The latest Underworld movie just hit theaters. It wasn’t screened for critics, with good reason: This is a review-proof movie. In fact, there isn’t much point in reviewing it, since it’s so clearly a fan-service movie, made with franchise fans in mind. So instead, here’s a rundown of mildly spoilery questions that address what goes on in the movie, who it’s for, how silly it all gets, and whether the movie lets Kate Beckinsale keep jumping from high objects and landing in a perfect superheroine crouch.
So are there any blood wars in Underworld: Blood Wars, or is that just a fancy name?
There are actually multiple blood wars in the movie! The overarching one is the 1,500-year battle between vampires and lycans (that is, werewolves) that has defined the Underworld series since the first installment, 2003’s Underworld. But there’s also a secondary one that’s also run throughout the entire series: the war for control of the vampire faction, which is fought via guns, swords, a treacherous political web of intrigue, and a lot of ponderous speeches, usually made while staring off into the middle distance and wearing a lot of black leather.
This is the fifth Underworld movie. Usually by this deep into a series, the original stars have disappeared. Did that happen here?
Kate Beckinsale, the star of the original Underworld, is still playing the series’ protagonist, a vampire named Selene who’s considered the most lethal, unstoppable fighter in the vampire/lycan wars. Selene’s hybrid vampire/werewolf lover Michael (Scott Speedman) checked out after the second installment in the franchise, and so did original director Len Wiseman. Every series entry since then has had a different director. This installment is the directorial debut of Anna Foerster, a special-effects specialist who graduated to TV direction with series like Criminal Minds and Outlander.
The series’ original recurring characters, played by Michael Sheen and Bill Nighy, died off a while back, but Charles Dance and Theo James are back as patrician vampire elder Thomas and his broody son David. Those two were introduced in 2012’s Underworld: Awakening.
Wait, Charles Dance? I loved him on Game Of Thrones. How much is Underworld: Blood Wars like Game Of Thrones?
There are a surprising number of similarities, including an entire new sub-group of vampires who all look and dress exactly like Daenerys Targaryen on Game Of Thrones, and apparently get their super-fake-looking bone-white wigs from the same hairdresser she uses. Also, Charles Dance pretty much plays the same character he did on Game Of Thrones, except he’s a vampire now, and he clearly cares about his son for non-political reasons.
But that aside, the Underworld movies are really, really densely packed with political maneuvering and scheming, and with people standing around in beautifully elaborate leather clothing, and with people abruptly getting their throats cut. Even though most of the films take place in the present day, and there are a lot of modern weapons in use, the characters spend a lot of time going after each other with swords and knives. Bloodlines are incredibly important, and Blood Wars has a “guess the secret parentage” plot that’s pretty reminiscent of Jon Snow’s big reveal in Thrones. There’s an ancestral sword in this movie, presented to the scion of a noble family in another scene that feels really familiar. Both series feature betrayal after betrayal after betrayal, most of them punctuated with murder.
But perhaps most importantly, both series have reached a point where the backstory is more important than anything actually going on onscreen at any given moment, because there’s so much of it, and it affects every move the characters make, and every throat they cut or spine they rip out.
I don’t remember any spine-ripping in Game Of Thrones.
They didn’t have the budget for that kind of thing at first. Give them time, they’ve got to keep ramping up the atrocity-meter somehow.
So there’s spine-ripping. That sounds pretty over-the top. Is this movie fun?
It really should be, but it mostly isn’t. The vampires-vs.-werewolves concept is pulpy and comes with a slight tinge of gleeful camp, but everyone onscreen seems to be miserable and glowering at all times. Lara Pulver, who played Irene Adler on Sherlock, at least appears to be enjoying herself as new character Semira, an up-and-coming vampire council member whose hobbies include wearing improbably revealing clothing and bullying her pouty boy-toy Varga (Damien star Bradley James). Also amassing power, and cradling giant blood-goblets while giving speeches about power.
But the story mostly centers on Selene suffering like the most angsty grim-and-gritty superhero Frank Miller ever wrote. She lost her mortal family, she lost her lover, she lost her vampire father-figure, she lost her clan standing and her purpose for living, and she never lets the film forget it. This time around, she’s suffering because she had to leave her hybrid vamp-wolf daughter Eve behind forever, because everyone wants to find Eve and steal her magic blood.
Her… magic blood?
Yeah, don’t get me started. Like I said, bloodlines are incredibly important in the Underworld movies, but that’s mostly because blood has all kinds of powers. Vampires can drink people’s blood and experience their memories. Vampires and lycans both have a common ancestor with a blood mutation, and vamps like Selene with a direct bloodline back to him get extra powers. And the lycans believe Eve’s blood will make them super-powerful because reasons. They don’t really get into the reasons, but they sure do harp on Eve a lot.
But c’mon, vampires and werewolves fighting. That’s gotta be kinda fun, right?
