Kevin's Monster Review - Underworld: Rise of the Lycans and Outlander
by Kevin Powers
January 25, 2009
This weekend should prove particularly fun for sci-fi fans. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans takes us back to the beginning of the shadowy battle between vampires and lycans, while Outlander presents an altogether new conflict between ancient Vikings and what may be "the next big thing" in monsters of the genre, Moorwens. While each film maintains an engrained appeal for any fan of the category, it's Underworld that proves the better breed, thanks in large part to leads Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen. Outlander has the capable James Caviezel and John Hurt, sure, but neither do particularly well with the half-hearted story; whereas the origins tale for Underworld serves as a deft complement to the series.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans - A Step Back in Story, But Not in Quality
Directed by: Patrick Tatopoulos
Kevin's Rating: 7 out of 10
Rise of the Lycans is certainly new territory for the Underworld story. Gone are the latex and leather trappings of the first two films, and in their place, chain-mail and armor. It's less sexy and less urban this time around, which were two appealing hallmarks of the series. Lead actress Kate Beckinsale is gone, as well, though she's replaced by the, dare I say sultrier, Rhona Mitra. The story and medieval setting is definitely a different taste, but something that we can gladly sink our teeth into all the same.
Mitra stars as Sonja, daughter to the vampire king Viktor. Despite her lineage and looks, Sonja is a rebellious, fierce warrior who often disobeys her father, opting to fight in battles as opposed to tend to her position on the council. Her side-stepping convention reaches a treacherous level when she gets involved with Lucian , a lycan slave (and Viktor's favorite). We quickly learn that Lucian is but one of a large group of shackled lycans that serve the vampire community, most notably in protecting their stronghold during the daylight hours. The vampires are increasingly in need of protection as attacks against them and their human neighbors, with whom they have a symbiotic relationship, have increased. The assailants are a line of lycans that can no longer change back to human form, and therefore are regarded as mindless, feral beasts. Viktor's way of handling this threat highlights his disdain for the entire race, sparking Lucian's battle to be set free.
Truly, the best part of Rise of the Lycans is Nighy. As the embattled king, dealing with his daughter's betrayal and the bestial uprising from both in and outside his walls, Nighy manifests one of the best vampire characters of the genre I've ever seen. If Viktor was ever taken in a more grounded, Stoker-like direction (e.g. sans the blue eyes and exaggerated surroundings), watch out! Sheen's return as Lucian, as well, is appropriately counterbalanced. I have to give the guy credit for running around in the muck and mud shirtless for virtually the entire film, especially in one scene with Mitra. As for the death-dealing diva, she serves as an acceptable if not better female lead in the story. I'm still out on which one I prefer.
For those who have seen the other two films, you know what happens to Mitra's character and where the story is headed. One of the fun aspects of this prequel is connecting the dots, and realizing that the team did a fantastic job sewing this film into the other two. The DVD box set will be a keeper for sure. Not that a lot happens in Rise of the Lycans, mind you, or that every question is answered (particularly in regards to the character of William). And while the film did fall a tad short in the special effects -- some of the blood and CGI is too conspicuous -- and the plot is little swift and spotty, all told it's a fitting addition to the series.
Outlander - Focuses on the Wrong Outlander
Directed by: Howard McCain
Kevin's Rating: 3.5 out of 10
The other period battle vying for your attention takes place in 709 AD, and involves an ancient Viking village, a downed space traveler and the beast he's hunting called a Moorwen. While Outlander surrounds the hunter Kainan, adapting to his Old World environment and continuing his mission, what you really want is to see and learn more of the Moorwen -- mainly because that's the only part of the film director Howard McCain got right. Kainan bonding with the Vikings, the accessory special effects and the progression of the plot are all boring and at times disappointing. The film's sole noteworthy accomplishment is bringing this intriguing alien beast into the genre. Interestingly, McCain was a writer on Rise of the Lycans, and that film's director, Patrick Tatopoulos, worked on creature effects for Outlander.
Unfortunately, it takes quite a while for the audience to discover more about the beast that's ravaging neighboring villages, who emits strange fluorescent lights before attacking. Instead, we have to suffer through an undue number of background social sequences that ultimately have little to do with the inciting incident. We do, however, get introduced to Ron Perlman's character Gunnar, who is a heavy-hammered badass and an opposing king to Rothgar. It's well into the movie before you begin to uncover how Kainan got to Earth and the origins of the Moorwen -- in other words, the real bite to the story.
Once we learn of the creature's motivations, however, the film becomes even more tiresome. I don't want to reveal too much, but when the battle heightens, the plot assumes a straight, clear shot towards the end, which is frustratingly predictable. True sci-fi fans will be left disappointed at what the story could have been. That's assuming you see the entire film. At the beginning, Kainain's crash is pretty well done, but the subsequent CGI is laughable. There's an early Matrix-like sequence with Mist-like special effects that is bafflingly bad. I guess the film's budget went to creature effects instead.
I wouldn't be surprised if Outlander turned into a cult favorite given it's unique tale, possibly along the lines of Pitch Black. While I can't say I'm there, I certainly would welcome another film that expands on the Moorwen's background -- one that gives the creature justice, both in presence and story.