Vampires. Werewolves. A neverending blood feud. To the untrained eye, it would appear that I’m talking about box-office success and critical failure Twilight. Nay, faithful readers, every man has his limits. The movie in question this week is 2003’s Underworld, in which Death Dealer/vampire Selene (Kate Beckinsale) finds herself falling for new Lycan (werewolf) recruit Michael (Scott Speedman).
On paper, it’s easy to see why someone might not like Underworld. It sells itself as a supernatural romance/action movie hybrid. In reality, poor Len Wiseman and his faithful cast and crew are selling themselves short. Underworld is a movie that has so much more to offer than a skintight leather-clad Beckinsale. The fact of the matter is, Underworld is a legitimately smart film, one that is so much more than the typical vampire vs. werewolf fare that is becoming all too common nowadays.
That was Underworld’s first problem. Vampires have a fanbase as undying as they are. There’s always been space for them in the neverending schlock-fest of American cinema. The only problem is they didn’t have the box office potential that they do now. Underworld made a meager $52 million (roughly) when it was first released. Five years later, Twilight would go on to make over $192 million. But I’ve never been one to judge a movie by its earnings. Money is never a good indicator of quality.
Then again, neither are critics. Why should you even bother reading the rest of what I have to say, since I myself am a critic? Well, just bear with me. Again, compared to Twilight (which holds a 49% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), Underworld holds a mere 31%. Twilight teaches young girls the value of co-dependence and to reward stalking behavior, even if he straight up tells you that he wants to eat you. What does Underworld teach? Well, I’m glad you asked. One of the many charms of Underworld is its female lead, Selene.
Despite the obvious sex appeal of the character, she is never diminished. She looks good and kicks ass. Hell, the looking good part isn’t even that important. Furthermore, while the Bella Swans of the world are defined by the men in their lives, Selene defines herself in opposition. In a clearly structured vampire hierarchy, Selene is unafraid of her elders and dares to challenge them in her pursuit of the truth. Sure, Underworld throws in the romance angle because, hey, it’s Hollywood and sex sells, but that’s not entirely the point. To borrow from the great Bard, Selene’s journey is to try and find out what is rotten in the state of Denmark. Okay, well, maybe not Denmark exactly, but you get the point.
While some may roll their eyes, I’ve always felt that there is something decidedly Shakespearean about Underworld. Yes, there is the obvious “forbidden love” angle. Supposedly, the film was originally pitched as “Romeo and Juliet with vampires and werewolves.” But that’s not even what I’m talking about. Forbidden love abounds in the film world. No, I’m talking about the seedy underbelly of Underworld. I’m talking about the power struggle between Kraven (Shane Brolly) and Selene. I’m talking about the warring clans, led by Kraven and Lucian (Michael Sheen). The film is filled with allusions to blood ties and loyalty to one’s family, followed by betrayal by one’s family and secret backroom dealings between the Death Dealers and the Lycans. These are all themes that populate unforgettable entries in Shakespeare’s canon like Hamlet or even Henry VIII. Underworld is a shockingly rich text when it comes to Shakespearean themes, and much smarter than it lets on.
But, after all, this is a movie we’re talking about. It can be deep and thought-provoking, but that won’t count for much if it doesn’t have the look down. Luckily, Underworld is almost operatic in its scope and grandeur. The opulent extravagance of the aristocratic Death Dealers in shocking juxtaposition to the gritty, animal-like savagery of the Lycans is just one of the many examples of Underworld taking its themes to heart. Even the blue tint that permeates the film provides a rich visual for its audience.
Sadly, Underworld has been criminally neglected since 2003. Since then, the rise in vampire movies has grown exponentially with the popularity of Twilight. But if you ask me, Underworld has a lot more to offer. It’s timeless in its themes and progressive in its treatment of its heroine. Unfortunately, these qualities seem to be lost on a majority of critics who simply ravaged the film upon its release.