Wednesday, 22 February 2006

Underworld Evolution (2006)

You want to watch the same vampire-lycan war how many times?

Underworld Evolution is made for fans of the original Underworld (2002), for only these fans would be willing to sit through a story about a war between vampires and werewolves twice. And only these fans would suppress the urge to run out of the cinema when this film begins with a groan-inducing Star Wars style screen crawler, which re-introduces the main players and the new angle of this sequel.

If that’s not cheesy enough, to establish the convoluted and almost incomprehensible backstory to this sequel, the audience is bombarded with flashbacks for the next half hour. For centuries, the vampire elders have misled their followers with a false history of their clan. It turns out that the first and most powerful vampire is not Viktor (Bill Nighy), but Marcus (Tony Curran), last seen mutating into a giant bat-like creature in the previous movie. Marcus has a brother, William, who happens to be the progenitor all lycans. At the beginning of the vampire-lycan war six centuries ago, the wild and uncontrollable William was captured and imprisoned. Their father and the ultimate ancestor of all vampires and lycans, the powerful immortal Alexander Corvinus (Derek Jacobi), watches everything from his mobile fortress and headquarters.

After destroying a vampire elder in the first Underworld, Selene (Kate Beckinsdale) and her lycan-vampire hybrid boyfriend Michael (Scott Speedman) are immediately hunted by Viktor’s forces. She also possesses a childhood memory that could hold the key to freeing William, a compelling excuse for Marcus to stalk the hapless couple across a vaguely Eastern European countryside – but why he’d even want to free his rabid brother is a mystery. Marcus has a more outrageous reason for the pursuit: what Selene knows may make him a god. (I told you this sequel would be batty!) Did you manage to get all that? Well, it doesn’t quite matter since the remaining 90 minutes of Underworld: Evolution is composed almost entirely of 3 long chase sequences between Marcus, Viktor, Alexander, and Selene.

Underworld: Evolution actually involves major conceptual changes from the original. Wiseman ditches the Matrix-like choreographed fights in Underworld for old-fashioned sock on the jaw action. In the many fight scenes, monsters are pumped with bullets, rifles, stabbed, sliced, diced, bled to death, impaled, crushed, and decapitated with relish. While CGI effects are used mostly for monster transformation sequences, the battles are mostly carried out by stunt actors. These battles manage to be messier and bloodier than the slow-motion CG-aided spectacle of the first Underworld, although the story never indicates how vampires and werewolves started to fight completely differently between the first and second movies.

Wiseman also makes full use of Selene and Michael’s run in the countryside to shoot in a series of increasingly gloomy and gothic locations like abandoned warehouses, crumbling castles, subterranean caves and even a dungeon. These give Underworld: Evolution a grittier feel than its slick predecessor, and actually justify the director’s obsession with using the steel-blue filter for every scene and decking out almost all his characters in black clothing.

The sole undisputed improvement the sequel has is the drastic reduction of tedious technobabble that made audiences’ eyes glaze over in the first movie (Virus infections create vampires and lycans? Genetic mutations and engineering? Blood compatibility?). This time round McBride skips the bloodless exposition in favour of more expressive dialogue, mostly to the benefit of the insane Marcus. It’s a pity then that McBride left the job half-done: Derek Jacobi, as the powerful immortal Alexander Corvinus, gets the most boring lines, and is non-essential to the entire story. As a result, he appears distant, disinterested and detached, and looks as bewildered and ultimately uncaring as the cinema audiences trying to figure out the point to the story or his role in the movie.

The liberal (and repetitive) use of flashback scenes and recycled clips from the first movie just scream “stock footage alert!”, and remind audiences that Underworld: Evolution could be at least 15 minutes shorter. The poor pacing plays out in the fight scenes as well, which are all too short, inconsequential, overwhelmingly one-sided (where’s the thrill when there’s no serious competition in a fight?), and utterly predictable.

The movie’s ultimate sin: the final battle is as short as any previous fight scene with lesser monsters, and you’ll even know how the villains will die just by observing the oversized props in the arena. There is but one plot twist in the movie (it involves the new vampire-lycan hybrid Michael) but you’ll be able see it way off in the distance like a beacon flare. The key thing to do if you’re not going to run out of the cinema is to just sit back and drool over Kate Beckinsdale’s tight PVC outfit.

What to watch out for: Kate Beckinsdale in PVC outfit.
When to catch that toilet break: During Derek Jacobi’s sidestory.

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