Underworld Awakening is an action-packed, visually stunning thrill ride that embraces its familiar star, the vampire versus lycan storyline, cinematography and art direction while exploring a few new ideas and conflicts Kate Beckinsale returns as Selene for the fourth entry in the Underworld franchise. Len Wiseman (the director of Underworld and Underworld: Evolution and the series driving force) returns as well to oversee the project and provide the screenplay, allowing newcomers Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein (credited as Marlind & Stein) the opportunity to direct the latest chapter. Beckinsale proves once again that she looks fantastic in black and can hold her own. The special effects are impressive, as is the fight choreography. Taking its cue from recent high profile actions films (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Sherlock Holmes), Underworld Awakening focuses on the action and leaves much of the history and complexities to the previous films. The result is a solid, great looking action film where the bad guys are werewolves, the good guys are vampires and the hero must save an innocent from clutches of evil.
The story of Underworld Awakening boils down the exposition heavy richness of clans and covens and romantic triangles to its core and focuses on Selene as she awakens to find the world changed after being frozen in a cryogenic tube for 12 years. Humans, discovering the existences of vampires and werewolves, begin a new purging of these creatures which forces them back into hiding. They also capture Selene and Michael (a vampire/werewolf hybrid played by Scott Speedman who does not return for this film). After a brief set-up, the film opens with Selene held captive by Antigen, a high profile corporation looking to find a cure for vampirism and lycanthropy. The film begins in earnest when a mysterious Subject 2 releases Selene (known within Antigen as Subject 1) back into the world, a world Selene no longer recognizes. Selene then begins to see flashes of sights from a mysterious psychic connection she has with Subject 2, who has also escaped. Selene decides to find this creature in hopes it will lead her to Michael. Once she discovers the identity of Subject 2, she must protect it from vampire and lycan alike, as well as the humans running Antigen.
The script does a good job of setting up the back-story and keeping the details focused on Selene and Michael. All that is really needed to support Awakening is knowing Selene is a special type of vampire, stronger than most and invulnerable to sunlight (she’s the first Vampire-Corvinus Strain Hybrid, but even that is not necessary), that her lover, Michael, is a vampire-werewolf hybrid, and that vampire covens have been at war with werewolf clans for centuries. The introduction of “the purge” makes all the sticky details a thing of the past; it’s a new world, slightly new rules, but familiar roles, fangs and fur. At its core, Awakening re-imagines Selene as a cross between Alice (from Resident Evil) and Ellen Ripley (from Alien) as she protects Subject 2 from supernatural creatures and an evil corporate empire. It tosses out much of the Gothic, emo-romantic overtones from the first films and transforms into a straight forward action film. As fun as they are, the werewolves and vampires are only color, painting the heroes and villains in certain light; the werewolves could easily be terrorists, the vampires be special ops and Selene be a female version of Jack Bower and the film would not have to change too much. The base conflict could remain the same, protecting an innocent from the bad guys.
The strength of the film is in its details, the werewolves, and the vampires. That’s the draw, the eternal clash with these two creatures hidden in the cracks and crevasses of human society. That’s what makes Underworld fun and Awakening does not disappoint. While their sprawling mansions may be a thing of the past, the covens and their politics are not. Selene is still an outcast, unaccepted by most of her own kind. She again comes face to face with an elder, this time played by Charles Dance (looking very reminiscent of Bill Nighy’s Viktor). She once again faces clans of werewolves with her guns blazing. But this time, there’s a new werewolf, one with enhanced DNA, twice the size, twice as strong, twice as frightening. And there’s Subject 2, the most interesting addition to the mythology both structurally and visually. Subject 2, a child, is a new form of hybrid with her own set of rules, visual cues and abilities. It’s a good mix: while feeling comfortably familiar, it also has a healthy mix of new, fresh ideas.
A big draw for Underworld Awakening is Kate Beckinsale reprising her role as Selene. She is perfect for this role: beautiful, strong, and confident. No one sells the all black outfit quite like Beckinsale. She is an action hero, and, buried in the story, she is also afforded the opportunity to mature and show emotions the character has yet been able to. She returns to the role with ease much like the character herself returns to the arena of Underworld. It’s good to have her back and she is a joy to watch, throwing knives, shooting guns and dropping from above in her signature move. But she also embraces a new role for Selene, the protector, the motherly figure, the authority. It’s the perfect turn for the character which both builds on the dynamic and the future of the series.
