Just as there are different tiers of movie star, so there are different tiers of horror movie franchise. On the A-list are perennial favourites like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and HALLOWEEN series, and popular modern entrants, such as PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and FINAL DESTINATION. Then there’s the other end of the spectrum, the franchises that have never made it big and never will, but refuse to lie down and die. RESIDENT EVIL springs to mind, as does the gloomy, CGI-drenched UNDERWORLD series, which seems to exist purely to showcase Kate Beckinsale in tight leather. The first in the UNDERWORLD sequence, released in 2003, introduced Beckinsale as Selene, a vampiric ‘death dealer’ who is dedicated to destroying the lycans (werewolves to you and me) who killed her family. There was a sequel, EVOLUTION, in 2006, and a prequel, RISE OF THE LYCANS, in 2009 – neither of which, to be blunt, were any good. True to form, three years later another entry has just been released, (pointlessly) subtitled AWAKENING.
Six months after the events of EVOLUTION, the existence of the vampires and lycans has become public knowledge, and a systematic programme of extermination is being carried out by the world’s Governments. Selene finds herself hunted not only by her supernatural brethren but by the human authorities. She evades capture long enough to meet up with her lycan lover, only for them both to be apprehended by the authorities. The next thing Selene knows twelve years have passed and she’s being broken out of a cryogenic storage facility belonging to a research company called Antigen. Lycans are now believed to be extinct, as are all but a few vampires. Selene escapes and a series of strange visions leads her to an abandoned building, where she meets David (Theo James), a fellow vampire, and a young girl, Eve, with whom Selene shares a special bond...
The most galling thing about each successive chapter of the UNDERWORLD saga is the sense of squandered opportunity. Vampires and werewolves are two of the archetypal supernatural horror icons, and have been used to fantastic effect over the years (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, THE HOWLING, NEAR DARK, BLADE 2). Combining them should be a stroke of genius – time and again, however, it’s an exercise in frustration and disappointment. The most interesting part of UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING, and the aspect that sets it apart from previous entries – the revelation that these supernatural creatures exist, and their subsequent persecution by the authorities – is senselessly glossed over by a baffling time jump of twelve years. Instead of an all-out war between humanity and the creatures of the night, we’re presented with yet another clichéd, tedious tale of convoluted vampire lineage and a corrupt pharmaceutical company. The plot makes little sense, and comprises entirely of ideas stolen from better films.
Another lamentable trademark of the UNDERWORLD series is the murky, sub-par CGI, which is as prominent as ever. Wholly unconvincing, and downright clumsy in places, the overreliance on special effects (and special effects that aren’t up the job) makes the whole thing look like an extended video game cut scene. Selene bounces all over the place, defying the laws of physics and contorting herself into ever more improbable positions, at the same time as striking too-cool-for-school sub-BLADE poses while things explode and/or expire in the background. Worse by far are the lycans, who look like big leathery cartoon dogs. When will filmmakers accept that CGI werewolves simply do not work? Soulless and not half as impressive as it thinks it is, AWAKENING’s immersion in computer-generated effects is yet another creative misfire.
Beckinsale is fine (if a little long in the fang these days for such juvenile leather-clad antics), and the rest of the cast manage to spout the cliché-ridden tripe that passes for dialogue without looking too embarrassed. The pace is commendably brisk, and it doesn’t skimp on the violence, with Selene dispatching humans as efficiently as she does lycans, but the relentless kineticism, the camera’s refusal to stay still for even a moment, soon becomes wearing. It’s like Swedish directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein are catering for an audience unanimously afflicted with ADD, and are terrified to slow down for even a moment, in case they get bored. Ironically, the tedious storyline and endless vacuous action scenes are boring in the extreme.
Other than a recognisable brand name and a committed lead actress, AWAKENING has very little going for it. It’s woefully unsophisticated (characters aren’t introduced, they simply appear when the contrived plot requires them), riddled with clichés, and entirely reliant on elaborate chase scenes and end of level boss fights to take the place of narrative and characterisation. Flashy, emotionally void, and erratically told, it’s a bland video game of a movie, and should be avoided at all costs.