Movie Discussion: Len Wiseman’s Underworld (2003)

  • Monthly Theme: Blockbustersunderworld_xlg
  • The Film: Underworld
  • Country of origin: U.S.A.
  • Date of U.S. release: September 19, 2003
  • Studio: Lakeshore Entertainment, et al.
  • Distributer: Screen Gems
  • Domestic Gross: $51.9 million
  • Budget: $22 million (estimated)
  • Director: Len Wiseman
  • Producers: Robert Bernacchi, et al.
  • Screenwriter: Danny McBride
  • Adaptation? No.
  • Cinematographer: Tony Pierce-Roberts
  • Make-Up/FX: Nick Allder, et al.
  • Music: Paul Haslinger
  • Part of a series? Yes. This is the first film in the Underworld franchise, followed by Evolution (2006), Rise of the Lycans (2009) and Awakening (2012).
  • Remakes? No.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? No.
  • Other notables?: Yes. Hollywood star Kate Beckinsale. Character actors Bill Nighy , Michael Sheen and Sophia Myles. TV stars Scott Speedman and Wentworth Miller.
  • Awards?: Cinescape Genre Face of the Future Award [Speedman] at the 2004 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films.
  • Tagline: “This Fall, when the battle begins, which side will you choose?”
  • The Lowdown: The film is set in an unspecified European city (most probably Budapest) in which Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a vampire assassin or “death-dealer,” is caught up in a centuries-long conflict between Lycans (as werewolves are known in this universe) and vampires. It all stems back to a long-ago love affair between the Lycan leader, Lucian (Michael Sheen), and the daughter of vampire leader Viktor (Bill Nighy). Viktor put his daughter to death rather than see her with a Lycan, leading Lucian to wage war against the vampires. A human descendent of a powerful family, Michael (Scott Speedman), is being sought by the Lycans because his blood may hold the key to unknown powers. Along the way, Michael is bitten by both werewolves and vampires, turning him into a powerful hybrid being with immense strength. An extremely convoluted plot unfolds, but it all ends with Michael and Selene (who has learned her human family was slaughtered not by vampires, as she was told, but by Viktor himself) battling against Viktor and his minions. Sued successfully by White Wolf for its similarities to their World of Darkness role-playing universe, Underworld was a huge success and has spawned three sequels (all together grossing over $450 million).

If you haven’t seen Underworld our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Sean: I was shocked when you texted me saying you enjoyed the movie.

Kristine: Sean, I was shocked, too. I will go ahead and rate this movie right now: This movie is dumb but I had fun watching it (and I don’t know why).

Sean: Your inner goth was awakened.

Kristine: It just was fun in some way that fucking Resident Evil was not. How did Kate Beckinsale go from Last Days of Disco to this movie? I guess maybe that Pearl Harbor travesty was the tipping point for her?

Sean: Right? I mean, her last movie before Underworld was that Lisa Cholodenko rich-people-have-problems-TOO fucking piece of shit Laurel Canyon. But I think one of the biggest differences between Resident Evil and Underworld is that the cast in this is first-rate, whereas in Resident Evil it’s a bunch of C-list tv actors… and Milla Jovovich. I mean, Michael Sheen? Bill Nighy?

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 1.25.34 PM
A mullet for your thoughts, sir?

Kristine: Sheen was hilarious. “You’re behaving like a pack of rabid dogs,” he sneered.

Sean: Michael Sheen is awesome and I have a serious mancrush on him. Though his hair in this movie is an abomination.

Kristine: Sheen’s hair… omfg. I can’t believe his agent would allow that hair in his contract. But Bill Nighy. When they first showed him all hooked up to the blood tubes or whatever? I was rolling on the couch, dying.

Sean: That was so Hellraiser, right? It sounds like you watched this as piece of camp rather than as a serious action-horror movie. Is that so?

Kristine:  Yes, I found it to be camp, unquestionably. The vampire lair, with them all lounging around in low-cut evening gowns like, playing the piano, firmly identified it as a camp for me. And the melodramatic flashbacks… and Bill Nighy being ridic… and Beckinsale’s high-heeled boots… and the fact that the most visible “Lycan” was a huge black man (!?!). But I don’t know if I consider Scott Speedman a first-rate actor.

Sean: When I said first-rate I meant Nighy, Sheen and Beckinsale, who are all considered “thespians,” I’d say. Speedman is a mere hunk of manflesh. He is an underwear model. Though I find him smokingly hot with short hair, his ’90s grunge locks in this movie are a total turnoff. I watched a few episodes of Felicity after we watched the movie just out of curiosity (also, Keri Russell is rocking my world on The Americans right now). That show is… I don’t even know.

