In all honesty, Underworld: Awakening is the first movie in the franchise I’ve seen that makes complete, perfect sense. Previous films in the Underworld series relied on an intricate, muddied backstory as a kind of smokescreen, lending significance to three rather insignificant movies where a woman in a leather catsuit blasted away at waves of CGI creatures who resemble the original Wolfman in name only. They were digestible enough, but boy did they have an unwarranted sense of self-importance, going on and on about vampire elders and ancient vamp/werewolf relations as if Kate Beckinsale needed an excuse for the outfit and the guns.
The only past Underworld: Awakening is concerned with is the recent past, where Selene (Beckinsale) and her lover Michael (Scott Speedman, in previous films) attempt to escape underground in the aftermath of the human discovery of vampires and lycans, the human population having turned to mass genocide to rid themselves of both species. They’re both captured, but 12 years later Selene is released from her cryogenic freezing chamber, deep in the bowels of a medical research facility.
In this brave new world, vampires and lycans have been driven deep underground, and, more importantly, Selene has a daughter, Eve (India Eisley), with whom she can telepathically communicate. As a vampire/lycan hybrid, Eve is of particular importance to the werewolves, who wish to use her genetic make-up to do some scientific hooey that’ll make their race unstoppable. The lab guys, led by Dr. Jacob Lane (Stephen Rea), also want Eve back, but if that’s due to her being “lab property” or because Lane has other, seedier plans is unknown. Pretty much, this sets up a bunch of shoot outs, chase scenes, and fight sequences where Selena and any number of allies take on the lycan horde and the occasional human interloper.
That, in a nutshell, is Underworld: Awakening. Yes, there are subplots. The vampire underground is as snaky and worthy of mistrust as they were in previous installments, led by an elder vampire who holds Selene and her offspring in disregard. While this was the motivating factor behind other films in the franchise, here, one can’t help but sympathize with them. When the leader points out that most vampires fortunate enough to share a room with Selene end up dead, he is proven correct in short order, as the clan comes under attack from the lycan horde hunting her. Then there is the matter of the werewolf twice the size of any yet seen. The idea of lycan steroids is kind of interesting and barely touched upon, but in the end it plays out as you’d expect: The double werewolf gets the upper-hand for awhile, but he dies just like a normal one would. I presume the movie wants me to imagine a world where there are a ton of giant lycans running around, but the problem there isn’t the ridiculous conceit. Bigger might mean more dangerous, but considering that the wolves are all CGI, an army of giant werewolves standing shoulder to shoulder would probably make them look like normal werewolves.
But complaining about the unnecessary in a movie like Underworld: Awakening is pretty pointless. We’re four movies in on this franchise, and it now appears to have found a comfort zone, like the Resident Evil series, where nothing really makes sense, but things keep happening if only because they must. Heck, the only real difference between the two franchises is a question of superpowers, and considering that Selene and the rest of the vampires in the Underworld quadrology don’t suck much blood and use guns to get their killing done, even that difference is negligible. Resident Evil holds an advantage over Underworld in that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but Underworld has its backstory from which to rip new, blandly efficient vehicles from. It will always have vampires. It will always have werewolves. It, for better or worse, will always be safe.
Unfortunately, “safe” in 2012 means “projected in 3D,” which means muted color schemes of gunmetal and cobalt in every conceivable location. There is little variance from one gunfight to the next and, apart from one or two cringeworthy bits during the fighting, nothing really exciting happens. There’s a pile of dead bodies in this film that reaches to the vanishing point, but they’re all nameless, faceless, without impact, either carrying guns or brandishing claws. This, certainly, is to be expected from most brainless entertainments, but Underworld has long pretended to be something more than that. And yet, beneath the skintight catsuits and the endless gunplay, Underworld: Awakening is heartless, antiseptic. I can’t say I’m surprised by my lack of interest in Selene’s ongoing plight, given all that. One doesn’t stay 15 forever. Eventually, women become real.
Underworld: Awakening. Directed by Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein. With Kate Beckinsale (Selene), Stephen Rea (Dr. Jacob Lane), Michael Early (Det. Sebastian), Theo James (David), and India Eisley (Eve). Released January 20, 2012, by Screen Gems.