Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Underworld: Evolution

What I Knew Going In / What I Was Expecting

I have hazy memories of attempting to watch the first Underworld movie back when I was in college, and then failing miserably.  As I recall, I fell asleep less than twenty minutes in and never gave it another shot.  I just remembered that it involved a bunch of vampires and werewolves who were perpetually fighting each other, and that for some snotty reason, they insisted on using the word "Lycans" instead of werewolves.

So, for the last decade, my understanding of the Underworld franchise is that it was a bunch of bored people watching CGI creatures murder each other and then being snarky.  I've been wholly dismissive of the films in this time, which is unfair since it's entirely possible that they're actually really intricately constructed and interesting.  How would I know?

(Similarly, I've got virtually no knowledge of the Resident Evil series of movies.  I did watch the first one many moons ago and thought it was crappy, but now they're up to, what, eight of them?  How many movies can you get out of "and then more zombies came around the corner?")

My knowledge of Underworld is so limited, in fact, that I don't even know which part Evolution is.  Part 2?  Part 3?  Part 4?  I'm just assuming it's not the first one.

A Plot Summary

Wow.  Uh... the premise of my blog is actually being tested for once.  I actually have very little concept of what happened in this movie.

I hate to admit this, but my shtick on this here blog is pretty thin most of the time.  Saying "I'm going to review a sequel to a movie I haven't seen" sounds like it might lead to some comical misunderstandings or confusion at first, but if you only apply it to low-budget horror franchises, then you're not really missing a whole hell of a lot.  Underworld, however, isn't just a franchise - it's a mythology.

There's clearly some kind of major conflict going on, but I have no comprehension of it beyond the tagline summary of "vampires vs. werewolves."  Are they simply not fans of each other, like two rival gangs on the same turf, or are they actually at war with one another?  And if it is a war, what was the catalyst that set them off?  How do the vampires and werewolves interact with humans?  Are there formal armies and governing bodies involved?  Do humans know about the monsters, and do they vote on measures involving monster activity?

Come to think of it, you don't ever actually see either vampires or werewolves eat any humans in this movie, so I'm not sure if there even is a human establishment left.  The only scene involving humans is a sequence where Boy Candy, Kate Beckinsale's love interest, tries to eat human food in some wretched Eastern European tavern and then gets into a fight.  But he doesn't eat anybody, and the humans all leave the movie right after that.  For all I know, it's one of the few remaining human outposts left in the world.  Maybe the whole series is a post-apocalyptic affair?

Here's all I know for sure.  There's five characters who matter, each of whom has a Power Meter that everybody else seems to understand, and which I can only guess at:

1) Selene, Kate Beckinsale's character. She's a vampire who, in one or more of the preceding movies, killed Bill Nighy after discovering that he was manipulating her in some way or otherwise was betraying her kind.  Since I'm not sure what their relationship was or what Nighy's betrayal entailed, this back story is essentially meaningless for me except that it nebulously translates to Selene being "on the run" from something.  She's at Power Level 5, or Medium-High.

2) Boy Candy, Selene's boyfriend.  He's a vampire/werewolf hybrid, which in practical terms just seems to mean that he's a vampire in blackface.  Boy Candy is almost as new to the movie's mythology as I am and only recently learned that he's a vampire or a werewolf, let alone some new third thing.  Selene informs him that his hybridism means he may have limitless power.  For most of the movie, he seems to be at Power Level 6, or High.

3) Marcus, the original vampire from which all other vampires were derived.  Marcus was believed to have been killed following events of one or more preceding movies, but it turns out he's actually still alive and has some new physical form that makes him look like an octopus-bat.  Using this new physiology, he's at Power Level 7, or Ultra High.

4) William, who doesn't actually show up until the last 20 minutes, but he's kinda the deus ex werewolfa and ends up being important.  He's Marcus's brother, but through genetic mutation, he's a werewolf.  This makes William the original werewolf from with all other werewolves were derived.  William was captured by the Vampire Army back in the 1700s and locked up in an elaborate sarcophagus / tomb.  The Vampire Army has to take great pains to ensure he never gets released or else he will possibly end the world, because his Power Level is at 8, or Unstoppably High.

5) Marcus and William's Dad.  I don't know what he actually does.  I mean, I know how he figures into the plot of this movie, but I don't know what he is.  He kinda acts like the CEO of some crazy advanced weapons development company.  I'm going to assume he's the Leader of the Vampire Army.  You never see him do anything physically impressive, but they refer to him as having the highest Power Level of all, so he's at 10, Maximum Power.

