Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (United States, 2009)

January 23, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans Poster

I'll admit to being surprised that the Underworld series has reached a third installment. Apparently, these films aren't that expensive to make because they have never been big box office performers. With the second movie, Underworld: Evolution, having wrapped up things too neatly for this production to continue moving forward, the filmmakers have elected to do some backtracking. This is an "origin story" - one that returns to the beginning and chronicles how the vampire/werewolf war started. The limitations of the Underworld saga are on display: the storyline essentially replicates that of Underworld and Underworld: Evolution, meaning that if you've seen one or both of them, there's no compelling reason to spend your hard earned dollars on the third.

The reasons for watching the first two Underworld movies were simple: Kate Beckinsale in a skintight leather costume, lots of fast-paced action, Kate Beckinsale in a skintight leather costume, plenty of blood and gore, and Kate Beckinsale in a skintight leather costume. The fast-paced action and blood and gore are still present in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, but Kate Beckinsale is nowhere to be found (excepting a brief appearance near the end in a clip that I believe was lifted from the first film). Since Underworld would not be Underworld without the dominatrix aspect, Rhona Mitra steps into the skintight leather costume. The effect is similar but not quite the same. Beckinsale's husband, Len Wiseman, who directed the first two Underworlds before turning his attention to Live Free or Die Hard, has ceded the top chair to Patrick Tatopoulos (a visual effects guru who worked on the previous two Underworld films), although he gets a story credit. Tatopoulos, it should be noted, does a passable job of imitating Wiseman's style.

The story takes us back hundreds of years to when the werewolves were slaves to the vampires. (A staunch defender of the movie might call this aspect allegorical.) Viktor (Bill Nighy), the king of the bloodsuckers, has a particular fondness for Lucian (Michael Sheen), the best and bravest of his wolf bite-infected pets. Unfortunately, as much as Lucian likes Viktor, he likes Viktor's daughter, Sonja (Rhona Mitra), even more, and the feeling is mutual. Since sex between vampires and lycanthropes is forbidden, the two must meet in secret. Even before they are found out, the affair leads to their downfall. In order to save Sonja's life, Lucian must remove the collar that inhibits his shape-shifting. This is an offense that lands him in a cell and, while he's there, his words and actions plant the seeds for the uprising that will start the war.

Those who disliked Twilight because of the way in which it defanged vampires while turning women into victims can rest easily here. Sonja is anything but a victim and the vampires, especially Viktor, are nasty pieces of work. The problem with Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is the way in which it repeats all that has gone before: forbidden love, desaturated color, bloody battles between CGI werewolves and all-too-destructible vampires. The whole experience feels obligatory. If the filmmakers were going to go to all the trouble to make a new chapter to this saga, why not do something interesting with it?

Bill Nighy, who had a significant role in the first Underworld, is a delight to behold in the way he gleefully overacts. This is true scenery-chewing. Here's a legitimate thespian who has elected to go as far over-the-top as the director will allow (and that turns out to be quite far). There are times when it's impossible not to chuckle. This first-rate hambone performance causes the more sedate work by Michael Sheen and Rhona Mitra, who take their parts seriously, to fade into the background. (Although, to his credit, Sheen does join the party during scenes when he gets to shout snippets of "rousing" dialogue.)

The special effects are less impressive than in the previous two installments, perhaps because of budgetary restrictions. They seem like they were done cheaply and/or quickly. Granted, we're not expected to believe that an army of werewolves is storming a castle, but neither is it supposed to be obvious that the entire sequence was put together on a computer. The level of immersion demanded by the story has not been achieved by the effects technicians. Also, the fight scenes are assembled with the now-popular fast-edit technique that makes them difficult to follow.

Does one have to be a fan of the series to appreciate Underworld: Rise of the Lycans? Probably, since the movie assumes a familiarity with the saga's mythology. The film can be watched and understood by a neophyte (although I have seen the other two, I can't claim to remember them particularly well), but there's no reason why someone unfamiliar with Underworld would want to bother. The first film was significantly better and, therefore, is the place to start for anyone with a modicum of interest. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is an also-ran that is likely to be appreciated only by completists.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (United States, 2009)

Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 2009-01-23
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1