May 16, 2009

Blu-ray Review: Underworld

The idea of bringing together vampires and werewolves, locked in an epic war that has lasted for hundreds of years is one of those ideas that just shouts "MONEY!" Seriously, how could you go wrong? Sure, we have had these two classic monsters teamed up before, but I do not recall seeing a match-up quite like this before. It was 2003 and the first Underworld was just arriving on the screen. It came amid claims of ripping off The Matrix, among other complaints regarding style and substance. Despite those issues, the film has spawned a franchise and remains popular, if not important to this day. The film has just been reissued as part of a trilogy set, and watching it now, for the first time in quite some time, I discover it may be more entertaining now than it was then.

Underworld picks up the war between vampire and lycan (werewolf) in the present day. We are introduced to Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a Death Dealer on the hunt for lycans. The hunt leads to a massive gun battle/chase through a subway station and neighboring tunnels. Two important items are discovered. First, the lycans have developed a new ultraviolet bullet to use in their attacks on the vampires, and two, the lycans were apparently tracking a human, Michael Corvin, which is not a usual part of their operation.

As the plot develops, we learn of many underhanded dealings perpetrated by the upper echelon of the vampire clan, of a lycan leader long thought dead, and a plot to take control of the vampire ruling class, not to mention that interest in a human. We learn that the war started over a Romeo and Juliet-esque love between a vampire, Sonja, and a lycan, Lucian. Vampire elder Viktor (Bill Nighy), Sonja's father, would not let that be, thus the war began and has been raging ever since.

While the background is well developed and rather complex, it is all background as this story centers almost squarely on its lead characters. In particular, Selene, whose eyes are opened to what is going on around her, and Michael, a newcomer to this world who is oblivious to who he really is. The two develop a relationship and set about their own path as they attempt to navigate the dangerous waters of this war, angering both sides in the process.

Now, I am sure many of you are familiar with the story, so I will not bore you with further details. What the story does do is establish a world rich in tradition with plenty of back story to play around with. No, it is not the deepest of tales, seemingly more interested in flash and style more than substance; however, the pieces are there to build your own compelling take on the events leading up to this story.

The acting is laced with over the top histrionics that could send a sensitive viewer into a tizzy. I actually enjoyed them. Kate Beckinsale brings a cold and calculated, yet vulnerable demeanor to Selene that is downright captivating (not to mention the outfit). Michael Sheen's wild-eyed Lucian hides conflicted emotion behind his desires to kill Viktor. Then there is Bill Nighy, memorable in darn near every role I have seen him in brings an aggressive, clipped twitchiness to every line. It is brilliant.

Len Wiseman is the man behind the camera and he has a good eye. The movie is nothing if not stylish. In his first big screen test he succeeds in making a movie that has modest aspirations and walks the fine line of substance and style. No, it is not terribly substantial, but there is a lot of information there to be mined, while you do have plenty of style to watch.

Audio/Video. The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 ratio and it looks really good. This is the best it has looked since the big screen, easily better than my memories of the last DVD release. It is a dark film and it is well represented here, never losing detail, and always being nice and clear. The audio is no different, there is an uncompressed 5.1 PCM track that sounds great, crisp, clear, and nice use of surrounds. Right from the start, the audio commands your attention, not just the dialogue, but each roar, every gunshot has weight, almost as if it was happening right there in the room with you. It is not just the effects or dialogue, the score from Paul Haslinger shines through, helping add to the blue-tinted visuals creating atmosphere. Time to retire the DVD.

Extras. This release comes complete with a number of extras, including almost everything from the prior DVD release.
  • Commentary. The track features Len Wiseman, Kate Beckinsale, and for a little while Scott Speedman. It is a lively track as they reminisce on shooting, why certain things were cut and why this is not a director's cut.
  • Outtakes. A collection of flubbed scenes. Nothing special, but still fun to watch.
  • Music Video. This is for "Worms of the Earth" by Finch.
  • Storyboard Comparisons. Exactly what it says. These are always pretty interesting to watch.
  • Fang vs. Fiction. A documentary about the "truth" behind the fiction.
  • Making of Underworld.
  • Visual Effects of Underworld.
  • Creature Effects.
  • Stunts.
  • Designing Underworld – explores the production design of the film.
  • The Look of Underworld – explores the cinematography of Underworld.
  • Sights & Sounds – another behind the scenes gag reel of sorts.

Bottomline. I like this movie. I find it is more enjoyable know than it was on the big screen. I believe it has to do with mindset, I watch it now looking for a fun film, it has been freed from the shackles of big screen expectations and works very well on that level.



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