Six days into the new year, and I’ve already seen 2017’s first film: the fifth installment in the Underworld series. Admittedly a franchise that runs off of a cult following willing to ignore a lot, because-c’mon-it’s vampires vs. werewolves with Kate Beckinsale in a leather onesie! It’s been five years since Underworld: Awakening and the last installment, and I’m sad to say that the franchise and its heroine have both grown tiring in Underworld: Blood Wars.
Clearly the Underworld universe has a very large cheese factor associated with it, but it was tolerable because the films were stylish, fast-paced, action-packed, offering a strong female protagonist, and if not exactly original, very adept at borrowing bits of this and that from all over fantasy and science fiction. The first two films are undeniably the strongest. The third was more of a spin-off, giving back story on the war between the vampires and the Lycans (werewolves). The current story arc began in the fourth film as Kate Beckinsale’s Selene returned to the series, and this fifth film was billed as the final battle between the warring species. If you really care, we’re going to delve into spoiler territory here, so away with you if you care.
Selene’s long ostracism from her old coven (she did kind of kill a lot of them) is ended as she’s brought back to train a new generation of Death Dealers against a now-unified Lycan army under the leadership of a new general. Underworld has always benefited from some colorful supporting characters, and this is one of Blood Wars‘ biggest flaws. Aside from an all-too-brief role for Charles Dance and an intriguing but entirely unexplored Nordic coven, the cast around Beckinsale is dismal. When Theo James is your strongest cast asset, things have grown dire. Both the leader of Selene’s old coven (Laura Pulver) and the Lycan general Marius (Tobias Menzies) are horrible actors and that’s just the beginning of the movie’s woes.
The film’s plot is absolutely incoherent. At 91 minutes it’s not like they didn’t have time to try to add some connective tissue to uninspired battles. They would have been wise to do so, because the film clearly had a diminished F/X budget that made some moments laughable, but the biggest victim were the Lycans. The werewolves of Underworld have always had a unique look, the series started using mostly practical effects with their Lycans, which gave them an old-school monster feel. Here, it’s all clearly very cheap CGI and it just looks bad. The film’s worst transgression, though, is it’s treatment of Selene.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that Selene gets the tar kicked out of her the entire film, being beat down by every foe she faces. She’s not even really the central character of the film; Theo James’ David has a clearer storyline than Selene who spends the whole film pining for her daughter, Eve, a storyline which this supposed final film doesn’t even come close to resolving. This is a far cry from the Death Dealer who first grabbed our attention with her monster slaying acumen in the first film. Clearly the franchise is intended to go on (or this is the dumbest ending for one I can think of), but such damage is done to her character in this installment, and the most dramatic changes she undergoes completely unexplained, that I can’t imagine even series die-hards like me will be interested in a sixth installment.
Squandering what made the series a guilty pleasure, Underworld: Blood Wars is, by far, the weakest entry, and most likely the last given the box office competition it faces this weekend and in future weeks. It’s an anemic, poorly written, directed, and acted shadow of the best of the series and only worth a rental by fans who want to see if it’s as bad as all that (it really is). Not a great start to 2017, but I’m sure there’s far, far better awaiting us.