Every three years — almost like clockwork, it seems — we get another installment in the Underworld series. (Which I guess means we’re in for Underworld: Here Comes Another One come January 2015.) Keeping to that schedule, the first month of 2009 brought us a prequel, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, which temporarily set aside the present-day storyline in order to delve into the past to explore where the whole Vampire/Lycan war began.
Directed by Patrick Tatopoulos, who designed the creatures for all three films, and based on a story and screenplay that was the work of no less than five writers (including original director Len Wiseman and screenwriter Danny McBride), Rise of the Lycans tells how, well, the Lycans rose up against their vampire masters way back in the mists of time. It also doubles as the origin story for Lucian (Michael Sheen), the first Lycan, i.e. a werewolf who is able to take human form. (Much is made of the distinction between pure-blood werewolves, who are little more than savage beasts, and Lycans, who can be controlled and enslaved.)
Raised from birth by vampire leader Bill Nighy, Sheen grows up alongside Nighy’s daughter, who grows up to be the headstrong Rhona Mitra (and, not incidentally, his lover). Of course, this raises certain questions that the movie never pauses to consider. For instance, do vampire and werewolf children simply grow to a certain age and then stop? How does an immortal actually reach the point where they look middle-aged like Nighy or the other members of the vampire council? And furthermore, why am I bothered by these things if the people behind the series seemingly aren’t?
Anyway, also returning from previous installments are the impossibly deep-voiced Kevin Grevioux, who we first encounter as a human slave, and Steven Mackintosh, the vampire historian from the second film that I had completely forgotten about until I looked him up on Wikipedia. And I was happy to note that Paul Haslinger, formerly of Tangerine Dream, was brought back to provide the music. (He had scored the original Underworld but was apparently unavailable to perform those duties for Evolution.) That just leaves Kate Beckinsale out of the loop, since the events in the story take place long before she was turned (although she does provide the narration that opens the film and appears at the end courtesy of recycled footage from the first film).
Lest you think my goal is to bash this series in toto, I will say that Rise of the Lycans surprised me by being much better than I thought it would be. In fact, I’m prepared to go so far as to call it the best film in the series, which is saying something when you consider it’s basically a feature-length expansion of one of the flashbacks from the first film. And this is also in spite of the preponderance of pretentious dialogue and the monotonous blue light that every scene in bathed in, both of which are part and parcel of every Underworld movie. Some things you just can’t get away from. At least this installment, by virtue of its period settling, was able to do without all the tedious gun fights. Too bad they would be back with a vengeance when the time came to reawaken Kate Beckinsale and see if she could still fit into her shiny, black catsuit…