Film Review: Underworld: Blood Wars (MA15+, USA, 2016) misses its opportunity to reinvigorate the franchise

The Underworld franchise has had its fair share of ups and downs. The first film is considered a fantasy horror thriller vampire/werewolf classic. Heralded for its BAMF female protagonist and thought out vampire/werewolf mythology story, the films that followed in its wake had a lot to live up to.

The second film Underworld: Evolution raised the stakes for our leads and was decent but certainly unable to outshine its predecessor. The third Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans was a decent prequel effort providing more background context for the first two films. However the fourth, Underworld: Awakening, seemed to all come apart at the seams, moving forward 12 years and dropping in a mysterious miracle child connected to Selene.

I held hope that Underworld: Blood Wars might be able to at least pull some of those threads back together and reinvigorate the franchise. I should know better by now that when a franchise gets this long in the vampire tooth it’s probably not worth hoping for quite that much. PSA: this review is spoilery

If you’ve only got a hazy memory of the previous 4 films, we take a trip to the Department of Backstory as narrated by Selene (Kate Beckinsale) in the opening 5 minutes. The most relevant pieces of the previous films necessary to understand the context of this one are shown because it’s been a while between vampires and lycans fighting and seeing Selene ass-kicking so we need to be brought up to speed and fast.

Selene is being hunted by both vampires and lycans because they hate her, and/or also want to know where her abomination of a hybrid vampire/lycan miracle child Eve is. But as Selene tells us, she doesn’t know and yet nobody seems to believe her. The lycans have managed to regroup under a new leader, Marius (Tobias Menzies) on a quest for Eve and her super special blood. David (Theo James) returns to help Selene because he clearly can’t stop stalking her, only to be a poor man’s Scott Speedman and not even gratuitous shirtlessness can help his character. Samira (Lara Pulver, aka Irene Adler from BBC’s Sherlock) is all kinds of wickedly delicious playing a manipulative vampire council member bent on wanting all the power. Of course backstabbing and double-crossing ensues which results in Selene and David trekking to the last vampire coven stronghold in the north. Only there can Selene hopefully put an end to the war between the two species.

The story starts off fairly promising, albeit nothing we haven’t seen before. Lycans VS Vampires, and everybody’s out to get Selene. But for once there’s an opportunity for the story to feel more insular and grounded like the first film did. Even though the pace seems quick, we’re introduced to a small handful of key characters. Then scriptwriters Cory Goodman (The Last Witchunter, Priest) and Kyle Ward (Machete Kills) opt for the tried and true deception and double-cross trope, which of course results in our heroes having to take drastic action to move the plot along. So when Selene and David arrive at one of the last remaining vampire covens that looks like a castle pitched against The Wall from Game Of Thrones I thought we might get to see some special Nordic-like vampires. But really they were much the same as the others, except with white or blond hair and furrier clothing.

It’s pretty much from this point forward that it feels like the writers just give up and start throwing anything at the wall in the hopes it’ll stick. Lena (Clementine Nicholson) one of the northern vampires explains about the Sacred Place and some mystical transcending ceremony only to be rudely interrupted by the lycans attacking; even though not 5 minutes earlier we’d been told lycans never came that far north due to the cold. And then there’s some random sub-plot story about David and how his mother was Amelia (one of the original vampire Elders) and that he is a pure-blood heir to the Eastern coven and he now owns a wicked silver bladed sword. The final battle held in the Eastern Coven stronghold is intense, but ruined by the unnecessary and out of place use of slow motion to try and heighten the broody badassness. And Marius’ death, though obviously necessary for Hollywood reasons, wouldn’t result in the lycans just quitting their fight and strolling out all “Our Alpha is dead so Lycans out, bitches”. It just felt like a lazy cop out from lazy writing to try and quickly wrap up the story. And ironically with a short 91 minutes run time, they still had some time up their sleeve to maybe iron a few of those kinks out.

Despite the lazy script (well the back half of it anyway) the Underworld films have been consistently above par when it comes to their visual and special effects, particularly with their creatures. And this film is yet another in that lineage of well dressed pasty white goth vampires with subtle pointy teeth and electric blue eyes, and raging, furry, excessively salivating, oversized wolf bears annihaliting each other with sprays of gun bullets or wildly hacking with swords and other sharp implements. The fight sequences are a gory messy blur, again nothing new here. So on that front we’re not left disappointed. And stylistically everything else such as the locations, sets, costumes and colour de-saturation definitely resonates with the ethos of the original film. So props to first feature film debut director Anna Foerster (Outlander, Criminal Minds) and her cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub for at least keeping it consistent.

Beckinsale this time gets to bring an occasionally vulnerable Selene to our screens. A character who has lost everything and is just barely holding on to an existence, it’s nice to think that immortals could have an existential crisis too. Once again she is the tentpole to this film (and the franchise) and manages to make it interesting to watch and follow her character’s story arc. Even when the rest of the film might be collapsing all around her. Pulver was also wonderful as the power hungry and batshit crazy Samira, not sure why she seems to excel at being a seductive manipulator but clearly she has nailed that down to a tee.

Menzies, who you might recognise from Outlander, doesn’t really get to shine much as an antagonist until the later half of the film. It’s disappointing really since he plays a great villain in Outlander, and in this film they build him up like he’s going to be some sort of big bad but that never really feels like it comes to fruition. Game of Thrones alum Charles Dance and Merlin actor Bradley James also star, though each of them don’t really have much to do which is a shame since there aren’t really many other name-drop worthy stars in the cast lineup so in some ways they feel a little wasted.

Underworld: Blood Wars was always going to struggle to hold its own not to mention redeem the franchise, the odds were stacked against it from the start. Director Foerster makes the film feel a lot more like the original/first film, and initially keeps it feeling insular. But the lazy scriptwriting especially for the latter half of the film felt like a waste. There was an opportunity for us as an audience to learn more about other vampire covens only to just gloss over it and keep the focus on our heroine and try to quickly wrap things up, despite having plenty of time to expand or elaborate on elements of the story. But at least Selene has a cool new hair-do right?

Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 91 minutes

Underworld: Blood Wars is screening in Australian cinemas from today through Sony Pictures Australia.