Well, it was bound to happen sometime. Four movies into the Underworld series, I finally broke down and saw one of the things in theaters. It was back in February when I was joined by three other gentlemen for a 5:10 showing of the 3-D version of Underworld: Awakening (for some reason the 2-D version wasn’t showing at all in my town), and it’s pretty safe to say we all got precisely the movie we were expecting. I don’t know whether the screenwriters (there are four credited, including original director Len Wiseman, who’s busy making Total Recall at the moment, so he handed this entry over to the duo of Måns Mårlind & Björn Stein) were issued a checklist when they signed onto the project, but however many items it had, I’ll bet they managed to tick them all off. And the first order of business, of course, was to bring Kate Beckinsdale’s Selene back into the fold.
It’s been six years since Beckinsdale last squeezed into her shiny black catsuit, and three since the previous entry in the series (which she sat out, presumably because it was set before the invention of latex), so Awakening opens with a brief recap just in case anyone in the audience somehow forgot that vampires and werewolves hate each other and choose to work out their differences by exchanging lots of gunfire. The difference this time is that humanity catches on to their existence (took us long enough) and sets about wiping out both races — an event pointedly referred to as “The Purge.” (Of course, now when I see the word “Purge,” the first thing that comes to mind is The Cabin in the Woods, for obvious reasons.) Beckinsdale is captured by the CDC and put on ice for 12 years, but she’s defrosted by another test subject and, despite not having a stitch on, manages to suit up without baring any nudity. (How convenient of the scientists to put her fetish gear on display in the same lab where she’s being kept in suspended animation.) From there she sets about tracking down the mysterious Subject 2, with whom she has a weird psychic connection, and getting to the bottom of what’s going on, because if she doesn’t figure it out, no one else will.
Filling out the production’s quota of well-respected actors from the British Isles in supporting roles are Stephen Rea (whose CV also includes the lycanthropic classic The Company of Wolves) as a scientist searching for a vaccine and Charles Dance as the head of a coven of vampires in hiding. The cast also includes Michael Ealy as a police detective on Beckinsdale’s trail, Theo James as a young vampire who lends a hand when she gets in a jam, and India Eisley as the elusive Subject 2, who turns out to be a 12-year-old girl. (No points for guessing who she’s related to.) There’s even a plot, but who cares about such piddling details when there are CGI werewolves to evaluate? The one note I scribbled down during the big chase scene was “pitiful CGI on the Lycans,” but even the hulking Uber-Lycan that shows up later didn’t look too hot. In fact, the effects in general were pretty cruddy throughout and, in a couple instances, were annoyingly ostentatious. (That’s 3-D for you.) I also lost count of all the visual effects houses listed in the closing credits, which practically took an entire reel to scroll by.
In spite of its readily apparent deficiencies, Underworld: Awakening somehow managed to be the highest-grossing entry in the series. (You’ve got to hand it to the fans, they’re certainly loyal.) When it comes to DVD and Blu-ray this Tuesday, I’m sure it will do quite well there as well. One thing that strikes me, though, is the way the movies in the series have progressively shrunk over time. The first Underworld clocked in at just over two hours and had 13 more minutes added to its unrated extended cut. Underworld: Evolution was slightly leaner at 106 minutes, but that was nothing compared to Rise of the Lycans, which came in at a sleek 92 minutes. And the shrinkage continued unchecked with this film, with its anemic 88-minute running time. Of course, that’s including the credits, so it’s even more of a cheat when you think about it. I don’t care how many werewolves are in it, a 79-minute film with nine minutes of credits tacked onto the end is not good value for money.