Kristine: Speedman is not cute in Underworld and the “romance” between him and Beckinsale is the weakest element of the movie by far. There is no indication of any attraction or chemistry between them. 

Sean: I agree and I think there is a weirdly incestuous subtext between them, in that she “mothers” him my making him a werevamp. As a matter of fact, the only hot and steamy chemistry in the movie is between Michael Sheen and Scott Speedman when Sheen has Speedman like, gagged and bound in a sex swing.

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Kristine: It’s true.

Sean: Let the slash fiction commence.

Kristine: Oh I’m sure it all ready exists.

Sean: But back to your point about Raze, the extremely deep-voiced black Lycan… The moment when he squares off against the white vampire who is whipping him with whips? That was some Django Unchained realness right there.

Kristine: It so was.

Sean: But here’s the crazy thing. That actor who plays Raze came up with the whole idea for the movie and collaborated with the director on working out the story. A different writer actually wrote the screenplay, but it was based on his ideas, which he said came from his experiences with inter-racial dating. Can you even believe?

Kristine: Wait a second. So he was like, “And then the vampire whips my character with two steel whips”?

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: This is just too much.

Sean: Also, Beckinsale and Sheen were partnered and have a child together, and then Beckinsale hooked up with Len Wiseman, the director of this movie, and now Wiseman is that kid’s stepfather.

Kristine: Okay, wait. When did Beckinsale and Wiseman hook up?

Sean: Like, the year after Underworld came out. I think they fell in love during this movie. (Just like Milla Jovovich and her Resident Evil director, Paul W.S. Anderson – what is it about these newfangled action movie heroines and their directors?)

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The not-so-glorious glory hole

Kristine: Poor Michael Sheen.

Sean: Nowadays Sheen is like, I love Len and he is a wonderful stepfather to my daughter and I love it all. That is what Sheen said.

Kristine: Did “Len” make Sheen have that hair so Kate Beckinsale would be repulsed by him and look elsewhere for love??

Sean: Yes, that is a fact.

Kristine: It’s true. That’s what happened. “Everybody knows.”

Sean: So Dlisted.

Kristine: I was struck by how much True Blood mythology and aesthetics were apparent in this movie. I mean, I know a lot of it is general vampire mythology and aesthetics in general, but still…

Sean: Just fyi, the Sookie Stackhouse novels were all ready published by the time this movie was made…

Kristine: Ah, okay.

Sean: But, the makers of this movie were sued violently by the kings of vampire LARPing, White Wolf, for stealing from their roleplaying modules and White Wolf won the case..

Kristine: Okay. I was going to say next that my housemate said it was all stolen from Vampire: The Masquerade, some LARP thing. Same people?

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: Why do I love this? But I thought it all came from Raze’s real-life issues with “jungle fever”? So he lied and made it all up based on weird nerdy role-playing games?

Sean: Who knows what the truth is? Only Raze knows.

Kristine: He’s a Raze-in’ in the sun. And probably lying about it.

Sean: He’s Raze-in’ hell with the white ladies, and then keeping careful diaries about the experiences in order to turn them into bondage vampire action movies.

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 1.33.47 PM
Slaveholder of the vampires

Kristine: I just cannot with any of this.

Sean: You can’t? At least you enjoyed the movie. I hated every second of it. I mean, you liking this movie makes me hate it less. But I totally fucking hate this movie. You seeing it as unintentional camp insanity is charming, but I cannot see it that way.

Kristine: Okay, spill.

Sean: I just think it is tediously boring and not fun. I had to like, stab myself with hot razorblades to keep myself awake when we watched it.

Kristine: That’s exactly how I felt about Resident Evil.

Sean: I know you did. And I think Resident Evil is stupid fun.

Kristine: Wow.

Sean: We’re opposites.

Kristine: But but… I can’t even believe this is happening.

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 1.21.10 PM
Blow-up Gothic ninja leather doll

Sean: Me neither. I guess what I think is this: Resident Evil seems retrograde and sexist on the surface, but I think it actually contains subversive and quasi-feminist sentiments, while Underworld seems girl-powery on the surface but I think it’s just all traditional and dumb underneath. This movie should be called Underworld: Daddy Issues. I mean, Selene playing the role of “Viktor’s” surrogate vampy daughter because he like, immolated his real daughter and all of that was just beyond the pale. This whole movie revolves around patriarchs and man-feelings. Viktor and Lucian both are the most emo creatures of the night I’ve ever seen. Selene herself may ostensibly be the lead of this movie, but her feelings matter practically not at all, and her only purpose is to look good in a vinyl cape leaping through the air with a sword and shooting holes in the floor like Aeon Flux. She’s pure spectacle.

