CGI production values looked fairly polish and acceptable for a movie of this pedigree. The action scenes were exciting and energetic enough to sustain interest in the movie if one does not concern themselves too much with the convoluted narrative mess happening in between the action scenes. “Underworld: Evolution” seems to have upped the ante in terms of the amount of gore that we see in the action sequences compared to the previous installment. If a character wasn’t getting chunks of their flesh blown away in a hail of bullets, then the character would either be skewered by Marcus’s bat talons, have their heads pop off from their shoulders or have their jaws wrenched apart in a fight.

“Underworld: Evolution” is purely mindless entertainment for those who liked the first movie. Those who have not seen the first movie would be hard pressed to follow the dense narrative that they try to fit in between the chaotic fight scenes. Ultimately the movie doesn’t add much of the interesting premise that they started in the first movie which is very unfortunate as there are still a lot of stories left to explore in it.

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