It’s hard to believe only nine years have passed since Underworld first unleashed a leatherbound Kate Beckinsale as the Death Dealer Selene, fearlessly protecting her vampire clan against the Lycans, the cunning and deadly evolution of the primitive werewolf, and she is so associated with the series that it is surprising to realise it has actually been six years since she last played the role in 2003’s Underworld Evolution.
In the interim, the pedestrian prequel Rise of the Lycans served only to confirm everything we already surmised of the history of the feud, though it did have the saving graces of the return of Bill Nighy’s Viktor and Michael Sheen’s Lucian, but now Selene has returned. Unlike Underworld and Evolution, where the action was continuous through the very same night, time has moved on since the conclusion of that second film, when Selene ingested the blood of Alexander Corvinus, enhancing her powers, allowing her to walk into sunlight.
The unmasking of the vampires and Lycans led to the Purge, an orchestrated cull with ultraviolet and silver weapons, driving both subspecies almost to extinction, the few survivors hiding underground. Selene herself was captured, and has been held a frozen prisoner of the company Antigen, headed up by Stephen Rea’s sinister Doctor Jacob Lane. Revived twelve years later, she must adapt to a world where her kind are now hunted by Lycan and human alike while trying to locate the hybrid Michael Corvin, unsure whether he is even alive or dead.
The first two films were directed by Len Wiseman, the third by Patrick Tatopoulos, who had previously worked on creature design and fabrication for the earlier films, but while Wiseman is writer and producer on Awakening, it marks the arrival of four new hands at the helm, Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, a Swedish collaborative pair who provide a rendering that is consistent but adds nothing other than flickering lights. Despite moving from the Eastern European architecture of the first films, it is still set in a grey area between borders and times; the police cars carry no city designation, nor is there any product placement evident, with even the emblems removed from the cars. This is nowhere and everywhere.
Awakening is not a brilliant film, and with hindsight the sole plot twist is predictable, but it is enjoyable. Kate Beckinsale is as cool and unstoppable as ever, and the other strengths of the series, the design and scope of the sets and the detail on the exquisite costumes, are present, as is the sense that this is a chapter in a greater story. Unfortunately Charles Dance’s vampire elder Thomas does little other than disapprove, and though Theo James as novice Death Dealer David and Kris Holden-Ried as uber-Lycan Quint are promising additions, neither can replace Scott Speedman’s Michael; while his absence drives much of the narrative, it is to be hoped that if there is a fifth film that it will reunite Michael and Selene.
The biggest surprise of the film is that the 3D is well done, though perhaps it is the comparison with the blight of badly converted 2D films that makes this so; certainly, you’ve never seen a head explode until you’ve seen it in 3D, although other shots, such as when two characters fall down a lift shaft, or the early chase where Lycans jump on speeding cars without impacting any momentum, are inadequate.
It should be noted that the 2D version was not screening locally; when questioned, the cinema manager advised that the distributors are pushing for any venue that is 3D equipped to only schedule the film in that format. As this is the majority of cinemas, the box office figures for Underworld Awakening will be skewed, indicating that the audience’s preference is to pay the supplement for a meagre 88 minutes of 3D entertainment when in fact any choice they may have had in the matter has been taken away.
Underworld Awakening is currently on general release