Kristine: I would never argue the point that this movie is a feminist triumph, but I do like that Beckinsale actually does things in it. She doesn’t wake up with fucking amnesia and then accidentally discover she has super fighting skills.

Sean: At least Resident Evil is smart enough to write the reason why their lead is a cipher into the script: she has amnesia. Underworld just gives us a cipher and tries to distract us from realizing it by all these anime-inspired action setpieces.

Kristine: Hmmmm. But Selene goes against authority figures, she makes things happen… She makes decisions, which Jovovich’s Alice in Resident Evil never does.

Sean: Like I said, girl power on the surface, Romeo & Juliet underneath.

Kristine: True, the Romeo & Juliet part was super sucky and lame. I can’t argue with that. What did you think of Erika, the blondie vampire, all lurking in the shadows?

Sean: Dumb. The women in this movie are rivals and hate each other. In Resident Evil, they are allies. This movie fails the Bechdel Test, Resident Evil passes it with flying colors.

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 1.39.52 PM

Kristine: That’s what I was going to say. Beckinsale’s Selene is the only badass lady in the movie… All the other vamp chicks are just lounging around, vying for the attention of that gross leader, Kraven. And where were the female weres???

Sean: Totally. Selene is a Daddy’s girl. Also, the Lycans were giant dick monsters. They were designed to be giant monster cocks.

Kristine: Black, hairy giant monster cocks.

Sean: Yes. Also, Alice’s amnesia can be seen as a metaphor for the construction/reinvention of the female subject.

Kristine: Hmmmmmm…

Sean: The only ladypower enjoyment I got in this movie was when Michael is the damsel in distress all tied up in the werelab and Selene rescues him. Other than that, Selene is just a crotch doing backflips.

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 1.42.51 PM
Full Name: Singe Megele Reznor Z. Brite

Kristine: Hmmmmm….

Sean: The thing that really killed me in the movie was the Nazi doctor character. Kristine, they went there.

Kristine: They did indeed.

Sean: And they made him like, lurking around tied up hunks and pulling chunks of metal out of naked dead corpses. It was out of control. Everything in this movie was either from a bondage manual or Mein Kampf.

Kristine: Stop it. I do agree that lots of things were weirdly eroticized in the movie, but I was surprised that Selene herself was actually not more eroticized. I will give both this movie and Resident Evil a very, very slight nod for not hypersexualizing either of their leads further (i.e. no bare tits).

Sean: Yes, I’d say they’re equally eroticized without it being exploitative and blatant. It’s all about lithesome female forms in skintight leather and/or asymmetrical gowns flipping and flopping around.

Kristine: Agreed. So, once again we have a dystopian future where it always rains and everything happens underground, amidst giant pipes and machinery and the like. I am so tired of this vision, Sean. Will Hollywood ever hear my plea?

Sean: Have made a formal plea for them to stop? You sound like Julie Klausner complaining about steampunk.

Kristine: Ha, I haven’t heard that, but I want to. I want to hear more about this White Wolf thing. I think it’s interesting that Resident Evil was straight up adapted from a video game while Underworld was lifted from something unceremoniously. Did the makers of the movie ever openly admit they stole ideas from the LARP game, or did they just go ahead and settle?

Sean: Settlement without disclosure.

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 1.38.28 PM
All tied up and no one to probe

Kristine: And did players of the game revolt and speak out, or was it strictly between the big boys?

Sean: Oh, I don’t know.

Kristine: I want to know.

Sean: I hate it all.

Kristine: Why?

Sean: I hate this movie and I hate these kinds of LARPy vampires. I guess this movie and the whole set of aesthetics it stands for are among my least favorite in the universe. Like, The Crow is a good example. Even The Matrix (a movie I actually like) is guilty of this set of aesthetics. This streamlined, affectless world of leather and slicked back hair. It is so…. fucking empty. I don’t think I have an intelligent argument to make here. Just wild bias and cultural prejudice.

