(by Dustin Putman
Gothically sumptuous visuals and a dramatically corpsy story are how 2003's "Underworld" and 2006's "Underworld: Evolution" both played their hands, the notion of a war between vampires and lycans (read: werewolves) squandered by distinct underdevelopment and a stale romance between leather-clad, centuries-old bloodsucker Selene and rapidly transforming hybrid Michael. With 2009's chintzy, ugly, direct-to-video-level prequel "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans" all but burying the franchise—not even Beckinsale returned—it was assumed the series had finally exhausted itself. With its original lead star once again back in the saddle, however, studio Screen Gems has resurrected the thought-dead and reclaimed the valiance of mediocrity in fourth installment "Underworld: Awakening." Former series frontrunner Les Wiseman, along with co-writers John Hlavin, J. Michael Straczynski (2008's "Changeling") and Allison Burnett (2009's "Fame"), have done a good enough job at the onset getting viewers up to speed with what's come before—because, let's face it, these movies are terminally forgettable in their middle-of-the-roadness—then fall back on old, discouraging ways following a promisingly spiky first act. Article continues below
When last seen, Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and Michael (played in quick shots by an unconvincing body double standing in for AWOL Scott Speedman) ran away together after wiping out what they thought was the last of her Elders. Alas, their happiness is squashed by the worldwide discovery that non-humans, vampires and werewolves alike, walk amongst them. Martial law is declared and a cleansing takes place, homicides between people replaced with the eradication of both newly-discovered species. Torn apart from her thought-killed love and then blacking out, Selene suddenly comes to and breaks free from a 12-year cryogenic freeze at Antigen Laboratories. On the run from mad scientist Dr. Jacob Lane (Stephen Rea), who hopes to keep her escape under wraps, and Detective Sebastian (Michael Ealy), who has evidence to the contrary, she soon receives a helping hand from empathetic vampire David (Theo James) and a suspicious coven led by Thomas (Charles Dance) to hide within. Selene's battle is about to become a whole lot more personal, though, when she discovers that 12-year-old hybrid Eve (India Eisley) is not only equally in danger—she was "Subject #2" at Antigen, responsible for setting her free—but also her daughter.
"Underworld: Awakening" gets a pair of new directors in Swedish filmmakers Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein, but really they just seem to be aping the doom-and-gloom-and-very-little-substance style of Len Wiseman. Recapturing the budget and production values of the first two pictures while saying sayonara to the creaky, dirt-cheap, interior-heavy aesthetics of the third, the film takes off running immediately and, for a half-hour or so, squeaks past lowered expectations as Selene's new plight is established. The vision of a slightly in-the-future world where vampires and lycans have become the hunted is only cursorily explored, but it does add a vaguely political undercurrent to a series that thus far has had no currents of any sort. Fleet pacing and some adequately handled action, like an attack on Selene's getaway van by three monstrous hybrids, leave one wondering if this might be the movie to turn the underachieving "Underworld" around.
Instead, it loses its way just when it should be getting taken to the next level. Selene's ongoing struggles and questionable ethics—she brutally kills the lab assistant (Wes Bentley) who helped her to escape moments before—feel like also-rans. She's not the softest or most likable of heroines, either, even when Eve accuses her of being "cold" and she responds, "My heart is not cold, it's broken." Well, yeah, and maybe a little cold. What should be the emotional center of the film—the relationship between Selene and the daughter she never knew she had—offers no time for sentimental bonding sessions. The best Selene can offer is the squeeze of Eve's hand. In her reprisal of a role that has consistently been beneath her even as it has become one of her most iconic, Kate Beckinsale (2012's "Contraband") shimmies seamlessly back into Selene's skin-tight S&M garb, this time occasionally offset by the hilarious wearing of a pea coat overtop her leather duds. Beckinsale looks really cool cracking skulls and blowing people to smithereens, but there's not much more to her than surface coolness. The rest of the cast is serviceable, but not worth mentioning. Many of them deserve better than this, and they know who they are.
Ceaselessly gloomy and slick with rain, the metropolis that "Underworld: Awakening" is set in is the type which must conserve energy (why else does the office where Detective Sebastian work have no overhead lights and only a tiny lamp on each desk to illuminate their way?). While the city is busy being environmentally conscientious, the film careens out of control as the needlessly confused plot keeps tossing characters—some allies, some villains—Selene's way. Keeping track of which ones are vampires, which ones are lycans, which ones are hybrids, which ones are human, and what each individual motive is for helping or harming our immortal lady protagonist is too much work for no payoff. The climax is but a swirl of nonsense, bereft of the energy of the first thirty minutes, by-the-numbers in its fight choreography, and leading not to an ending so much as to an excuse to cut to closing credits. All things considered, "Underworld: Awakening" is at least on par with its predecessors. By the fourth go-around, it ought to be striving for more than average.