Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Quick Bite

I really like my new sidekick.

After my first "loyal" partner in cinematic crime decided to go all Nightwing and embark on a solo career due to those pesky "irreconcilable differences", I've been forced to go out in search for her potential replacement; the Flixmobile won't drive itself, after all. Well, my Jason Todd (no, that's not her real name) has finally arrived, and so far she seems perfectly suited to the role of following me around to watch films all the time (seriously, what does your sidekick do?). The big reason we've meshed so far is that, like me, she's a total sci-fi and comic book geek. Ask her anything about Babylon 5, Supernatural, or Doctor Doom and there's a good chance she'll be able to tell you the answer. That's why she and I saw Underworld: Awakening this past Saturday: it was HER idea, and my mind was blown. For me, this would be the first revisit to the modern-day vampire action series since 2003's release of Underworld in theaters. Despite some universally poor critical reviews, the film was hugely successful, enough to spawn off an even more disliked and profitable sequel and a prequel that broke records despite not featuring franchise star Kate Beckinsale. This new release (entirely in 3D, since that's apparently the new standard) takes place after the events of Underworld Evolution, promising some interesting, if not entirely original material for the audience to sink its teeth into.

You might want to get rid of that Axe body spray, boys
After Selene's (Beckinsale) actions in the previous films throw the remaining Vampires and Lycans (werewolves, for the uninitiated) into disarray, things pretty much go downhill. After centuries of remaining hidden from the human population, these supernatural creatures suddenly find themselves at war with their nominal food source. The sheer force the living bring down on the undead is staggering, and before long the few Vampires and Lycan left are hidden as deeply as they can to avoid detection. In attempting to leave the city with her hybrid love Michael, Selene and he are discovered and captured. Twelve years later, Selene awakes from cryogenic suspension to a world she barely recognizes, and the ongoing war between three foes has barely abated, leaving Selene to seek a new purpose in her unlife while trying to locate Michael once more.

Yes, the catsuit is back
Another Underworld film, another case of character development hell. Beckinsale is once again playing the role that arguably made her a star (yes, I know Pearl Harbor and Serendipity came out first; do you actually remember her in those?), and she returns to it as though to a second skin. Or second catsuit, whichever one might be tighter. Getting past the part where Beckinsale is indeed quite the visual masterpiece, her command of the role of Selene is the real reason to see this film. Her icy, commanding tone and suave and determined body language take charge and allow the film to successfully revolve entirely around her, a feat few performers can pull off. However, there's little here you haven't seen in her previous outings, and Selene's near-continuous search for Michael undermines her role as a strong woman to be reckoned with. Still, she's easily the strongest part of the film, for good or ill.

I doubt that pea shooter will do much...
It's too bad the rest of the cast has a difficult time keeping up with Becks. The closest in quality are almost polar opposites. Charles Dance plays a Vampire Elder who is distrustful of Selene's presence in the world, and wants to keep hiding until the Vamps can regain the strength they once had. India Eisley is Eve, a mysterious girl who is a hybrid (shares traits of both Vampires and Werewolves) like Michael, whose presence is thankfully explained quickly (if you've sight unseen already guessed where she came from, I guarantee you're right). While Dance is classic British theater and plays the role brilliantly as one, Eisley is far more raw, which allows her some interesting moments that are very different than her regular role on The Secret Life of the American Teenager. But the rest of the cast falls flat, from the young and excitable vampire David, played without conviction by Theo James, to Steven Rea as the film's uninspired antagonist, to Michael Ealy as a human police officer with deeper involvement than he'll let on. None of these characters inspire much in the way of interest, strength or intelligence, and if none of them return in future installments, I'll be quite happy with that.

Pregnant teenagers have NOTHING on this!
Let me just say how bad this movie is... no, I'm well aware how bad Underworld was. However poor you might think the original, at least the stylistic, moody settings and Vampire/Lycan backstory set it apart from a mythology that had been running on fumes of late. All of that is recycled in Underworld: Awakening, but piled on top are retreads of older, better sci-fi themes. The motherhood aspects of Aliens or Terminator 2? Yup, that's there. How about Resident Evil's evil super-corporation? Yeah, that's a major factor. In all, you could probably point to any scene and state what influenced that exact moment and how it was better in the original. It's not all bad, though: give credit to the series for never making an ass-kicking Selene boring, and the copious amounts of blood and gore present are the most realistic seen thus far. So for what it's worth, the serious lack of plot and believability (which would usually be a deal-breaker) are reliably replaced by purely aesthetic enjoyability, thanks to greenhorn directors Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein.

Whatever you do, Kate, don't turn those to your right
After such a successful opening weekend, I wouldn't be surprised if this was not the last time we saw Selene and her bloodthirsty cohorts on the big screen. While it lacks in anything resembling depth or originality, I still had a lot of fun with Underworld: Awakening, and the 3D IMAX theater in which I watched it was the perfect atmosphere to take it all in. It also helps when the person you see a bad sci-fi flick with is also super-excited about what you both have just seen. But even if YOU don't have a loyal, sci-fi-loving sidekick, this film will soothe that nervous tick that only a full-bore action title can cure. It's the #2 film of 2012.

A reminder that this weekend is the Mr. Anderson Awards. Full honors will be posted Saturday, January 28'th, celebrating the best that 2011 had to offer! I hope to see you all there!

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