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Head Production Designer
JOSEPH CROSS, BRIANA EVIGAN,
Special Effects Make-Up
A SIERRA NEVADA
(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
You know how you go to a theater and someone or a number of someone's are making a bunch of noise? Like their purchase of a movie ticket entitles them to waste everybody else's money who also they paid for a movie ticket? Pretty screwed up people, am I right? Well what if all of that incongruous noise was coming, not from the audience, but from the movie you were watching?
Which brings me to UNDERWORLD. A movie I'd been looking forward to . . .
It starts with narration (Never, NEVER, NEVER a good thing and every single decent screenwriting teacher or book will Tell You THAT!). With this narration we learn that the woman perched on a rooftop, wearing ultra tight black leather beneath a black corsette (now what possible purpose does a corsette serve over skin tight leather?) and looking down on a section of street in a gigantic city is a Hunter. She hunts Lycans (that's werewolves to you or me) and she does her job well and loves doing it. Though there are so few lycans left that soon she will have to make a career move. I wonder what color the retirement parachute is for Vampires?
If you walk into the movie ten minutes late and miss this opening narration, don't worry. She repeats it all again, and then again while doing some long winded exposition to a human named Michael (Scott Speedman: THE 24th DAY) who has the need to know. By then we know her name is Selene (Kate Beckinsale: HAUNTED, UNCOVERED). Without the exposition, the movie still tells us pretty much everything we need to know. Later on there is more exposition to tell us what you've pretty much already figured out from the story as well as prior exposition. But then there Moreexposition and then there is even MORE EXPOSITION!
Following the narration there is a very cool shoot-out scene and you don't want to miss that.
After that the devil is in the details and the details "fall in love" scene.
Someone wanted to have a romance in here somewhere. Besides Beckinsale I mean*. So there is a romance out of the clear blue when Selene kisses Michael - Ostensibly to handcuff him (handcuffed during a kiss! Boy did THAT scene bring up some bad memories! And fond ones), but she touches her lips after because, well, there was something there but it is never explored.
Selene finds herself falling in love with Michael pretty much as an afterthought. On the other hand, several scenes between Selene and The Vampire Regent, Kraven (Shane Brolly: IMPOSTOR) shows her utter contempt for his stupid moves and boy is he miffed. He pouts, he grimaces, he sneers and scowls: Brolly is an actor in desperate need of mustard (though you may prefer mayonnaise with your ham).
Meanwhile, things aren't going too great among the Lycans either. Werewolf leader Lucien (Michael Sheen: DOOM WATCH: Winter Angel [TV]) is having trouble keeping the troops in line. It probably doesn't help that werewolves are only guys. They act like a bunch of rabid dogs (don't blame ME for the pun! That's what they say in the flick!).
The leader of the malcontents is Pierce (Richard Cetrone: BLADE, GHOSTS OF MARS, THE SCORPION KING) and it's never made clear whose side he is really on. But that's okay, because there are betrayals going on with the vamp camp too and a nice, twisty storyline to boot - if only the sound effects and Chex Party Mix Music would shut the hell up long enough for us to get into it. Only Raze (Kevin Grevioux: PLANET OF THE APES , MEN IN BLACK II - also co-writer / co-creator) is steadfast loyal to Lucien. In fact, he is the major domo of the armies of the Lycan. Pierce is the troublemaker.
But what about the Vampire clan? Where do their various loyalties lie? Well, Selene of course hates Kraven, who wants her for his own. Her Father figure, Viktor the Vamp (Bill Nighy: SHAUN OF THE DEAD), the one who made Selene suck, is taking his turn at being dead (The Vampires rotate leadership. Dead two centuries, lead on the third), which greatly relieves the burden of leadership quarrels. Selene is loyal to Viktor but he may or may not be loyal to her. They also have a major domo, Khan (Robby Gee, who I swear I've seen before but seems to have no other credits) who is loyal to the bloodline overall.
Meanwhile, the Lycans are after a student doctor named Michael (yes, Exposition boy Michael). Michael is another mystery and the Lycans have their own German mad doctor to muck about and try to make something. What, we don't know, but it involves blood (no surprise).