It was in the first movie, but it’s gotten pretty samey, frankly, which may explain why this movie has so much more vampire intrigue than vamp-wolf combat. The CGI werewolves still look really cheap and ugly, which has always been a problem with the series, and the combat tends to be either an eye-hurting blur or a bunch of Zack Snyder-friendly leaps between slo-mo and quicktime. The martial-arts faceoffs do tend to be more rah-rah exciting, but the gunfights are just a lot of blood-splatter and bodies hitting the floor.
So who are these movies for?
Role-players who loved Vampire: The Masquerade (and its million multimedia offshoots) and can’t get enough vampire political discourse and angry werewolf slavering. Longtime Underworld series fans, for whom this has become a soap opera punctuated by violence: everyone’s always harping on who did what to who years ago, there’s a lot of hammy bad-guy scheming, and occasionally two poor doomed characters will hook up under unlikely circumstances. Unfortunately, sex in this series is usually about as fatal as it is in slasher movies.
Is this a good place to enter the series?
Mostly no, because of all the backstory. That said, a good character guide will cover most of the basics, and the characters helpfully stop every 10 minutes to remind the audience about Eve’s magic blood, or about the crimes that got Selene exiled. Or they just restate their relationships to each other for anyone who’s feeling lost. This is one of the things that make the movie kind of a drag.
What else makes the movie a drag?
Well, this is really a complaint about the whole franchise, but everything in this movie is so damn dim. Vampires can’t stand sunlight, so it makes sense that the vampire scenes would all look like David Fincher lit them with the same 20-watt bulb he’s been using since Fight Club. But there’s no clear reason why the lycans also like to operate in grimy bleak underlit environments. The entire film has the same blue-and-black color palette, and it gets really samey and visually dreary. It means visibility in a lot of scenes is pretty poor. It also means the entire franchise feels like it’s stuck in a grubby goth-grunge, post-Nine Inch Nails era that felt wearily dated three movies ago.
But does this film forward the Underworld story? Does it add anything new?
Sure. It adds that faction of Daenerys Targaryen vampires, who live in the frozen north somewhere, and who have a special connection to the Sacred World.
The… what now?
Yeah, I know. The Sacred World is to Underworld: Blood Wars what the magic future-predicting loom was to Wanted. It’s a great big question mark that’s so profoundly distracting, it warps the entire movie. And then a prominent character visits the Sacred World and comes back all “Wow, the Sacred World certainly changed me,” but we never actually see it, or get any explanation of what it is, or what it means, or how it changes people.
That sounds ridiculous.
It really is. So is the way the film uses it as a deus ex machina, but there’s no way to get into that without spoiling significant plot points.
Is the Sacred World thing you’re hinting at the single most ridiculous moment in this movie?
Not really. The most ridiculous thing is probably the scene where vampire tough-guy David and new lycan leader Marius (Tobias Menzies) stand about three feet away from each other and empty their automatic weapons into each other, then howl angrily in each other’s faces as all the bullets pop back out of their healing bodies.
You’re sure? That’s the most ridiculous thing?
Okay, maybe not. Maybe it’s when David gets a glimpse of a new weapon appearing in a big fight, and this serious, grimdark hero, heavy with responsibility and the many complications of his eternal unlife, says “Fuuuuuck” in blurry super-slow motion as the camera zooms in on his face. That’s actually a pretty good moment, though.
That’s your final answer? That’s the most ridiculous thing in the film?
Okay, fine, it’s a tie with the moment where Selene drinks her own blood in order to experience her own memories. In the middle of a big fight. Because that’s certainly the best time for a sensual flashback involving Scott Speedman. Why doesn’t she just, y’know, remember those memories? It is entirely unclear. She probably wants to feel them more intensely in the moment, but it’s entirely unexplained. It’s just kind of your average moment of “I am so mad about this fight that I’m going to take a time-out to bite myself and watch myself have sex with Scott Speedman for the win.”
I have so many more questions.
That’s cheating the format. You get one more.
Okay, here it is: How many more questions will I have if I actually watch this movie?
Sneaky. I bet if you found a genie and it offered you three wishes, you’d try that lame wishing-for-infinite-wishes thing. But we didn’t start with any ground rules, so this is legal. Here are a few of the questions moviegoers can expect to walk out of Underworld: Blood Wars asking:
Do all vampires bite themselves to re-experience their own memories? Is that the vampire equivalent of a family photo album? Seriously, what the hell is the Sacred World? Why make such a big deal out of it and then use it as a cheap get-out-of-jail-free card? Given Marius’ origin, why did he care about the vampire/werewolf war at all? Given how the last combat ends, do the filmmakers owe royalties to the makers of Mortal Kombat? How did Marius and his vampire lover get together in the first place, since the two sides can never be in the same room without trying to murder each other? Why do these movies keep returning to the vampire/werewolf romance angle when it absolutely never works out?
And most of all, given that Blood Wars wraps on a pregnant moment — not exactly a cliffhanger, but on a clear teaser for the next episode in the franchise — how many more of these movies will there be?