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Underworld (2003)

An immortal battle for supremacy.

Directed by:

Len Wiseman

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 125 minutes

UK Certificate: 15

Country: United States

You might not realise it, but for centuries a vicious war has been waging, unseen, between vampires and werewolves. Ever since the werewolves (known as ‘lycans’) lost their leader Lucian, however, vampire ‘deathdealers’ like Selene (Kate Beckinsale) have been merely mopping up the remaining lycans, and will soon have none left to kill. Yet when Selene chances upon an unusually large and organised band of lycans who seem, for reasons unknown, to be pursuing a human named Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), she intervenes on the human’s behalf (in breach of the vampires’ covenant). Discovering Lucian (Michael Sheen) to be still very much alive, Selene senses a new threat against the vampire coven, and so reawakens the powerful vampire elder Viktor (Bill Nighy) for help and advice. Which is where things really start getting complicated…nnBy opening with Selene in black, brooding gargoyle-like atop a gothic tower, before leaping down to the grey streets below, ‘Underworld’ adopts an image common since the late eighties (in films like Batman, ‘The Crow’, Spiderman, DareDevil and TV’s ‘Dark Angel’) to place its main character in a long line of moody, tormented, morally ambiguous heroes. The film then, in what is still its opening five minutes, has its leather-clad heroine engage in an athletic gunfight in a subway station – a clear reference to The Matrix, promising both a story set in a world alternative to ordinary human experience – and also lots of cool fights. From there on, we get a deceptively simple tale of vampiric violence (as in ‘Blade’) that soon becomes ever more labyrinthine with all its dynastic struggles, family feuds and political intrigue. nnIn ‘Underworld’, the vampire and werewolf legends have been painstakingly reinvented in order to link them – and the striking absence of humans means that the film’s conflict, far from being expressed in the simplistic terms of good and evil (as is traditional in vampire stories), instead becomes a more subtle divide along lines of clan, class and race. nnIn short, writer-director Len Wiseman and his co-writers Kevin Grevioux and Danny McBride (who also have acting rôles in the film) have come up with an intelligent, nuanced epic of war where, as in real war, issues of right and wrong are shrouded in ancient history, and are never easy to decide. This is not, perhaps, the sort of thing that one would expect from a film full of impressive werewolf transformations and fighters with long fangs, but it makes ‘Underworld’ a surprisingly dense, involving film, and goes some way towards compensating for the fairly wooden characters. I look forward to the sequel.

It's Got: Moodily gothic atmospheres, wonderfully baroque sets, a cross-species romance (of sorts), a very complicated mythology, and a wonderfully menacing performance from Bill Nighy as a fascistic aristocrat with attitude.

It Needs: Characters with more, er, character (although the staggeringly comprehensive complexity of the plot makes up for this to a degree).

Alternatives:

Blade, Blade 2, Interview with a Vampire, Queen of the Damned

Summary

Some people will think that a film about vampires and werewolves is inherently silly, and should be watched only for its visceral thrills (which 'Underworld' certainly has). Yet at a time when mainstream American discourse would have us believe that in war everything is black and white, 'Underworld' represents an important voice of reasoned dissent in its suggestion that war is in fact a morally messy business, with complicated and often misunderstood causes – which makes 'Underworld' not just a kick-ass monster free-for-all, but also a vampire film with unexpectedly political bite.

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