When the movie opens, Selene and Boy Candy are hiding out and fearing for their future following Selene's killing of Bill Nighy.  I assume they are afraid of being hunted by the Vampire Army, but since I don't know how the Army is organized or what Nighy's death means, and also since no vampires ever chase them, it kinda seems like much ado about nothing.  I get the feeling that they could just go two towns over and start a farm and nobody would be any the wiser.

Meanwhile, a bunch of important-looking vampire soldiers go to a temple of some sort and say a lot of words I don't understand, and then they resurrect / release Marcus.  I'm unclear if he was imprisoned here or if he was dead, but in either case, he reveals himself and kills all the soldiers.  This scene seems like it's meant to be a shocker because some of these guys have names and they enter the movie as if we should recognize them.  Like, "Oh my God, they killed off Kraven?  That's crazy!"

Marcus chases Selene for a little bit and they exchange some ominous words, but they don't actually fight.  They seem to have a history together and I don't know if it matters.

Then Marcus finds Bill Nighy's body and digs a weird hexagonal thing out of his chest.

Selene and Boy Candy make out and have sex, which appears to be the first time their love has been consummated.  It plays out as though this is the third movie in a trilogy and you're finally getting to see them act on their feelings.

Then Selene realizes they have to track down Plot Explainer, a vampire who was exiled hundreds of years ago.  This leads to one of the only interesting sequences in the movie, wherein they visit a spooky castle and navigate through werewolf-infested catacombs beneath.  But since the werewolves are only at Power Level 3, Selene and Boy Candy dispatch them without issue and confront Plot Explainer.

He then describes how Marcus and William's Dad locked William up in a sarcophagus somewhere, and the only way to release him is by using two hexagonal keys.  Bill Nighy had one, and Marcus and William's Dad has the other.  Selene goes to find Dad, and then Marcus comes and kills Plot Explainer.  In this scene, we also find out that Marcus can absorb people's memories by drinking their blood, but I'm unclear if this is something any vampire can do or just him.

Actually, while I'm on that topic... I don't understand how blood works in this movie.  Usually when a vampire drinks blood, they're just eating so they can stay alive.  But in Underworld, it seems like blood is partly for food and partly for absorbing Power.  Like if you're a Level 2 vampire and you drink blood from a Level 4 vampire, you go up two notches and become Level 4 yourself.

This is important for Selene in a few more minutes, because she is unable to get to Dad to take the other key before Marcus does his dirty work.  First, Marcus fights with Boy Candy and kills him.  Then Marcus finds Dad and takes the key.  Then Marcus mortally wounds Dad - who offers no resistance because he can't bring himself to harm his son - and flies way, and all of Dad's most loyal soldiers arrest Selene.  Dad tells Selene to drink his blood so she can become Power Level 10 and defeat Marcus.

Then Selene gets into a covert helicopter with a bunch of highly trained special ops vampire soldiers who take her (and Boy Candy's corpse) to William's sarcophagus, where Selene engages in the Final Battle.

All the special ops soldiers get killed, Marcus releases William, Boy Candy comes back to life - but at Power Level 9 because he's filled with rage now - and there's a whole bunch of CGI fighting.  Then Selene kills Marcus and Boy Candy kills William.  They leave and Selene tells us in voice over that the future is uncertain, but she's writing her own story now.

What I Liked

Outside of Beckinsale's gratuitous and inexplicable leather-suit, the set design, costumes, and props are fantastic.  I like the look of the movie.  It has a distinct style that blends a bit of science-fiction, some gothic horror, robotics, futurism, military porn, and medieval architecture into a nifty-looking feature.

This means there's a lot of sequences that look kinda cool and would be interesting to watch with better characters.

Some of the action scenes are okay, too.  There's too much slow-motion to make them truly exciting - see also: my complaints about every Zack Snyder movie ever made - but the framing is neat and it looks like there was some good choreography.

What I Didn't Like

Oh, my....  How much time do you have?

To be clear, my complaints aren't just based on simply not knowing what happened in the other movies.  There's a ton I didn't understand, but that's not the movie's fault.  Not really.

Well, sorta.  I'll say this much: it does a terrible job of introducing itself for dummies like me who decided to start in the middle.  Underworld: Evolution opens with a bunch of flashback / prologue scenes for the first fifteen minutes - including a text scroll - to fill in back story.  But like most flashback / prologue scenes that open movies, they aren't very good and end up just being redundant.  Anything the movie wants to re-hash for me is stuff that is explained more organically by the characters as the movie goes along.  The stuff that matters - e.g., that Selene killed Bill Nighy - is explained so much more efficiently and memorably within the movie rather than having her just come out and say it at the onset.

