Underworld: Unrated Extended Cut DVD Review
Written by Eric Strauss
DVD released by Columbia/Tristar
Directed by Len Wiseman
Written by Danny McBride
2003, Region 1 (NTSC), 134 minutes, Unrated
Kate Beckinsale as Selene
Scott Speedman as Michael
Michael Sheen as Lucian
Shane Brolly as Kraven
Erwin Leder as Singe
Bill Nighy as Viktor
Watching a movie is an experience, and every viewer has something that can make that experience enjoyable.
For some people, a good movie makes them think. It leaves them talking for hours afterward. It draws out the emotions they keep inside.
Underworld is not the movie for those people.
Underworld is a movie for people who find joy in the sheer beauty of film, for those who can look past its flaws and appreciate what it has to offer: Striking visuals and visceral action.
But despite its lush, blue-tinted style, this big-budget action/horror film will be remembered more for the potential it wasted than the look it achieved.
Because this is a movie about a war.
Vampires vs. werewolves.
Say that again.
Vampires vs. werewolves.
A centuries-old war between nightmare creatures in its waning days, fought in the underbelly of a modern, gothic city. A horror fan’s dream.
But far too often, that dream goes wrong.
Strong dialogue could make sense of a convoluted plot. But the dialogue is drab. Good acting could redeem weak dialogue. But the acting is wooden. A strong plot could carry lesser actors. But the plot is confusing. A vicious circle, like the full moon, shapes whatever might have been into a raging monster.
Powerful. Spectacular. Mindless. Out of control.
And that relegates Underworld to the realm of horror failures — this one more painful than most.
Because, my God, is Underworld gorgeous. Cast in hues of blue, silver, black and blood red, the visuals are almost indescribably stunning. And the action is a perfect fit: Leather-clad gunslingers with liquid-silver ammunition and piercing blue eyes. Growling, glowering “Lycan” beasts stalking their prey. Every scene, there is color. Every scene, there is beauty. But then, inevitably, someone speaks, and the image director Len Wiseman has crafted is shattered.
First, half of screenwriter Danny McBride’s lines feel like exposition to explain the plot. And while his heart is in the right place — the chaotic story he crafted with Wiseman and actor Kevin Grevioux certainly needs some explaining — the sights and thrills can be enjoyed without the clutter.
And then, Wiseman’s substance fails his style. In his first feature film, the director shows someone with his art and commercial/video background can easily craft a great visual (with help from director of photography Tony Pierce-Roberts) and build an edge-of-your-seat action sequence. But he cannot lift his cast above the level of their material.
Wiseman’s actors, led by Kate Beckinsale (Pearl Harbor) as the death-dealer vampire Selene, are as beautiful as the film. But not one demonstrates more than three facial expressions, the most prevalent being “confused” — apparently, to match the audience.
Beckinsale, who has plenty of talent, is like the little girl with the curl in this performance: When she is good, she provides what little subtlety there is to the film, but when she is bad, her range is limited to “defiant” and “frustrated.” Meanwhile, Scott Speedman, whose human Michael is the Romeo to her Juliet, chooses simply “dazed.” Other major players — including Michael Sheen and Shane Brolly as the leaders of the warring clans — try “determined,” “imperious” and even “startled” with varying degrees of success, but none masters the nuances that might have saved the film.
Among the supporting cast, at least Sophia Myles, playing Selene’s pouting rival Erika, has “conniving” down to a science. Combine that with her arresting looks, and she can claim a memorable supporting turn. So, too, can Grevioux, whose menacing build and shockingly deep voice make his Raze the most ferocious of the Lycan horde.
To his credit, Wiseman uses his actors’ strengths to best advantage in many of his setpieces. The attractive Beckinsale (who left Sheen, her real-life love, for the director) wears her leather well, making her the literal poster child for the movie. Scott McElroy, who plays the right-hand man to Brolly’s vampire Kraven, puts his sneer to good use when he breaks out a pair of whips to duel Raze. And if Sheen drew any benefit from losing the love game, it is that he can play “rueful” well, so the Lycan chief Lucian garners sympathy at the end, when he needs it most.
But these moments of brilliance, these moments of poetic violence and freeze-frame grace, never serve the greater whole. And that is the movie’s greatest flaw.
There are some movies that just demand to be seen. Underworld takes that literally. It is the textbook definition of a feast for the eyes, as gorgeous a film as any that has appeared in recent years. It is a movie made for DVD, the pause button and high-definition televisions.
Sadly, that’s the only reason horror fans should consider this film — unless they’re masochists who want to think of the concept and ponder what might have been.
Movie grade: C-. By one way of thinking, Underworld is tough to beat. It has style, period. No doubts whatsoever. But all too often, the movie is just a beautiful, empty shell.
Video and Audio:
Underworld’s highly stylized images test the limit of the DVD medium and the equipment used to watch it. And 90 percent of the time, the picture is exactly what it demands: Razor-edge sharpness, deep blacks, vivid colors.
The problem is the other 10 percent. First of all, the source material has grain and spots that lend a film-like look, but stand out when compared with some clean, reference-quality transfers. And even if that look is intentional, there are times when Underworld stretches technology past its limits: some blacks don’t quite hold up; some red-hued scenes jar. These are minor flaws, and they are, ironically, made more apparent by the quality of theremainder of the film.
