Underworld: Awakening opens with a good ten minutes or so summarizing (with clips!) what happened in the first two Underworld movies (the third was a prequel, with different characters), and if you thought those movies were belabored and confusing, wait till you see the condensed version. It’s also an odd choice, given that the new film hinges less on plot and more on watching its characters get chased around. True, the new film does follow the story thread roughly where Underworld: Evolution left off, with ass-kicking vampire Selene (Kate Beckinsale) fleeing cryogenic captivity, where she’s been kept by humans for twelve years. She’s accompanied by a mysterious girl named Eve (India Eisley), who it turns out actually has an important role to play in Selene’s life and in the future of the world. Whatever Selene does, she must be sure to protect Eve. Which could be tough, because everybody seems to be after them: Humans, Lycans, werewolves, vampire elders — you name it.
Anyway, Children of Men this ain’t, though the inert directing of Len Wiseman (who helmed the first two films and has a producer credit here) has thankfully been replaced by Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein, who seem to have a lot more verve and even some visual whimsy. The series has opted to go in a more Resident Evil direction: less heavy-handed mythology, more heads exploding. Which is perfect, because one suspects that has always been the fundamental appeal of these movies: watching monsters and people and monster-people get outrageously sliced and diced and shot and blown up in innovative new ways, often in slow-motion.
Oh, and Beckinsale’s outfit. A word, please, on the outfit. Ever since the very first poster for the very first movie, which had her leathered figure looming atop a grim futuristic cityscape, these films have known which side their bread has been buttered on: They’re selling Selene’s suggestive, fanboy-friendly poses as much as they’re selling action or plot or anything else. It was always intriguing to note that Wiseman and she were married; they almost have one of those sixties director-muse things going on, like a Goth variation on Roger Vadim and Jane Fonda in Barbarella. So how ironic then that Underworld: Awakening, the one not directed by Wiseman, seems to spend the most time romantically regarding Selene’s every move. Alas, she’s a cold mistress. As a ruthless Death Dealer whose job for many moons has been to kill other species, Selene isn’t a warm character. (Let’s not forget, she isn’t technically human.) She’s icy and distant and otherworldly, even when she’s confronted with the notion of a family.
The role, which turned Beckinsale into a genuine star nearly a decade ago, initially seemed like an odd career choice for her. She began her career as an effervescent presence in films like Much Ado About Nothing, but she has since embraced Selene’s coldness and opted to keep at these types of films. Still, she can currently also be seen in the Mark Wahlberg movie Contraband, in the somewhat thankless role of a wife in danger, and she makes the part her own; it’s hard not to be compelled by her predicament. But then again, she’s playing an actual human there. One wonders what the Underworld movies would be like if they ever let that kind of vulnerability peek through.