Okay, here’s the thing: if you didn’t like the Underworld franchise before, Awakening is absolutely going to validate that aversion. If you didn’t mind the franchise or even found things to like about it, aside from Kate Beckinsale in skintight vinyl (no whip) – and I could get with the franchise on a popcorn level at least (’cause let’s face it, it’s either this or Twilight) – this is where that ends. Underworld: Awakening is a joyless installment in the movie series that – if those of you who already disliked it can believe or not – is sorely missing both Len Wiseman and Scott Speedman. Kate Beckinsale returns and looks utterly divested of the project, in a gloomy green screen world of often dodgy effects, 3D that’s unnecessary at best and bad at worst, and a complete emotional void.
Beckinsale’s Selene wasn’t exactly the wearing-her-emotions-on-the-sleeve type to begin with, but here she stripped of virtually any emotional resonance with the world to which she awakens after being captured and imprisoned in a twelve-year cryogenic slumber. Speedman’s Michael is done away with in the opening sequence and Selene’s only other connection is to a child that she didn’t even know existed. The relationship between the two isn’t hard to surmise right away, even if it wasn’t spoiled by any of the film’s promo going in. Selene has, unfortunately devolved into little more than a video game character, going from Point A to Point B in unraveling the mystery of Michael’s disappearance and later trying to track down the girl, Eve (India Eisley), as she’s being hunted by the humans who have not only learned of the centuries-long war between the vampires and lycans, but spent the better part of the decade trying to exterminate both immortal species.
And the glossing over of that premise is the film’s first big failing. For, after Evolution, there was the hanging question of “now that all of the vampire and Lycan elders have been killed, and Selene and Michael are now the two most powerful immortals still walking, where does the franchise go from here?” The human vs both species milieu had possibilities. But in Awakening, the new direction that the franchise could have taken is given the short shrift in a news montage that shows human shock troops doing away with vamps and werewolves in full on Nazi fashion. What we’re left with is an insular and wholly unsatisfying storyline where we ultimately get more of the same immortal monster-on-immortal monster travail, only far less stylishly done.
Another huge failing of the movie is that it foregoes much of the rather good practical creature effects from former franchise production designer and Rise of the Lycans director, Patrick Tatopoulos, for CGI that occasionally (and woefully) dips into American Werewolf in Paris territory. That CGI shittiness is also bestowed upon the stand-in for Michael, who, since Speedman was absent from this outing, ends up coming off like some bad Brandon Lee facial replacement. Once you see how that situation comes off, you immediately know you’re headed for trouble. Awakening’s signature creature effect is what you could call the Uber-lycan, a werewolf that looks like the fuckchild of Ang Lee’s Hulk and this. Considering the size of the thing, whose human alter ego is the lycan, Quint (Canadian actor Kris Holden-Reid), there wasn’t going to be much chance for a practical solution. In rendering, the Uber-lycan ranges from passable to the third act of Van Helsing. In the climactic fight, there’s an intercut between Selene v. Uber and Eve v. another lycan where there is some good practical makeup done for the latter. But Uber often comes across as little more than pixelated drudgery.
Also, work from the supporting cast is roundly forgettable. If you can believe that Speedman is missed, then you can surely understand the void presented by the absence of both Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen. What we get in their stead is what could best be described as their “Coy and Vance Dukes” (i.e. cheap replacements). Charles Dance valiantly tries but is on the short end as Thomas, the leader of a vampire coven that shelters Selene and Eve. And Theo James is the Lautner of the piece, Thomas’ vamp son David. If he had been a lycan rather than a vampire, the Jacob innuendo would have been more laughable than it already is. Stephen Rea can’t escape unscathed as Dr. Jacob Lane, the head of Antigen, the corporation that carried out the government testing for vampires and lycans and that captured and held Selene. I’m not familiar with India Eisley, but there’s virtually nothing notable about her as Eve, and Michael Ealy fares no better as reluctant sidekick Detective Sebastian.
Co-directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein (2010’s Shelter) run Wiseman’s Underworld playbook as best they can, but nowhere near as good; and that’s provided you can put the terms “Wiseman” and “good” together in the same sentence with a straight face. But corners are obviously cut, most notably in the practical effects for CGI. They try to make up for the glaring lack of imagination on story (from Wiseman, John Hlavin, Allison Burnett and J. Michael Straczynski) with action set pieces that sometimes succeed but more often don’t. Whether you could get with the first three films in the franchise or not, there was definitely some forethought given to the mythology and how it would play out across the trilogy. But Awakening just comes off like many an extraneous installment before it, like the ideas have just plain run out.
The film is (mercifully) the shortest and worst-looking of the four films to date, having been shot with Red Epic digital cameras. The 3D is – of course – little more than an excuse for an extra $3 price gouge, and the special effects are at times just terrible. Since Wiseman was busy with the Total Recall remake, not sure why Tatopoulos didn’t return to helm, whether he didn’t want to or wasn’t asked. I thought he generally kept Rise of the Lycans in line with the previous two films, for however you want to take that. These guys though? No. Underworld: Awakening got bitten and turned by another immortal species – namely Sequelitis – and could (forgive the contrivance, but it’s what the film deserves) very well drive the stake through the franchise.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars