Movie Review: “Underworld Awakening”

24 Jan

This movie is not great art, nor does it pretend to be. Instead, “Underworld Awakening” is the anti-“Twilight” – an intense, chaotic action film that unfolds at a breakneck pace.

(Disclaimer: a fair number of the people reading this review will have no interest in this movie. This isn’t an argument for the ethics of viewing violent movies, it’s a stylistic analysis of the film as it stands.)

The “Underworld” series postulates the existence of vampires and werewolves as parallel societies, living just beyond the perception of humans. An intricate mythology involving romance and betrayal sets the stage for “Awakening.” As the film opens, beautiful vampire assassin Selene (Kate Beckinsale) awakens from cryo-sleep after a twelve-year slumber. She finds herself in an unfamiliar world: humans have become aware of the existence of vampires and werewolves. This, in turn, has led to genocide. As she fights to survive, Selene quickly becomes entangled in a sinister conspiracy that pits her against age-old enemies. Thus begins a pedal-to-the-medal barrage of blades, bombs, and blood.

“Underworld Awakening” is not a high-class, introspective movie like “The Tree of Life.” It’s a high-octane shot of adrenaline straight to the aorta. And I must admit, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie this exciting. The tedious backstory of other “Underworld” installments is jettisoned, resulting in a streamlined, pared-down adventure. Notably, the art design is head-and-shoulders above other entries in the series. Steady camera work renders action sequences intelligible, and 3D is employed to marvelous effect. Dialogue is still comic-book bad, but to be fair, there’s not much of it.

The film carries an R rating for “strong violence and gore, and some language” – a rating it certainly earns, although strong language is pleasantly infrequent. Objectionable content is found in the form of constant combat – rather like a bloodier version of “The Matrix.”

I generally hate writing reviews of movies that lack moral nuance. So, I figure I’ll use this as a chance to discuss the current vampire/werewolf craze that’s influencing pop culture. Forgive my digression.

I think that all fiction, in a nutshell, is about vicarious experience. We read adventure stories and envision ourselves fighting alongside the protagonist. We read dramas and envision how we would respond to challenging circumstances. We read mysteries and envision ourselves hunting down criminals. The vampire/werewolf plot element, however, is reflective of something even deeper.

The most influential works of art do not merely evoke vicarious experience: they evoke a sense of vicarious identity. A potent, culture-influencing film like “Inception” probes the human consciousness at its deepest level. Similarly, the movie “Avatar” taps into our deep-rooted longing for a better world. And the “Twilight” craze – and the vampire/werewolf fascination – are reflective of our darkest human impulses.

The vampire of modern pop culture is no withered, hideous Dracula figure. The New Vampire is beautiful, sophisticated, virtually indestructible, and consumed by desire. (Many of the New Vampires are also brilliant strategists, willing to use any tools at their disposal to achieve their goals.) Likewise, the New Werewolf is no figure to be pitied. Rather, the New Werewolf is muscular, super-powered, dangerous, and utterly untamable.

The appeal of these themes, when viewed from a Christian standpoint, is clear: both offer the opportunity to vicariously embrace the dark side. The life of faith is a life of constant struggle against desire – the “beast within.” Yet the New Vampires and New Werewolves have chosen to embrace darkness, rendering vice “cool” and fundamentally appealing. (The “Twilight” books, written by Mormon author Stephenie Meyer, try to play it both ways – they glamorize both restraint and indulgence.) These new “monsters” are hardly deserving of the term – they give in to their predatory impulses while appearing oh-so-charming. That’s a seductive image, but one divorced from any conception of ultimate morality. Ergo, the introduction of immortality as a plot element – if there’s no death, and thus no final judgment, there’s no reason to avoid indulgence.

Why are vampires and werewolves so popular? Simply put, such literature offers a stylish vision of sin without consequences. That’s not to imply that all writers and filmmakers of the genre have insidious motives; rather, that the answer to the question “why are these characters so popular?” is rooted in the human condition.

What does all this have to do with “Underworld Awakening?” Not much – there’s not a whole lot of philosophizing going on between all the action scenes. “Underworld Awakening” is about guns and explosions, not the sin nature of man.

And that, in turn, will determine whether or not this movie is for you. If you’re in the mood for violent, hyperkinetic action to keep you on the edge of your seat, “Underworld Awakening” is a good bet. It’s not for the squeamish, though.

An unabashedly stupid, but highly entertaining, throwaway action film.

Normalized Score: 3.4

WARNING: “Underworld Awakening” is rated R for bloody violence and some profanity. This film is not recommended or appropriate for viewers under 18.

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Posted by on January 24, 2012 in Sci-Fi


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