The Lycans have glass bullets that contain liquid sunlight. Okay, why not? Some laundry detergents claim the same thing. But when these glass bullets are fired at concrete walls and supports and knock huge chunks out of them, I have to say, "Whaaa...?"
'Cause if they aren't made out of glass, but some incredibly strong clear stuff, then why would they break open so easily upon impact with a Vampire or Lycan body? I mean, you can stick teeny hypodermic needles in bloodsuckers: Even a piece of wood. It ain't much to poking a vampire.
If you've seen the previews you know how clunky the CGI is for the werewolves turning into humans and back. The CGI transition effects are okay, but nowhere near as convincing as THE HOWLING from almost 25 years ago.
So it's Vampires vs. Werewolves. That's known as "High Concept" in Hollywood. High Concept means the ability to describe a movie in as few words as possible. Why this is so great I'm not entirely sure. I think "High Concept" is like the word delicacy. You know what delicacies are, right? They are high-falutin' "cultural edibles" that you eat on a dare and usually find in a garbage can or ditch.
So here we have Horror elements, but do we have Horror? Let me put it this way:
Imagine what would be a scary scene, say, the lone Selene, listening for sounds of a monstrous enemy approaching in the monochrome dark.
She turns her head this way, then that way, listening for the noise, with her attuned sense of vampire hearing, that will tell her, 'The Lycans are coming!'
Now imagine a camera shot where the creatures really ARE approaching but, aware of the super sensitive hearing of the vampire, purposefully approach silent and stealthly. Crawling along, not the tiled floor where their claws would click and rattle, but along the walls and ceiling where they can quietly sink their claws into the soft wood and plaster. See their confident indifference to gravity, horrific proof of their awesome, deadly strength.
It could be creepy, right? It could be scary, spooky, and altogether ooky!
But now imagine all tension and fear totally blown from this scene because there is a full on orchestral rave mix wall of sound blaring, on top of a construction crew of background sound effects clatter that has nothing to do with either the scene or the noise that is supposed to be IN the scene. And this crackerbox crunchy chatter is further backed-up by a bunch of loud techno music and electronic drumbeats, scratching and bass-dubbing that orchestra.
I mean, THE MATRIX and EQUILIBRIUM had this, but they had it during the actual fights! They had it during the confrontation and head bootin' action! When the shit hit the fan! They didn't use it for the suspenseful freaking build up! Who would do something as stupid as that?
This movie is billed as a Fantasy first, so let's try that angle.
Vampires and Werewolves are fantasy so I'll go with that. But then there is an attempt to inject some "science" in here - but it's "Crossing Over" laughable. No doubt an attempt to make the story believable to a modern audience. Currently popular with writers who don't know what they're talking about: Genetics - which we saw bandied about with BLADE II - which pops up as plot glue.
Director Len has obviously seen THE MATRIX and probably wanted to make his movie "Matrix Style!" But like some director trying to make an ALIEN rip-off, he just doesn't GET IT! So from the start of the movie until the end, he is going to fill every second with nonstop mixes of techno and industrial music.
Except there is one scene where there is absolute silence, a lull in the battle, are all the lycans dead or ... we see a large hole in a wall. The camera slowly zooms in on that dark hole until it fills the screen and, you know it's coming, we see the eyes of the Lycans begin to glow.
Nearly scary but then, before a fight is engaged or any action occurs, the yakkety noise of misplaced sound effects and music begins again.
And that's okay too, if that's the story you want to tell. But this story is getting ruined by layers of inordinate sound effects ^, it's getting pummeled with monastery music, church choir, and dour gravity. This comes during a moment when Selene has a set of double doors opened for her. That's it: She waits by some doors, they open, she looks into an empty room. What is supposed to happen with all the grand orchestra and hoo-ha?
Nothing. She turns away, the doors close, the music fades out.
Nothing and nothing interesting.
Then later, as it turns out, when we go back to the room, there was NOTHING that was SUPPOSED to happen there!
It's a sepulcher where nothing will take place for 3 more days! So the scene makes no sense and doesn't get any better. Selene just looks in and thinks "Yep. Still nothing going on in there: Just like nothing has happened for the last one hundred years."
And then we have the life of a vampire which, if you don't hunt Lycans, boils down to sitting on yer ass all night, draped across furniture, and spending hundreds of years worth of evenings apparently making small talk and sneering at each other.
