Mårlind & Stein | 89 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R
Just when you think the Underworld series is dead, it suddenly lurches back to life with a new instalment. Fitting for a series all about vampires & that, I suppose.
Having diverted to a prequel telling us a story we largely already knew, here we rejoin Selene (Kate Beckinsale), last seen six years ago (real world time) in Underworld Evolution, which was very much Part 2 to the original film’s Part 1. They told a pretty complete tale, actually, so rather than try to find something there, Awakening launches into something new. Following a two minute recap of the first two movies (it’s so long ago that this is actually very handy), a quick-cut prologue-y bit tells us that the long-secret war between vampires and Lycans (aka werewolves) was discovered by humans, who set about wiping them out. Trying to escape, Selene’s crossbreed lover Michael (Scott Speedman) is killed and she gets frozen… only to wake up however-many-years later into a changed world… And so on and so forth. Escapes, shooting, action-y-business all ensues.
Said violence is very bloody and brutal, much more like the second film — I swear the first (especially) and third weren’t anything like as gory. Evolution well earnt its 18 certificate, after a very 15 first film, and quite surprised me at the time. This isn’t as extreme as that, but still. The main drama and attraction in the Underworld series lies in the vampires-vs-werewolves-with-modern-tech concept, not in ripping off limbs or spurting blood or whatever. Or maybe that’s just me.
By taking such a bold move with the plot, meanwhile, the story pushes the series’ mythology in new and relatively interesting ways. It’s becoming a bit dense and fan-only (unless you let it wash over you and just enjoy the punching), but at least they’re not regurgitating the same old stuff. It manages a few twists along the way too, which is always nice. The plot seems to have been half worked around Speedman’s non-involvement, leading me to wonder why — he’s not too busy, surely? Perhaps he’d just had enough? But no, apparently it was genuinely just written this way. I guess he couldn’t be bothered to turn up for some cameo shots, because the stand-in is really obvious.
Also glaringly obvious is the set-up for a sequel. Not so much as the first film, which had such an End of Part One feel (including a direct cliffhanger) that the sequel picked up mere hours later. But this is still a story obviously incomplete (again, there’s a sort of cliffhanger), but at least it has the courtesy to… actually, no, it’s only as complete as the first film. The main narrative drive is resolved, but other bits are blatantly open.
But it didn’t seem to go down too well, so what are the chances of us seeing it continued? Well, as we’ve learnt, you can never write the Underworld series off. And its niche fanbase, semi-independent production, and relatively long three-year gap between sequels means the next one will probably turn up out of the blue with little hype, much as Awakening did last year. Plus, though this is the most expensive film to date (double the budget of the preceding one!), it’s also the most financially successful: $160.1 million worldwide, beating number two’s $111.3 million. Assuming Beckinsale still feels up for it, I imagine 2015 will bring us a continuation — and, hopefully, a conclusion.
The higher budget and higher gross I mentioned are surely both down to one thing: 3D. Shooting in proper 3D (as opposed to the ever-so-popular post-conversion) costs a fortune, as a producer reveals in the BD’s bonus features, but it can also net you more money at the box office thanks to that 3D premium. Such a gamble hasn’t paid off for everyone (Dredd), but it clearly did here (how the hell did Underworld 4 make four-and-a-half times as much money as Dredd?!) Watching in 2D, it’s clear that some sequences were designed with 3D in mind — not in the way that, say, Saw 3D or The Final Destination sometimes only make sense with added depth, but in ways where 3D would (I imagine) enhance the visuals. There are some instances of stuff flying at the camera, a popular sticking point for the anti-3D crowd, but that’s actually been part and parcel of Underworld’s style since the start (just watch a trailer for the first film — there was a shot of it used prominently in most of the marketing).
Also worthy of commendation: new-style ‘evolved’ Lycans; a small role for Charles Dance (always worth seeing); the evocative near-future setting; good quality action sequences; some nice steel-blue cinematography/grading. Some of it was shot at 120fps on brand-new pre-alpha never-used RED cameras — take that Peter Jackson, eh. Plus it’s only a little over 1 hour and 18 minutes long without credits. Some would bemoan such brevity, but it has its positives.
I’ve always quite liked the Underworld series, even if the first one is still clearly the best. Awakening gets most kudos for taking things in a new direction, even if, as a film in itself, it’s only OK.