Review: 'Awakening' Takes 'Underworld' Exactly Where It Needs to Go
by Jeremy Kirk
January 23, 2012
Maybe Kate Beckinsale knew Måns Mårlind & Björn Stein's Underworld: Awakening wouldn't be boring. Granted, that's not the best complement you can give a movie, but, when it pertains to something like the Underworld series, that's all you really need to know as far as how successful it is. It might not be the best of these films. 2003's Underworld rode a nice line between seriousness and wall-to-wall action. It may have taken itself too serious, and that's where the Underworld franchise slipped. Thankfully, it's not only back on track, it's taken a new track. The track of something like Punisher: War Zone or Bad Boys II.
If you want pretense and subtlety, you won't find it here, but that's okay. The insanity thrown at the audience from Underworld: Awakening works, and just when you begin to question how well it all works, how well it all ties together structurally, you find yourself distracted by another head exploding. High art? No. Entertaining? Absolutely.
The "awakening" of the title refers to Death Dealer Selene, played once again by Beckinsale, who returns after sitting on the sidelines for Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. She finds herself waking out of a 12-year state of frozen animation, and she finds a world different than the one she left. Rather than vampires fighting werewolves, or Lycans as the cool people like to call them, Selene finds humans have discovered the underworld war going on. A purging took place in her time of sleep where humans tracked down and killed every vampire and werewolf they could find. Now Selene must contend with this new world as she searches for Michael, the half-vampire/half-Lycan hybrid she is in love with.
It's a thin premise even when you add in subplots involving scientists and the experiments they perform on Selene and Michael, a new breed of werewolf — Awakening answers the question of what is more terrifying than a werewolf (the answer is a really, really big werewolf) — and Selene's daughter who was surgically removed from her while in her coma state. But Underworld: Awakening, which comes in at quite the brisk 88 minutes, doesn't concern itself with the complex politics of the vampires or the skulking relationship between Selene and Michael. This is an action movie first and foremost, and it wears the title like a crown.
Len Wiseman, who served as director on the first two Underworld films, returns as screenwriter and producer only. Måns Mårlind & Björn Stein are the directors on board this time around, and the change of pace is very welcoming for the franchise. Where special effects craftsman Patrick Tatopoulos slipped up in his direction of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, these two, new faces take complete control. Rise of the Lycans was a slog, a tedious prequel that didn't tell us or show us anything new. The team behind Awakening seem to realize this, and they've done everything they could not to fall into that tiresome rut.
Awakening is chock full of everything action and horror fans alike crave. The action begins early, and it hardly lets up. The film as a whole has been stripped down, so there's very little time between action set pieces to lose the surging adrenaline. Not only does the action come fast and frequently, it hits hard, as well, and the outcome of just about every violent engagement is a clear indicator of how the film earned its R rating. All of the Underworld films have been decidedly R rated with plenty of guts and gore to go around, but the level of graphic imagery combined with the near endless onslaught of fantastic action puts the ball of a pure visceral experience in Awakening's blood-soaked court.
The film does suffer to an extent from this amplified velocity. The action hits left and right, sometimes seemingly out of nowhere, and the thin plot along with the short run time makes you feel like the film could have been bigger. Mårlind & Stein certainly know how to shoot coherent and energetic action. But much of Awakening gives the sense of a cheap knock-off of its predecessors. The human world can never, should never, be shot with as much atmosphere as that of the supernatural creatures in the film, and this is the first time the series has really focused on them. The tone isn't off, but the grandness of the direction leaves much to be desired.
But in favor of grandness and in-depth plot we have a steady pace, that sense that the people behind this film will do anything they can to keep you from becoming bored with it all and always looking to throw something at you that's bigger and more dangerous. While the CG in the film, particularly that which is used to create the Lycans, is anything but top-notch, it's serviceable against the backdrop of action that always seems to be going on. There's hardly any weight to them, save for that really big werewolf who Mårlind & Stein do a great job of bringing to life mostly through sound, and at times the digital nature of it all begins to overwhelm the intensity of what's happening.
Underworld: Awakening has a job to do. That job is to entertain its audience, feed the fans of this franchise who keep coming back to the well for something new, and change up the pace just enough that it brings on new fans, people who might not have been interested before. In a lot of ways, Awakening puts the Underworld franchise through the same transformation the Fast and the Furious series underwent. And, like that series, this change of pace works very well.
Another drawback to the short run time is that you think another act is about to unfold. That's when the end credits begin. But, if Awakening gives us any clue where the Underworld franchise is set to go, it'll be a fun journey. It won't be the most intelligent. It'll be about as subtle as a werewolf getting its head ripped in half. But that's the breath of bloodstained air the series needed.
Jeremy's Rating: 7.5 out of 10