I mean, that's it! That's all they do!
In BLADE the undead at least have a life (Ha! But seriously!)! Granted, they spray blood all over each other during a dance (the human equivalent of dancing in . . . gravy?), but at least they go out and live a little: or the undead equivalent. But in UNDERWORLD, they just hang around the castle doing squat but looking bored and perhaps sniping at each other.
The ADDAMS FAMILY were homebodies and they stayed in the house too, of course. But Morticia took care of Cleopatra and Kitty, Uncle Fester had his experiments, Gomez had his train set and investments, the kids experimented with philosophical questions, and even the servant, Lurch, whiled away the hours on his casio. And they all enjoyed the occasional swordfight or explosion.
Here they just sit around bored and listless. Which means that we watch them sit around looking bored and listless: and friends, that's no fun!
Except when Selene walks through the room. Then it's all monastery music, totally incongruous because the organ plays, the choir breaks out, but when all is said and done, she just walked in one door and out the other, AND THAT WAS IT!
I mean, sure, some of the folks she passed in the foyer*
dirty looks, but so what?
Is that an explanation? Because I don't know about you, but in my mind, decadent means oddball orgies, twisted tastes, and a peculiar idea of fun (you've already hired the actors anyway. Have them act like they're doing something!). It doesn't mean sitting around on yer bloodless ass throughout the centuries watching the freakin' paint peel.
And it is these parts that are just so BORING! And no amount of sound effect chatter and Chex Mix music can make that any different.
But it does give Selene some kind of motif to walk through. The gathered look at her in awe. Or they look at her in anger; or they look at her as a betrayer; or sometimes they just look. Talk about a freaking dull afterlife!
This is a movie that is just dying to impress the westernized urban high school disaffected youth Goth culture that author Neil Gaimen has corralled singlehandedly (and he did it without vampires or werewolves to boot! Now how's THAT for "High Concept"?). And speaking of Goth, something both Gaiman and Jhonen Vasquez understand is that the more serious the situation, the better to have a little humane humor. Even bitterly serious movies like ALIEN, DAY OF THE DEAD, TERMINATOR, and THE CROW, had some sense of humor within the characters: Something to give them dimension. Not here though, UNDERWORLD takes itself serious Squared.
Remove the broodingly cool dark blue wrapper and this isn't Vampires vs. Werewolves: it's really Monster High School! An eternity of petty cliques and you never leave your parent's house!
Werewolves go to the other high school but we'll kick their ass! Go Suck!
So Selene is the misunderstood goth naif, who is wise beyond her immortal years, and knows what is really going on while her peers, who look down their porcelain noses at her, know nothing. Even worse, her actual enemies aren't really the enemies. They are only misunderstood. The real enemies are those who try to pretend they are like us but are really like, so freaking lame! In UNDERWORLD, the existence of a vampire is just a day to day game of pretense and one-upmanship: A class of Heathers forever.
Now with all of this critique, you'd think that I'm really going to trash this movie and the director, but you know what?
The Cinematography by Tony Pierce-Roberts (THE DARK HALF, THE CLIENT, HAUNTED), works well, conveying the mood visually without hindrance. An entire world was created and contained within a story told by the vampires: meaning that they would only tell, and we would only see, the world through their eyes. A world of eternal darkness. All that is pretty cool. And the cast, except for the hammy Shane Broley, does a damn good job in revealing the politics, fears, conspiracies, hatreds, and all the petty jealous human emotions as would be filtered through creatures of the night.
The story needs some tightening. The direction is well done when it works, which is haphazard, but not bad for a first attempt. The Special effects are lacking but not too much (and well covered by the D.P.'s use of shadow). No, the main all encompassing problem here is the damn editing, exposition, and worst of all, post production sound. It is Ca - rap! So much crap that I wanted to take my drink and throw it at the movie screen, followed by a mustardy hotdog.
Is it the director's fault? Right or wrong, yes. Though a DVD Director's Cut may come out down the road (This is what I wanted to do but THEY wouldn't let me!), I've yet to see a D.C. that was actually better than the original. Which means they were all worse. I give UNDERWORLD a generous two.
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