The new blood in Awakening is India Eisley as Eve, Subject 2. As a new form of vampire-werewolf hybrid, she is given a whole new look, one that resembles a more supernatural visual than just vampire eyes and fangs or werewolf teeth and fur. She appears as if Sadako (Ringu) or Samara (The Ring) bore fangs and growled like a wolf. Her jet black hair combined with pale white flesh and wolf-like features make for a stunning visual character contrasting nicely to the Underworld vampires and werewolves much more than Michael’s beast-like incarnation ever did. She looks and acts different and Eisley brings the character to life. She is appropriately innocent when need be; she is also ferocious when in her hybrid form. She’s more frightening in her appearance than the biggest werewolf is in size. The character is as much a contrast to herself as she is to the Underworld creatures surrounding her.
But Selene and Eve are not entirely alone, they have a supporting cast of vampires, werewolves and corporate villains. Theo James plays David, a vampire that champions her return; he challenges the decisions of his father (the aforementioned Dance), arguing that Selene can lead the charge for their survival. James provides a nice companion to Selene without the confines of romance. He stands up for her, believes in her and, eventually, stands beside her. He gives Selene a charismatic companion to fight by her side. Michael Ealy plays Detective Sebastian who aids Selene in investigating and infiltrating Antigen. Ealy provides Sebastian with a calm cool that serves to show the character is keenly aware of the vampires and werewolves that still roams on the fringes of the purge. It also gives the character an aura of mystery shrouding which side he will end up on. Accomplished actor Stephen Rea appears as Dr. Jacob Lane, the head of Antigen. He serves the role adequately, but doesn’t bring anything extra special to the character which is unfortunate. Rea is an excellent actor but Dr. Lane needs something a little stronger, a more confident authority or a more memorable presence, to make the character a bigger challenge to Selene. While they collectively never match the characters provided by Scott Speedman, Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy and Kevin Grevioux, the new acting troup do provide the series with a strong start to a new world.
Directors Marlind & Stein keep the look and feel of the previous films intact. The film retains the Underworld cinematography and art direction, even when skewed to the new dynamics of the covens living underground. The fight choreography is amazing and energetic with Selene as agile and deadly as ever. The special effects are more subtle for the existing characters and more spectacular for the new ones. They are not always successful, but they are consistent and stunning. Even when the CGI betrays the bigger scenes (the big bad wolf and a key transformation of a key character), it still serves the story and keeps the film fresh and enjoyable.
Underworld Awakening is also available in 3D (Real3D) and in 3D IMAX. The film was shot in 3D and uses it without obstructing the film. While the 3D is not entirely successful in Awakening, it provides the film with a number of scenes that give display depth and breadth of the scenery. When Selene is running through the city escaping from Antigen or looking off a rooftop, the 3D can be stunning. The film has its share of coming at you stunts but uses them sparingly and to good effect making those scenes pop and sizzle. The biggest problem using 3D in Awakening is most of the film is confined to underground scenes or within Antigen. The filmmakers fail to use or design these surroundings, the interior sets, effectively for the 3D medium. Rarely is there anything in the foreground and there is precious little background to provide the depth that gives 3D that something special. The movie is filmed in 3D but from a 2D state of mind. The 3D is not bad in Awakening, it just never gets utilized in a way that enhances the visuals or engages the viewer into the world displayed on screen.
It is good to have Kate Beckinsale back as Selene. That’s the biggest draw of the fourth in the Underworld series. The script is written to capitalize on that draw and delivers a fantastic romp. Underworld Awakening is a blast, a solid entry to the series, rewarding the viewers with well choreographed fight scenes, excellent battles with werewolves and vampires, and a focused story that not only introduces a fascinating elements (Eve and super-werewolf Quint) but also sets up the series for future installments. The script effortlessly balances the comfortable with the new and smartly focuses on Selene and her story while weaving in elements of her world and surroundings along the way. The film has its flaws, but none are terribly detrimental: Scott Speedman is oddly missing and his replacement (CGI or actor) is awkward; the corporate villain is underwhelming; there’s surprising little vampires in this installment; and the CGI wobbles from time to time. However, Beckinsale looks great, the film looks spectacular and the movie delivers on its action driven plot. More importantly, Underworld Awakening leaves the audience craving more.