Wednesday, April 4, 2018
UNDERWORLD (2003), UNDERWORLD EVOLUTION (2006)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*
Once I'd settled in to the idea that the UNDERWORLD franchise wasn't going to explore any of the deeper symbolic potential of its base idea-- that of an ongoing war between vampires and werewolves, carried on under the noses of humankind-- I could enjoy it as a series of high-octane kick-ass action pictures.
In retrospect, the first film is more set-up than kick-ass. The 2003 film introduces viewers to the main character of Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a warrior on the side of the vampires. Like many of her kind she's existed as an unaging immortal for centuries, though she never displays any of the inhuman physical characteristics of the oldest vamps. Selene is a "death dealer," meaning that she hunts down enemy Lycans, intelligent werewolves who can fight her either with weapons akin to her own-- swords and firearms-- or they can transform into big furry beast-men possessed of the same super-strength Selene has.
Human beings have no idea that the war or its soldiers even exist, but one human, Michael Corwin, gets drawn into the conflict when he's bitten by a Lycan. Selene takes time out of her Lycan-killing obsession and succors the innocent man, eventually falling in love with him. Michael also turns out to be a unique type of human, for despite his humanity, he's a descendant of "Corvinus," the original progenitor of both the vampire and werewolf races. Because of his unique genetic structure, Michael doesn't just become another Lycan, as most victims would, but rather a strange vampire-werewolf hybrid. Selene believes that a hybrid can bring an end to the division between the enemy factions, but there are a lot of people on both sides who want Michael for their own purposes.
Despite a good number of sword and gun battles, none of them are exceptional, and at some times they seem to simply be filling up time as Selene and Michael get harried from pillar to post. Selene is betrayed by one of her vamp superiors, but there's no great drama in this development, because most of the other characters are sadly under-developed. Lycan villains and vamp villains prove almost indistinguishable.
UNDERWORLD EVOLUTION doesn't improve on the dramatic elements, but the script-- again by Danny McBride and director Len Wiseman-- does expand on the mythos of the monsters. It's revealed that Corvinus, fifth-century forefather of both monster-races, was the only person to survive a plague that killed all of his people, and that he did so because of the unique genetic makeup. He gives rise to two brothers, Markus and William, who are respectively the fathers of the vampire and werewolf races. There's some odd folklore thrown in about Markus being bitten by a bat and William by a wolf, but presumably this was not meant to be taken seriously, as the viral plague is the source of the monstrous mutations.
The term "evolution" signifies not only how the two races evolved in the past, but also the potential of Michael's genes to modify the power structure-- a potential explored in future films when Michael and Selene breed a hybrid child together. But the main thrust of the narrative is to oppose young to old, as the young lovers take on the still extant brothers William and Michael Corvinus.
Though the drama remains shallow, the filmmakers evidently got a lot more money behind EVOLUTION, for there's huge improvement in FX and stuntwork. For instance, Beckinsale, who largely employed only weapons earlier, does a fair amount of hand-to-hand combat, which only enhances the appeal of her leather-catsuited figure. Again, she's the main focus of the story-- perhaps not surprising, since she and director Wiseman were married during both films. EVOLUTION thus became the high-water mark for kick-ass "monster mash" films-- limited though that subgenre might be.