Tuesday 20 December 2016

Underworld: Blood Wars (2016) - Movie Review

Underworld, as a series, confuses me. For something so obviously derivative and soaked in now-anachronistic nu-metal tinting, it has kept on the fringe layer of the popular consciousness since it first came to theatres over a decade ago. And yet, while I don’t out-and-out love the franchise as it stands, I don’t have a whole lot of hate for it either. It takes itself way the hell too seriously and the acting can range from decent to hilariously hammy, but the way it actually tries to have a semblance of lore and mythos surrounding the story is oddly commendable, as cobbled together as it is. So, just getting it out there that I have a base-level appreciation for the series; keep that in mind as I get into this thing because… this is a special kind of film, and not in a good way.

The plot: Selene (Kate Beckinsale), on the run from both the vampires and the Lycans, is nonetheless still embroiled in the centuries-long war that the two sides have been fighting in. With news reaching the covens that the Lycans are now mobilizing their forces under the leadership of Marius (Tobias Menzies), Selene’s closest ally David (Theo James), on request from his father Thomas (Charles Dance), asks her to return to the coven and help train their forces to fight off a potential Lycan assault. However, as is always the case with Selene, she once again finds herself fighting off enemies on all sides and she may end up paying the ultimate price.

Since it technically fell under my purview, and I watched it recently in preparation for this film, I want to quickly go over the last Underworld film Awakening. Awakening, for as embarrassingly short as it was, honestly felt like a breath of fresh air for the series by introducing a new element to the series: How do the humans react to the war of the immortals? Just by including that small element, and furthering the racial conflicts that had built up over the first three films, it showed a certain inventiveness that the series dictated by heel-turns and video game-style power-ups honestly needed. Of course, that did come at the price of pretty much erasing a large amount of what came before it, thanks to a now 12-years-displaced Selene, but ultimately it was a nice appetiser of a film.

Smash cut to today’s film and we’re back to business as usual, only worse. Where Awakening put far less emphasis on the few nuanced elements of the series up to that point, like the enslavement origins of the Vampire-Lycan war, this film is outright stripped of them. It doesn’t even follow up on the human interaction from the last film, pushing a thematic reset button to bring things back to the status quo. I’d almost call it a complete reset button, considering how much this film seems to rely on us not remembering whatever good came before, but that would clash with this film’s now-egregious re-use of footage from past instalments. Almost always done for easy plot exposition, and even then several moments get repeated on-screen, it just feels like the story is spinning its wheels. This isn’t helped by the fact that, once again, we’re dealing with a plot full of betrayal and plot twists that, while occasionally passable in terms of setup, end up feeling like subterfuge for its own sake. Even Mission: Impossible isn’t this one-note.

How about the more visceral elements of the film, like the action beats? Well, they’re admittedly well done and can be quite fun at times. Of course, when the kill moves reach legitimate Mortal Kombat fatality levels of graphic, it’s kind of difficult not to react in some fashion to it; usually, it’s some variation of “Damn, son!”. The effects work, while doing a decent enough job with the blood, guts and spinal columns that get thrown around in combat, are still having the same issues that they did back in the beginning: The Lycan transformations. The CGI here is still some of the all-time worst I’ve seen in a mainstream production, not helped by how the transformations are depicted with Marius who seems to retain parts of his humanity while in wolf form. What results from this is PS2-era fidelity that can make the fight scenes even more cartoonish. And bear in mind that we have a moment that looks pulled right out of Sharknado where David kills one of the Lycans by slicing it in half while it’s in mid-air.

This film has a lot of structural problems to it, from the numerous cases of conveniently forgetting what the series has established in terms of how their world works to the plot twists that don’t make as much sense as the film thinks they do, right down to just your garden-variety plot holes that show the writer not thinking clearly enough on the right things. However, what really ticks me off about all this is that all of these issues? There actually is a reason why they are here: To keep the story going. Not the story of the film itself, mind you; any film that ends with a 10+ minute end credit roll clearly doesn’t care about creating its own complete story in a single sitting. No, I mean that this is all here to keep the series’ story going.

Everything minute about the film is made insignificant because, if they weren’t there, the story would just stop and the studio wouldn’t be able to continue milking this franchise, and its fans, for all they’re worth. In a series where our main character is so repeatedly turned on and betrayed, if the filmmakers had any real-world sense, she would join the Nordic coven in solitude and never interact with the war again. But that will never happen. There have been lazy cash-in sequels before, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film be so blatant about not only its own film’s existence but its clear intent on making more; it’s the ugliest example of a franchise property I’ve seen.

All in all, it takes something truly terrible to make me actively feel buyer’s remorse about feeding into the studio system. While there are a couple of interesting moments, mostly to do with over-the-top gore spectacle in the fight scenes, this is so hollow, so riddled with obvious narrative issues, so incredibly vapid of a piece of work that I genuinely feel bad for having paid money to see it. In fact, I feel so ashamed of doing so that I am placing my first-ever boycott: If another Underworld film is released, I abjectly refuse to see it in cinemas. I am not going to further the mindset that these filmmakers can put in such basic effort and expect to be rewarded for it.

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