Kristine: I get it, totally. Just for me, I don’t see how it is worse than video gaming culture. I guess (I can’t believe what I am about to say) I see people actually getting together and physically running around in capes pretending to be vampires more imaginative and social than hours of playing a PS3 in a basement somewhere. Sean, I think I am… a LARP defender.

Sean: Uh-oh.

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 1.05.21 PM
Head cheese

Kristine: As my mom would say, “At least they are getting some exercise.”

Sean: I’m sorry I don’t mean to knock LARPing in general. LARP away, says I. But I just hate the aesthetics of this kind of vampirey vinyl catsuit universe. Were I to LARP, it would not be in this kind of a world. I don’t understand how or why anyone would think Selene is “cool” or want to be her or even hang out with her. She’s a self-important cunt.

Kristine: I can’t believe you just called Selene a cunt. But I agree with the rest of what you said whole-heartedly. But how are the aesthetics of this universe that different from any other fucking dystopian future movie we have seen?

Sean: Like what? Like Daybreakers?

Kristine: Sure.

Sean: I hate the concentration camp imagery used in Daybreakers, because that’s exactly the kind of maudlin self-seriousness I hate. But Daybreakers has over-the-top gore and that redeems it. Remember the high-camp bloodfest of all the cops turning all the cops and then them eating the next round of cops and so on and so forth and it was a gore-soaked atrocity and was amazing? This movie is fucking bloodless and I cannot even stand it.

Kristine: Underworld was wildly successful, right?

Sean: Yes. There are books, video games, comics, three sequels, hit soundtracks…

Kristine: By the way, I hated the “prep you for the sequel” ending of the movie. I hate it when any movie does that, with perhaps the exception of Skyfall because James Bond movies are a given franchise.

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Slutty goremouth

Sean: Agreed. So stupid. Were you ever scared by this movie?

Kristine: No.

Sean: I think Michael Sheen looks sort of terrifying with cat eyes and monster fangs.

Kristine: Nope.

Sean: So these movies really take the aesthetics of horror, strip them of all gore and context, and recycle them into bloodless action movie tropes.

Kristine: I agree. I wanted to point out something I found odd that speaks to that statement – how the vampires, despite their ancient superpowers or whatever, still employ militaryesque armed forces to guard them and take care of business. The military aspect is so ever present in both Underworld and Resident Evil. Weird.

Sean: Totally.

Kristine: I mean, if you’re an ancient vampire, shouldn’t you not need a dude with a machine gun guarding you? Rip their throats out, the old fashioned way.

Sean: Part of that, for sure, is just that the movies both draw on the traditions of action cinema. But yeah it is weird. The bullets filled with holy water and liquid silver and shit. “Liquid daylight!” Perfect for the Iraq War generation, don’t you think? Also the Call of Duty generation.

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Steampunk Barbie poses as “The Thinker”

Kristine: Liquid daylight. I bet moms wished they had that to use on their teenage gamer sons, locked in their bedrooms…

Sean: Last time we talked about how Paranormal Activity recycles the tropes of Gothic literature. Well, this movie is obviously steeped in Gothic imagery – the steeples and castles and massive structures, high cliffs, stormy weather, etc. But it does so without any imagination or any reinvention. This movie is just lazy and tired all around. I reject it and everything it stands for, utterly, for all time.

Kristine: Fair enough. Thank god blockbusters month is over. It was tough to get through.

Sean: You hated it.

Kristine: I did. Even the one okay film, Final Destination, did not make me want to see another one in the franchise, ever.

Sean: You were like, ‘Next.’ But didn’t you also have fun watching Underworld?

Kristine: Okay, sure. But only in the context of franchise month. I would never watch or re-watch it by choice.

Sean: Fair ’nuff.

Kristine: I was forced, by the master plan of Girl Meets Freak.

Sean: You are now educated in the tastes of the hoi polloi. You have the framework and the reference points.

Kristine: I guess…

Sean: So elitist.

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 1.31.31 PM

Kristine: No. I love a good blockbuster. But these movies… ugh.

Sean: What is a blockbuster you’ve loved?

Kristine: Skyfall.

Sean: Cuz of James Bond’s balls?

Kristine: Sigh. Also, the Bourne movies. Sex and the City.

Sean: Ok.

Kristine: The Batman movies.

Sean: Ok ok. So you are a populist.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: This movie is dumb but I had fun watching it (and I don’t know why).

The Freak’s Rating: Busted!

Twilight for guys
Twilight for guys

4 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Len Wiseman’s Underworld (2003)

  1. Appreciate all your discussions, BUT – I’m so glad franchise month is over! 😉

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