The Underworld movies are a rarity in Hollywood, in that they seem to get better with each passing installment. Len Wiseman created this fantasy/action/horror hybrid, starring his then-future wife Kate Beckinsale, along with writers Kevin Grevioux and Danny McBride. The original film, and those after it, were post-Matrix genre successes, emphasizing heavy style and shiny black clothing, marrying the CGI-enhanced combat that the Wachowski Brothers popularized with a contemporary, sleek take on vampires and werewolves (known as “lycans” in the franchise’s mythology). These two horror icons were pitted against each other as ancient, (im)mortal enemies with longstanding feuds based upon tragic personal conflicts, which had, over the centuries, been distilled to mere prejudice.
The latest film in the series, Underworld Awakening, opens on January 20th, so we thought we’d take this opportunity to look back at the hit franchise and refresh your memories before you see the newest installment.
UNDERWORLD (dir. Len Wiseman, 2003)
Underworld was the first entry in the hit franchise, which found Kate Beckinsale starring as Selene, a “Death Dealer” on the hunt for lycans. Selene’s investigation leads her to a conspiracy between a vampire regent, Kraven (Shane Brolly), and the leader of the Lycans, Lucian (a then-unknown Michael Sheen, who of course went on to even bigger things). At the center of their plan is a human named Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), who gets bitten by Lucian, giving his budding romance with the vampire Selene a Romeo & Juliet manner of conflict.
Selene eventually learns that the Lucian’s quarrel is with Viktor (Bill Nighy), an ancient vampire who killed his own daughter because she was carrying Lucian’s child. Viktor also turns out to be have murdered Selene’s family, only sparing her life because she reminded Viktor of his own lost daughter. We’ll get back to her. Over the course of the final conflict, Selene is forced to bite Michael and turn him into a vampire/lycan hybrid, and a battle ensues that kills Lucian and Viktor and sets the stage for the return of Markus, the first vampire. But the last shot of the film reveals him to be another vampire/lycan hybrid himself, setting the stage for Underworld: Evolution.
The first film was an enormous financial success, but the emphasis was on style, action and backstory, which set the stage for superior sequels but left some critics feeling cold. Audiences didn’t feel the same way, and clamored for more.
UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION (dir. Len Wiseman, 2006)
Underworld: Evolution came to theaters three years later, despite picking up mere minutes after the events of the first film. Selene and Michael are on the run from Markus, their romance is heating up as the stakes (enjoy the pun) are raised. Their journey leads them to discover the first immortal, Alexander Corvinus (notice the name?), played by the great Derek Jacobi, and learn the true origins of the vampire and lycan races. It turns out that Alexander had three sons: Markus (the first vampire), William (the first lycan) and a third, who remained human and is the (apparently direct) ancestor of Michael Corvin (aha!).
When William’s first lycan creations turned out to be mindless savages, Markus turned to Viktor, then an aging warlord, to hunt him down. Viktor claimed to have killed William, but had in fact hidden him away from his brother. Selene’s father was the one to build William’s prison, so Viktor killed his entire family (except for Selene, of course) because only they knew of its secret location. Markus ultimately arrives on the scene and frees William, having learned the location from drinking Selene’s blood, and reveals that the two brothers plan to rule the world with an army of hybrids. A battle ensues, and both Markus and William are killed in the conflict, but only after Selene drinks Alexander’s blood and becomes “the future” of vampire kind.
With a more mythology driven plot – as opposed to the political machinations of the first Underworld – the sequel expanded the universe of the franchise into a more distinctive, memorable world. Wiseman had also grown considerably as a director, leading to a more impassioned romance between his two hot leads and significantly more exciting and memorable action sequences. Once again, this Underworld movie was a box office success. Normally, that would mean a sequel was in store, but not this time. Oh no, the time had come at last… for a prequel.
UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS (dir. Patrick Tatopoulos, 2009)
Director Patrick Tatopoulos took over for the third, and arguably best, entry in the Underworld franchise. Tatopoulos had cut his teeth as the creature designer for the first two films. He had also worked on the special effects for such movies as Independence Day, Pitch Black and the film adaptation of Silent Hill. His film, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, benefitted from the most emotional storyline of the franchise (at least so far), and a charismatic lead performance from Michael Sheen, who remained loyal to the genre series despite having moved on to such Oscar bait films as Frost/Nixon and The Queen.
This prequel tells the story of Lucian’s affair with Viktor’s daughter Sonja, played by Rhona Mitra, who really does look an awful lot like Kate Beckinsale (and a good thing too, since it’s a major plot point). Lucian turns out to be the first werewolf to take human form, and so Viktor raises him as a bastard child, even though Viktor keeps the rest of Lucian’s animalistic brethren as mere slaves. Over the years, Lucian and Sonja develop a starcross’d love affair, but tragedy strikes when Lucian breaks ranks to protect Sonja from a mindless horde of Lycans. Even though he saved Sonja’s life, he’s whipped and imprisoned for not knowing his place. Sonja helps Viktor escape his plight and Viktor proceeds to liberate his lycan brethren, beginning a war of rebellion against their vampire oppressors. Viktor kills Sonja for carrying Lucian’s child, officially beginning a centuries-long feud between the species that will culminate, ultimately, in the events of the first Underworld movie.
Although a little less sleek than its predecessors, the theatrical storyline and a particularly winning performance from Sheen make Underworld: Rise of the Lycans a cut above the rest. Once again, the film was a rousing success, setting the stage for another proper sequel in Underworld Awakening, out January 20th. Here’s hoping the fourth film continues the trend, and turns out to be the best one yet.
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