It’s a testament to how far vampires have sunk – how much damage Twilight and its ilk have wrought on a once-proud genre – that we look at a piece of forgettable tripe like Underworld: Awakening and think “at least they don’t sparkle.” I would watch this film a thousand times before enduring any of the Twilight series again… not because it’s any good but because we’re so desperate for real vampires at this point that any will do.
And in the past, Kate Beckinsale’s vinyl-clad Death Dealer Selene made for an agreeable distraction. The films surrounding her weren’t any great shakes (indeed, the only legitimately good one didn’t even involve her), but her character held fascinating corners behind her sexy façade. She avoided the decadence and ennui of her fellows because she had a job – a job she was damn good at – and watching her respond when that rug was pulled out from under her could be diverting in a second-tier drive-in kind of way.
Underworld: Awakening offers none of that, and Beckinsale clearly knows it. She sleepwalks through the role in ways I wouldn’t have imagined possible; you can actually see her eyes glaze over as she’s asked to perform yet another acrobatic drop into a dark alley or sashay around yet another corner with her trenchcoat flapping behind her. The formula has run out of gas, and the star simply can’t muster the energy to justify her further involvement in it.
That boredom extends outward to encompass the entire film, compounded by a hash of a script accredited to no less than six people (including J. Michael Straczynski, who should really know better). Resolute slummers like Charles Dance and Stephen Rea dutifully try to class up the joint, while the indifferent production design makes the franchise’s unnamed city look blander and more generic than ever. Indeed, much of Underworld: Awakening resembles a bargain-basement video game, complete with repetitive foes and a couple of “boss fights” involving larger, scarier versions of the same cannon fodder foisted on us countless times before.
Len Wiseman, who directed the first film, attained a certain modest distinction through his understanding of three-dimensional space. The new film desperately tries to mine the notion for further treasure to no avail. Selene bounces off the walls and drops down every elevator shaft in sight, each time pounding another nail in the film’s visual coffin. The fights become tiresome and distracting – especially compared to Haywire, the obvious choice in the “chicks who kick ass” department this weekend – while the storyline quickly sabotages anything of quality that might claw its way to the surface.
That may be Awakening’s gravest sin, because the basic notion initially holds some interest. After centuries of a secret war between vampires and werewolves, normal humans discover their presence and launch a campaign of extermination. In the middle of it, Selene and her vampire-werewolf hybrid lover Michael are captured and placed in a science lab. Twelve years later, she reawakens and escapes to find a world transformed.
If properly developed, that idea could single-handedly justify the exercise. But as soon as it’s established, Awakening abandons it, relying instead on a murky mother-daughter plot with a genetically engineered kid and more of the same tired monster battles. Characters circle the periphery before being awkwardly crammed into the main plot, heedless of the utter lack of excitement they generate. The ending arrives without noticeable rhyme or reason, after one final boss fight that shifts between multiple combatants so haphazardly you can’t establish who’s fighting or why. Not that it matters at that point. Awakening resolutely refuses to deliver any entertainment value: cashing in on fans’ goodwill for one last paycheck, then running for the hills. Its failure is only eclipsed by the prospect of a fifth movie, devoid of any encouraging direction and left to linger ominously in the air as we trudge defeated from the theaters.
Thank God they don’t sparkle. With a film like this, we’ll take any silver lining we can.