But that's minor.  The movie's bigger problem is just that it's boring.

The very premise is flawed and has no good justification.  Vampires and werewolves are supposed to be super-strong immortal creatures, right?  So the reason you put them in a movie is because they'll outmatch wimpy little humans who don't stand a chance.  This creates natural tension because you say, "How are these little flesh-sacks possibly going to survive?" and you keep watching to find out.

But if the vampires' and werewolves' natural strengths cancel each other out - which they do in this movie - then you just end up having two groups of people fighting each other.  This is only interesting when you focus in on a specific subset of individuals who have something to lose and seem vulnerable.  Underworld: Evolution never does that - it just keeps showing us these over-powered assholes who can rip other people to shreds without a problem.  Who cares?

The only scene where I felt like there was any real tension was when Boy Candy gets killed, and I was actually pretty psyched for that when it happened.  Not because I disliked the character, but because it introduced stakes.  Here's a creature that's supposed to have limitless power and it was just killed by the villain - holy shit, the bad guy's tough.  How's Selene going to win?

...oh, he's not dead?  I'm back to not caring again.

The constant barrage of mindless violence totally undermines any kind of awe you may be intended to have when you see one of the creatures.  The werewolves especially come off as weak; they all die incredibly easily and get a total of maybe three kills compared to the vampires' four billion.

Part of this is because the vampires are militarized out the ass, which is just plain stupid.  It makes for some neat aesthetics and a couple of good action scenes, but why would vampires have guns?

You know what the difference is between a vampire with a gun and a human with a gun?  The time of day they fight.  That's it.  You might as well not even have vampires.  Just make it a movie about a massive, covert werewolf-hunting operation and start over.

In fact, the time of day is a huge problem.  Because this is a movie about vampires and because vampires can only go out at night, every single scene is color-corrected with a blue filter with the intent of making it look like it's late at night.  Unfortunately, the blue just ends up looking really soporific and sleepy.

I'll be honest: I fell asleep twice watching this movie and had to re-watch multiple scenes.  I just couldn't help it.  All the blue did it to me.  It's such a relaxing color - and a terrible choice if you're trying to instill terror and anxiety.  Blue is relaxing.  Blue is peaceful.  Blue mutes the shocking red of gore and death.  When a werewolf mauls somebody in any other movie, it looks like huge chunks of gross crimson meat are flying all over the place and I want to vomit.  When a werewolf mauls somebody in a blue filter, it looks like he's eating a chocolate-coated steak and I want to grab my pillow.

Would I Recommend It?

Not unless you're having a hard time getting to bed.

What Do I Think the Prequel(s) Were About

I'm going to guess that the vampires see themselves as good guys because they're trying to protect human beings from werewolves.  Like, the vampires are polite and organized about who they eat and how (or they all just eat from blood banks or something), but the werewolves just go apeshit and eat whoever they feel like, so the vampires decided to step up and defend the humans.

Bill Nighy is the Vampire Army's general and he sends Selene on various missions to kill werewolves ostensibly to protect humans.  During one of her missions, she finds Boy Candy in a laboratory that seems to be run by the werewolves, but later she finds out the lab was actually a covert operation run by Bill Nighy to develop super-soldiers, which is why Boy Candy is a hybrid in the first place.  Bill Nighy wants to have his experiment back, but in so doing he would risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of humans, and Selene disagrees with his tactics.  They fight about it, and Selene kills Nighy.

As for all the shit about Marcus and William and whoever the hell else... Jesus, I don't know.  I guess Underworld Part II had a subplot about some new mega weapon that the Vampire Army was trying to create?

I did watch the third one, right?  Because if there's only one movie before Evolution, it would have to be nothing but exposition in order to make any sense.

My Pitch for Another One

How about some stakes?  (I meant that metaphorically, but I guess literal ones would work, too.)

Selene and Boy Candy are caught by the Werewolf Army (or whoever the hell they're fighting now) and sent to an experimental lab where their powers are stripped through nebulous surgery of some sort.  When they come to, they manage to escape the lab and steal a clunky old Jeep - but now they have to navigate three hundred miles of treacherous terrain to get out of enemy territory and make it to safety.  Along the way, they can debate whether or not they want to get their powers back, so you end up with some internal conflict as well.

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