Anna Foerster’s “Underworld: Blood Wars” (2017)

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Selene (Kate Beckinsale) models the Death Dealer Winter Line. Image source: comingsoon.net

Trigger Warning: this review discusses a film from the Star Wars universe in an unfavorable lightSorry, everybody.

My fanfare for 2003’s Underworld can be boiled down to three major points:

  1. the cool, sleek look director Len Wiseman employed for his tale of a war between vampires and werewolves (dubbed “Lycans”);
  2. the cool, sleek poster that took up some wall space in my off-campus apartment;
  3. the fact that the soundtrack debuted the first new Skinny Puppy song after their dissolution in 1996

Was it a particularly deep movie? No. But it was fun in its own faux-grandstanding way.

I’ve been out of the Underworld loop for some time, having abandoned the series after 2006’s Evolution. As an experiment, I decided to check out the latest entry as a potential bit of low-expectation, brain-on-the-shelf fun.

But even with expectations properly tempered to the low expectations of the January dumping ground, Blood Wars still comes off as an immense disappointment.

Directed by Anna Foerster (TV’s Outlander), who has an eye for garish yet relentlessly dreary costumes and sets, the film is firmly hardwired to the dramatic template of the previous series entries, while not bringing anything distinctive to the fore.

If Blood Wars has a corollary (outside of countless other cash-grab sequels), it is, ironically, last year’s Rogue One. Both films are as ornately-designed as their budgets will allow, yet bleak in their look (one favors a monochromatic blue-gray color scheme; the other looks to earth tones to convey oppression); both have relatively simple plots made needlessly convoluted by reams of exposition and would-be profound speechifying; neither does anything new or special with their female leads (at their worst, gender is used to float the notion of “strong female characters” without actually giving them any dimension); and both are afflicted by villains doing villainy things for the least interesting reasons (one wants the increased power of a Lycan-vampire combo; the other wants the bragging rights that come from perfecting a world-destroying mega-weapon).

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Marius (Tobias Menzies) does that CG transformation thing. Image source: cgmeetup.net

To that end, Blood Wars introduces its BigBad, Marius, with a sense of cheesy, art-directed intrigue: a tracking shot from behind as he enters a train-car command center, only to reveal a droopy-faced guy with a death-metal hairdo. He may have a name pulled from Metalocalpyse, but as played by Tobias Menzies (another Outlander veteran), Marius is more ’90s grunge refugee than Scary Force To Be Reckoned With. Needless to say, his underlings don’t fare much better in the intimidation department.

The film begins with Selene (Kate Beckinsale, looking as ageless as her character) explaining, via helpful flashbacks, what’s happened up to this point. I wasn’t expecting this, but was kind of grateful in that it saved me some legwork in watching (or Wikipedia-ing) the Underworlds I missed. As she rather hilariously puts it, “I’m a pariah; an outcast” for giving birth to a vampire-Lycan daughter; but she’s pulled back into action to train a new squad of Death-Dealers to fight Marius’ growing forces. The plot involves double-crosses, resurrection, and more religious allusions than your typical Mel Gibson film (including a bloody battle at a mountaintop monastery).

Since its inception, Underworld has longed to be action-horror for sophisticates – or people who don’t really like horror, but maybe like The Crow. Eloquent actors like Bill Nighy and Charles Dance lend credibility that is subsequently dashed by the overachieving dialog (there’s a fine line between articulate flourish and flat-out pretension), and the films long to fuse a Shakespearean framework to the badass thrill of chicks in tight leather going bloody ballistic on CG werewolves. But Blood Wars‘ screenplay (by Kyle Ward, who co-conceived the story with Cory Goodman) is clunky and uneconomical; for a film that runs 90 minutes, it frequently stops dead in its tracks so characters can narrate the action, or highlight their shallow thoughts and emotions to the point of absurdity.

On the plus side: the number of costume changes vampire matriarch Semira (Lara Pulver) goes through is pretty hilarious.

For as low-budget efficient as the effects are, and for as much as Beckinsale gives the lousy script her all, it all culminates in a vampire/Lycan showdown that smacks of tedium. Five films in, and the writers haven’t moved past the UV bullets that were kinda cool in 2003, and the rambling feud these characters are engaged in. It’s all so much pomp and circumstance for a franchise that doesn’t really deserve it.

Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 3 out of 10