Unlike those in some compiled-for-DVD extended cuts, however, the added scenes are blended seamlessly, and don’t stand out.
Video grade: A-. Not quite perfect, but it still looks so good...
If Underworld’s picture falls just short of the ideal, the 5.1 surround track hits that mark dead on. Bullets fly throughout the film, and when they do, the sound of the gunfire rips around the speakers, just as the creators of surround sound intended. Music and effects are used well; dialogue is crisp and clear.
This is a surround mix that lives up to the name in every way. Underworld is an enveloping aural experience.
A French audio track and English and French subtitles are available.
Audio grade: A+. Reference-quality sound, just as it should be for a recent major release on a high-profile DVD.
The main extras on disc one of the two-disc set are an audio commentary with Wiseman, Beckinsale and Speedman and the 45-minute “Fang vs. Fiction” featurette.
The commentary is a typically good-humored group reminiscence, but the three have a great time and manage to convey quite a bit of behind-the-scenes information amid the jokes and ribbing. Speedman actually leaves part way through because he has an audition, but Wiseman and Beckinsale carry on without him. The pair actually convey more information in the second half — no doubt attributable to the chemistry that eventually made them husband and wife. (It should be noted that, however the off-camera love-triangle played out, the two are highly complementary of Sheen’s performance.) And they are certainly pleased with the finished product, speaking eagerly about the upcoming sequel.
“Fang vs. Fiction” is not so much about the movie as the ideas that inspired it. It is actually a pseudo-documentary that takes a “real-world” look at the vampire and werewolf legends, featuring authors, science, the obligatory clips from the film and even a fellow who claims to be a werewolf. There is a lot of interesting information, but the stance that the undead are real and the overblown ties to the film leave plenty of doubt as to what is actual history and what is simply used for effect.
The first disc also includes the trailer, which shows the best side of the movie; two TV spots (one of which looks awful); a short, typically funny outtakes reel; and trailers for three other high-gloss releases: Hellboy, Resident Evil: Apocalypse and Spider-Man 2.
The second disc is where the seven featurettes focused on the movie itself are found: “The Making of Underworld,” “The Visual Effects of Underworld,” “Creature Effects,” “Stunts,” “Designing Underworld,” “The Look of Underworld” and “Sights and Sounds.” Fortunately, there is a “play all” option, and that essentially turns the 10- to 15-minute clips into a 95-minute documentary.
Though there is padding — several sets of intros and credits, plus plenty of fairly repetitive film footage — there are also many interviews with the cast and crew and glimpses behind the scenes. The featurettes, except the general “Making of,” are heavily focused on the actual production of the film and, given the movie’s style, that is a real plus.
The visual and creature effects featurettes may be the most interesting, giving an inside look at what may have been Wiseman’s best decision: to use prosthetics and high-tech suits for his werewolves, rather than computer graphics, which lends a terrific edge to his creatures throughout the film. In addition, the CGI is excellent where used, allowing such important scenes as werewolf transformations to blend seamlessly with the live action.
The stunts featurette is also a real attention-getter, highlighting the work done by Brad Martin and his team, including assistant and erstwhile actor McElroy, who trained Beckinsale, and was one of several stuntmen to land a supporting role. “Designing Underworld” spotlights production designer Bruton Jones, while “The Look” focuses on veteran Merchant-Ivory cinematographer Pierce-Roberts (The Dark Half) and the digital desaturation process that gives the film its blue tint. “Sights and Sounds” may be the most fun, as it consists entirely of raw behind-the-scenes footage.
Storyboard comparisons for five action sequences and a music video for Finch’s “Worms of the Earth” round out the second disc.
In terms of features, there is quite a difference between this release and the earlier DVD of the theatrical cut. The extended version’s single commentary features different participants from the two on the earlier release (other than Wiseman). And the original disc included only four of the Underworld-related featurettes, plus the trailer and TV spots, the storyboards and music video (and a somewhat different set of extra trailers). The only letdown is, of course, that the original commentaries couldn’t be utilized somehow.
The extended cut — which Wiseman is quick to point out is not a “director’s cut” — adds many short scenes, more back-story for some characters and added gunplay in an action sequence. There is also a bigger role for the Erika character (a plus for the movie), including a brief sex scene with Kraven that is so crisp visually, you can tell Sophia Myles has covered her nipples for filming.
As far as A/V goes, the two releases are virtually identical.
Features grade: A-. A strong all-around package; the added behind-the-scenes featurettes make up for the loss of the two commentaries on the original disc.
I want to love Underworld. I am one of those people who can appreciate the sheer accomplishment that is a great-looking film. Stylish, stylized gunslingers are why I watch movies, and in Underworld, even the bullets look good. I love the stark beauty of vampires and the grim menace of werewolves, and Wiseman and his cast capture both.
Yet in the end, all this film has is a look. And this isn’t the 1980s anymore. In today’s Hollywood, mainstream horror films get big budgets and have big production values. So a look just isn’t enough.
Overall grade: C+. Underworld is a striking film, and this 2-disc set has some terrific extras; it’s a shame the first words that spring to mind are “but...” and “if...”