An archive review from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · September 19, 2003, 8:27 PM EDT

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on September 19, 2003, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

For anyone who has decried the trend toward comedy in mainstream horror films of late, Underworld can serve as a big “Be careful what you wish for…”. And those who blanched at the film’s advance billing as “Romeo and Juliet with monsters” may find themselves wishing the movie had embraced that theme far more than it does. Humor and passion go badly wanting in Underworld, which has clearly had a lot of energy put into its creation but comes out soulless and mechanical.

Rather than Romeo, the movie’s inspiration is to create a turf war between vampires and werewolves, updating the creatures for a modern sensibility. But director Len Wiseman, scriptwriter Danny McBride and their co-story creator Kevin Grevioux have “reimagined” these beings’ specific appeal right out of the film. Little of the elemental, metaphorical or just plain fun attraction of vamps or “Lycans” (as they’re called here) remains; what’s left is a pair of warring tribes with only the superficial characteristics of the species, who settle all their disputes with gunplay and dress for battle in the now oh-so-familiar black-leather-and-rubber.

The title and opening narration suggest that the two groups have existed for centuries beneath humanity’s radar, yet nothing is done with this idea; after an opening shootout in a crowded subway, almost any trace of a human presence disappears from the story. The exception is Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), a medical student who finds himself hunted by the Lycans and rescued by the vampire “Death Dealer” Selene (Kate Beckinsale). As the war between the groups has heated up, Michael apparently harbors a secret that could tip the scales in the Lycans’ direction, and Selene finds herself forced to protect him not only from the werewolves, but also from her own breed. Michael has been bitten and infected by the Lycan warrior Lucian (Michael Sheen), and the vamps aren’t thrilled about Selene harboring someone doomed to transform into the enemy.

There are plenty of other conflicts and conspiracies going on—the movie is never lacking for incident—and little in the way of genuine emotion. Selene and Michael’s relationship remains “all business,” and the only thing the rest of the creatures are concerned with is their interspecies battle. Surely, after all their centuries on Earth, the bloodsuckers and Lycans would have things to do besides lurking in underground chambers plotting strategy, or making grand entrances (there’s a lot of purposeful striding through doors and across rooms). We don’t even get much of a sense of a true vampire or werewolf “society,” since aside from one or two elder characters, every one of the creatures is in his or her late 20s or early 30s.

Wiseman and McBride could have still gotten away with this limited supernatural worldview had they presented it through the eye of Michael, who knows only of the conflict. But he’s relegated to supporting status, and a mostly acted-upon one at that, leaving the film without a solid identification figure. While Beckinsale looks great in her battle gear and acts with conviction, Selene lacks the emotional core that would truly get the audience on her side. Among the supporting players, Sheen comes off best as the angry, excitable Lucian (no surprise, perhaps, considering Beckinsale left him for Wiseman during the film’s making), Bill Nighy has the right presence and attitude for a resurrected ancient vampire and Grevioux, taking an onscreen role as a Lycan minion, possesses a physical heft and deep, deep voice that will likely get him plenty of action/horror parts in the future. On the other hand, Shane Brolly, playing vampire leader Kraven, tries way too obviously and way too hard whenever he goes into menacing mode.

Underworld does have a good amount of technical polish going for it, and a palpable devotion to its vision, even if the gloomy, monochromatic visuals have now become overly familiar, and that dedication squeezes out the personal touches that a movie like this needs to work. Unlike many other music video veterans, Wiseman doesn’t scramble the action sequences with too-frenzied cutting, but there’s a sameness to them after a while, and more crucially, he hits the same emotional note far too often and far too long. And it would have been nice if, even just once, there was a scene that took place in the sunlight—the movie takes place over a series of days that only appear to have nights. A movie set in an Underworld can only be stronger if there’s an Overhead to compare it to.