“Where’s Michael?” shouts warrior vampire Selene (Kate Beckinsale) urgently in the trailer for “Underworld: Awakening,” the fourth film in the other vampire/werewolf franchise. “Who’s Michael?” muses a large portion of the audience, presumably a little less urgently, in reply. Because while the ‘Underworld’ films undoubtedly have their appeal — you don’t goose your way beyond a trilogy without some kind of following making it financially enticing — they really don’t inspire the kind of widespread fandom that might immediately make the average moviegoer clutch their heart in worry over the fate of Selene’s hybrid werevamp macguffin boyfriend.
For yes, that’s who Michael is, a character played in chapters 1 and 2 so forgettably by Scott Speedman, that it appears he forgot to come back at all for this installment. Instead he is played in his few scenes by Some Other Dude, who doesn’t really resemble Speedman that closely, but is only ever seen underwater or upside down or at the epicenter of an explosion, so it hardly matters. “Underworld: Awakening” which returns to the primary timeline after 2009’s prequel ‘Rise of the Lycans,’ is full of these cheap tricks and shortcuts, but you know what? Presumptuous trailer aside, it is a film that sets its sights low, knows its place and unpretentiously achieves pretty much all its modest ambitions. And it’s mercifully, gloriously short.
This is not to say it’s any good — it’s really not — but it doesn’t overpromise and therefore can’t underdeliver: there’s enough here to keep the small core of diehard fans interested in the evolving mythology, and enough moderate to gleeful violence and slo-mo shots of Kate Beckinsale slinking around in a flappy coat to keep the rest of us mildly engaged for 88 minutes.
The film starts out, as did previous outings if memory serves, with an almost apologetic expositionary voiceover from Selene: a kind of tacit admission that the filmmakers don’t actually expect very many people to have committed this hokum to memory. So in a couple of brisk minutes we’re brought up to speed on centuries of vampire vs lycan (werewolf) vs human history and the pertinent plot highlights of previous films, all the while resting our eyes on blue-tinted images of Selene standing on the edges of things and kicking ass. It all feels so familiar as to be almost restful, but maybe that is the calming omnipresent blue filter. Prologue over, we skip ahead 12 years to an uncomprehending Selene escaping from a cryogenic container in some sinister lab, with the help of an unseen fellow escapee, Subject 2, whom she assumes to be Michael. It’s around now that the film hits us with the first of its devastating casting surprises… Wes Bentley! No really, he’s in this! Despite, as of today, not showing up on the film’s IMDB page, there he is, large as life for exactly two scenes until [oh fine, if we must: SPOILER ALERT] a thing happens involving a high window.
Anyway Selene stops only briefly to kit herself out with the first of two flappy coats, and is once again on the run from lycans and humans and desperate to track down…all together now…Michael. At this point she teams up with the absurdly model-like David (Theo James), a handsome vampire at loggerheads with his powerful father played, in the second bit of “huh, would you look at that?” casting, by Charles Dance. (Dance here continues the long illustrious line of respected British actors — Bill Nighy, Derek Jacobi, Michael Sheen — to have graced this franchise. Brits are just so vampirey, right? Maybe it’s the dentistry). But when Selene tracks down Subject 2 and discovers it’s in fact a young girl, not-terribly-difficult-to-answer questions abound: Who is she? What is she? And, ye Gods, where IS Michael?
Also along for the ride are good cop Sebastian, played by Michael Ealy, Stephen Rea as the duplicitous head scientist of a shady research corporation, and, in what has to be the casting coup of the century, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin as his son. Ok fine, it’s actually an actor called Kris Holden-Reid but, man, is he a ringer for mild-mannered macrobiotic Martin, so his role as a bloodthirsty ragewolf villain here gave us a few laughs.
New-to-the-franchise directors Marlind & Stein do a decent enough job within the narrow confines of what’s available to them: CGI is sparingly used, and the action is fluid and comprehensible, if a bit dark at times and very, very blue (seriously, Derek Jarman‘s “Blue” feels less blue than this). And that’s a good thing, because there’s not much else on offer; the characterization is ludicrously thin once again, and everything from the plot points to the production design seems to have been borrowed from somewhere else, often from a source that is itself a knock-off (such is the humility/cheapness of the undertaking, that it feels like it references “Equilibrium” rather than “The Matrix” for example). Overall, it all feels terribly Canadian-for-budget-reasons: the locations and sets are all pretending to be somewhere else (when they’re not entirely anonymous), so you never get a sense of any depth or texture or history in the imagery. It means that even as blood sluices from yet another headwound (is it just us who are unconvinced by the fad for blood spilling from slo-mo gunshot wounds like paint from a can, and prefer old-fashioned splatter?), there is a sterility and an artificiality to the ‘Underworld’ universe that stops it getting any proper purchase on our imaginations.
So yes, “Underworld:Awakening” is largely uninspired — right down to the climax being set in that staple of the cheap action film: a car park — and if it had been even a little more expensive to make, or if they traded on our goodwill for even a minute or two longer in its running time, it would have been unforgivable. But as it is, we’ve scarcely finished wondering about Wes Bentley’s career and the shininess of Beckinsale’s PVC-clad thighs, when we get to watch a hulked-out Chris Martin and his gang take on the kid from “The Ring“and her defenders, and then it’s all over. It manages not to overstay its never-very-effusive welcome, and for that we salute it, if halfheartedly. As the girl from Evanescence croons gothily over the end credits “…don’t waste my time…” and while it kind of does, at least it doesn’t waste that much of it.
In any case, this ‘Underworld’ will trundle along with or without critical approval, as have all its previous incarnations, and will no doubt earn enough back to make “Underworld 5: Dawn of the Rise of the Evolution of the Planet of the Hybrids” a reality, in the franchise-standard three years time. And at that point another handy voiceover prologue will again remind us of everything relevant that we’ve immediately forgotten about this one, so if you have to skip this one in favor of, I don’t know, ironing, then don’t worry that you’ll be all at sea come 2015. For now, the current film is not the sort of thing to inspire a critic to risk many superlatives, but dammit, we’re going to buck the trend: it many not be any good, but “Underworld: Awakening” is undoubtedly the shortest, bluest would-be blockbuster you’ll see all year. [C]