By its finale, Underworld: Blood Wars seems to offer the first legitimate ending with a sense of closure in the franchise’s history. Just maybe, after five films, things have finally come full circle. If so, we should consider it mercy.
To be sure, many of the charms and peculiarities of the Underworld franchise are alive and well in Blood Wars, including a supporting cast that goes beyond the call to elevate their material into something grand. However, the series appears more prone with each passing film to shed fans as opposed to grow them, and this installment, while a step up from 2012’s abysmal Underworld: Awakening, is hardly any more ambitious or high-minded than its sister Screen Gems franchise, the insipid Resident Evil movies. As a consequence, whatever life there was in the first several kooky and fetishistic Selene adventures has drained away, like so much plasma dripping into the snow. What’s left is for hardcore fans only, and I’m not sure I can even include some of the people who make these movies in that boat.
The film itself opens as a bit of a course correction. If you don’t recall the past four movies in detail, a snapchat-quick montage gets you up to speed on what occurred in the first two Underworlds, and the fact that Kate Beckinsale’s eternally wrathful Selene was reluctantly given a surprise daughter in the fourth picture. While Blood Wars is wise to distance itself from its predecessor, the aspect of Selene being a mother to a teenage werewolf-vampire hybrid named Eve (India Eisley) was a shrewd choice that broke up the formula and theoretically brought some new dimensions to Beckinsale’s brooding lycan-killer.
Thus it’s promptly jettisoned during an opening voiceover: Selene has sent Eve away from her in order to protect the child. Lycans and vampires alike desire the hybrid’s blood, and the also magical-veined Selene doesn’t want to be forced to tell them where Eve is in case she’s captured. Still, Theo James’ David has returned and officially replaced Michael as the sidekick, and he is admittedly a stronger presence than Scott Speedman ever was. Soon, both Selene and her new partner are given clemency early in Blood Wars by the Eastern Coven, one of the last bastions of vampire-kind in Prague. It seems that in the fallout from the earlier movies, a new lycan named Marius (Tobias Menzies) has risen to power, organizing the werewolves to decimate one vampire coven after another across Europe.
Selene is brought back into the fold to train Death Dealer recruits to fight Marius’ war party, however the vampric council woman/seductress who organized this is Semira, the original apple of Viktor’s eye before he adopted Selene as his second surrogate daughter a thousand or so years ago. Needless to say, Semira is still a bit prickly about that, as well as the tiny little detail that Selene killed Viktor back in the original 2003 film.
Semira also has designs on Selene’s blood, which has the magical properties of the oldest non-monstrous immortal, Corvinus (Derek Jacobi), who died in Underworld: Evolution (trenchant, ain’t it?). So rest assured, there will be betrayals, back-stabbings, political power moves, and a nice trip to the Northern Coven, which is where all the Swedish vampires seem to hang out in a snowy monastery while probably reading Jack Kerouac or something. Eventually, the werewolves show up, and the teeth and blades come out.
While Underworld: Blood Wars wisely attempts to get back to the fallout of the first two films that has been ignored for about a decade—what happens when the leaders on each side of the war turn out to be liars who are then dispatched?—it does so without bringing a shred of originality or newness to the film. Again, we have vampires fighting lycans, the latter of whom are now primarily CGI as opposed to the prosthetics of the original film, much to your eyes’ horror; we also are once again treated to an illicit vampire-lycan romance, some ponderous world-building, and the gnawing sensation that we’re back where we started but with much less visual flair. Even the always terrific Tobias Menzies is more or less wasted as the film’s primary heavy, an alpha-lycan who is mostly a clone of Michael Sheen’s Lucian, but without the compelling backstory.
Still, some of the new and returning actors help give this movie a much needed kick. The strongest of which is Lara Pulver, who, like Bill Nighy in the first Underworld, takes the “vamp” part of her vampire character literally, turning it up to 11 and owning the screen. A better screenplay would have made her the sole antagonist, because she seizes every scene she’s in and never lets go, doing especially well when playing off Charles Dance, who post-Game of Thrones has been brought back with a juicier and more Tywin-inspired role.
Unfortunately, the same level of engagement is not found in Beckinsale’s return, who in her fourth performance as this character is certainly serviceable, but the thirst she once displayed for Selene has long been satiated, no matter how much fake blood they place on her lips. Another way to put this is her major character arc pivots on Selene getting supernatural blonde hair in the North. When the highlight of your protagonist’s journey is actual highlights, there’s a problem.
Plenty of these issues stem from the workmanlike script by Cory Goodman, which is a torrent of leaden exposition and half-hearted dialogue that’s been rushed and cut in the editing room tighter than Beckinsale’s leather corset (and that remains very tight, indeed). Expanding on how the vampires and lycan clans have evolved in the last decade could be fascinating, but the film is as interested in seriously exploring those dynamics as it is in studying the effects of motherhood on Selene.
Director Anna Foerster’s eye, which was so cinematic on TV shows like Outlander, is also reduced to something more TV-like here. One imagines with more time and longitude from producers, she could have offered the same cinematographic precision she showcased as a genuine cinematographer on Anonymous. But this franchise was content long ago of abandoning the textured look of Len Wiseman’s early movies for something flat, grievously so by Blood Wars’ grim attempt at a “battle” in the third act.
Undoubtedly, whether this is the actual end of the Underworld franchise will be determined entirely by the box office, and there are conceivably new tales to weave going forward. But if this is truly the swan song, it’s a shame the series ended not with a howl into the moonlight, but with a whimper in the dark.