REVIEW: Vampires Aren't the Only Things That Suck in Underworld: Awakening

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It can be difficult to remember who we're meant to be rooting for in the Underworld universe, with its unending werewolf/vampire feud, betrayals, hybrids, bloodlines, forbidden romances and immortal daddy issues. But that's OK: Underworld: Awakening sloughs off much of the convoluted gothic backstory of the first three films in the series in favor of skipping forward a dozen years and landing vinyl-clad bloodsucking heroine Selene (Kate Beckinsale) in a near future in which the world has gone into martial law lockdown after the discovery of non-humans in their midst.

An introductory news clip montage presents talk of infections, purges and a "mass cleansing," showing Lycans and vampires being exterminated by soldiers wielding ultraviolet lights and silver bullets. This would, you'd think, make the enemies in this film the humans, an element in which the franchise has otherwise shown relatively little interest. Yet halfway through, it's back to wolves fighting vamps with no end or sense in sight. Chalk it up to a hobby -- what else is there to keep you busy when you live forever?

Underworld: Awakening is directed by Swedish filmmakers Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, and it checks off all of the signature visual (fluttering trench coats) and thematic (must find the hybrid) tropes of the preceding films with even more narrative disjointedness than those earlier installments. Selene awakens in a lab in which she's been kept in cryogenic stasis as "Subject 1," her DNA used for experiments. She's set free by Subject 2 (India Eisley), a young half-werewolf, half-vampire girl who turns out to be her daughter (the mechanics of this are not explained, nor does Selene seem at all curious about it or anything else in this crazy scenario). The film starts off at an awkward gallop and doesn't slow down lest it tumble into one of the many giant plot holes -- Selene's escape from the lab is followed by the discovery of her connection to the girl, and soon the pair are running from werewolves and holing up with one of the few remaining vampire covens, where the leader (Charles Dance) clashes with his son David (Theo James) over whether to fight or hide and hope to simply survive.

Underworld: Awakening's world-building is so lackluster that a ridiculous mid-film revelation about the real motivations behind the experiments going on at the lab scarcely registers among the other larger questions about how all these badass immortal creatures were so easily hunted down in the first place and what the larger population actually thinks of them -- the way the chief villainous scientist (Stephen Rea) refers to Selene's daughter as "it" suggests the vampires deserve sympathy and have become victims instead of predators, but Selene also kills and/or snacks on a bunch of people right off the bat, which is pretty good reminder that humans have a point in this whole "extermination" thing. The story mechanics exist only to allow Selene to bounce off walls and strut in slow motion in her leather battle bustier with her hundred-bullet pistols, but even the action sequences have a rote familiarity to them, the Matrix-lite choreography paired with generic-looking monsters that appear to have been whipped up with a few CGI presets -- "slimy," "lumpy," "clawed." Aside from a moment or two of imaginative gore, the fighting has a sameness to it, Selene's climactic tangle with a massive beast displaying as numbingly little tension as an early sequence in which she slices through a hallway full of guards.

Most curious in Underworld: Awakening's expedition into absurdity is the fact that while franchise alum Scott Speedman doesn't really appear in the film aside from flashbacks in the introduction and a few glimpses of what looks to be stand-in digitally fudged to look like him, his character is referenced and searched for all the time. Rather than definitively kill his character Michael off, the filmmakers chose to hold on to the possibility of bringing him back while saving on talent salary costs by having the girl be his stand-in as the film's MacGuffin and theoretical emotional element. The result is an odd Waiting for Godot quality in which everyone talks about Michael and waits for him to show up, and yet -- he doesn't. Wes Bentley does show up, jarringly, in a role that seems like it could be important, and then dies almost instantly. Michael Ealy plays a cop who comes to Selene's aid for no reason other than that she's run through her other potential allies.

Murky and perpetually bluish in tinge, Underworld: Awakening does and gets little with the 3-D in which it's being offered, and ends by shamelessly setting up a further and fatally unnecessary installment. The only interesting aspect to this film, other than its odd dance around its love interest in absentia, are its retro qualities -- these days, all the other werewolves and vampires seem to be too busy trying to date teenagers to clash in tastefully grimy underground lairs with claws and double-fisted guns.

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