Sunday, January 15, 2017

It Came From The Cineplex: Underworld: Blood Wars

Hey guys, it's finally here! It's The January/February Film Dumping Ground! Yes, it's that magical time of the year when the major studios burn off all the celluloid bombs they didn't dare release during the all-important Summer and Xmas blockbuster seasons! Awesome! Brace yourselves for two solid months of watered-down PG-13 horror films, lesser CGI kid's movies and fart comedies. It's a fantastic time to be a film fan!

Underworld: Blood Wars was written by Cory Goodman and directed by Anna Foerster.

Goodman previously wrote Priest and The Last Witch Hunter, which is one hell of a resume. Foerster has worked exclusively in TV up to now, directing episodes of Criminal Minds, Army Wives and Outlander. Underworld: Blood Wars is her first theatrical directing gig.

Much has been made in the press about the fact that this is the first film of the series to be directed by a woman. Awesome! You go, ladies! Show that old world that you can direct terrible movies just as well as any old man!

Believe it or not, this is the FIFTH film in the Underworld franchise. Seriously, there've been five of these things. That seems like about four to five too many.

The original plan was for this fifth film to be a reboot of the series called Underworld: Next Generation (say... that title sounds familiar for some reason), to be released in 2015. Later it was announced that the film would be a sequel after all, with actress Kate Beckinsale returning as Death-Dealing Vampire Selene.

The movie was retitled to Underworld: Blood Wars, and scheduled for an October 2016 release. It was then pushed back to January 2017 for some reason, which is ALWAYS a bad, bad sign.

I have an odd relationship with this film series. I've dutifully sat and watched ALL five of them in the theater now, despite the fact that I'm not a fan and don't particularly care for them all that much. I don't actively hate them either, mind you. They're just sort of... there.

Despite the fact that I've seen them all, I couldn't tell you what happens in any of them if my life depended on it. They're what I call "In One Ear Movies"
—  films that start to evaporate from my mind by the time I get to my car. As near as I can recall they're all about some busty vampire gal in fetish gear who hunts werewolves. That's all I got! Beyond that, I don't remember a single thing.

So why do I keep paying to see these spectacularly unmemorable movies if I don't like 'em? I honestly don't know! I wish I had an answer.

Apparently I'm not the only one who's indifferent toward the series. Underworld, the first film in the franchise, was a surprise hit back in 2003, grossing $95 million against its $22 million budget. The subsequent entries have all grossed progressively less (although they still make a modest profit).

So why do they keep making them? Why continue pumping them out if no one's watching?

That's easy! Len Wiseman produced four of the films in the series: Underworld: Evolution, Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans, Underworld: Awakening and this newest one, Underworld: Blood Wars (he also directed the first two). Wiseman just happens to be married to  you guessed it  actress Kate Beckinsale, the star of the series.

Len Wiseman's the one (literally!) who wants this series to go on and on and on. His wife Kate reportedly earned a whopping $8 million for Underworld: Awakening (no word on how much she made for the newest one, but I'd bet it's at least the same or more), so he wants to make sure she keeps bringing home those sweet, sweet paychecks every three years or so (Wiseman no doubt made a hefty fee for his role as producer as well).

Sadly, Beckinsale and Wiseman divorced in late 2016. Bad for them, but it could be good news for the movie-going public, as their split could very well mean NO MORE UNDERWORLD MOVIES!

Note: Len Wiseman recently stated a sixth film is in development, with Kate Beckinsale starring. Crap. Maybe since she probably earns more than he does, he wants to keep the series going so she has to pay him alimony?

By the way, the Underworld situation is echoed exactly with Mila Jovavich and the Resident Evil film series. She's married to Paul W.S. Anderson, who wrote and produced every movie in that series (and directed four of them). The Resident Evil films have all outperformed the Underworld series (and then some), but it's apparent that the only reason Anderson keeps making the things is to keep his wife employed.

It's very obvious that something catastrophic happened during the filming of Underworld: Blood Wars  something that required some major retooling. I cannot emphasize this enough the movie doesn't end, so much as it just STOPS. It's almost like the studio forgot to deliver the last reel of the film to the cineplex.

There's a big setpiece battle between the Vampires and the Lycans in the third act, which goes on for fifteen minutes or so. Suddenly Kate Beckinsale starts narrating, and she wraps up the story in about thirty seconds! We then see what appears to be a very brief deleted scene or an outtake of her staring at her daughter, and then the credits roll. At my showing, the entire audience sort of looked around at one another for a few seconds, unsure if that really just happened, and then slowly shuffled out with confused looks on their faces.

It reminded me a lot of Poochie going back to his home planet. 

What the hell happened? Why did the movie suddenly hightail it off the screen, like it just remembered it left the iron on? Did they run out of money before they were finished, and couldn't afford to film the end of the movie? Did it get poor feedback from test audiences, and they didn't have the time or cash to reshoot a new ending, so they cobbled one together in editing? 

I'm leaning toward the "fix it in editing" theory. The middle of the film takes place at the Nordic Coven, which is located in an arctic wasteland. The characters go back to the Eastern Coven, which is in... Europe maybe? Or America? I have no idea, but some sort of temperate climate. Then the very last shot of the film, in which Selene sees her daughter Eve step out of the fog, takes place in an arctic wilderness again. There's absolutely no reason for Selene to go back there, so that shot has to be a deleted scene or outtake. 

I have no idea what really went on behind the scenes, but something big definitely happened to this movie to make it stop dead in its tracks the way it did.

Lastly, this movie is supposedly the first new film to premiere in 2017. If that's true, then we're in for a long and miserable year.


The Plot:
Previously on Underworld... we begin with a brief recap of the series so far, and bless whoever came up with that idea, as I didn't remember a single thing about any of the previous films.

Selena the Vampire (played by Kate Beckinsale) is a "Death Dealer." For the past thousand years she's been killing werewolves in the Vampires' war agains the Lycans. At some point in the series she was betrayed by Vampire elder Viktor (played by Bill Nighy, who sadly isn't in this film). She also had a forbidden relationship with Michael Corvin, her Lycan enemy who somehow became the first vampire/werewolf hybrid. Selene and Michael had a daughter named Eve (OH, I GET IT! SUBTLE!) who's the first "pureblood hybrid," which seems like a contradiction in terms to me. Selene was forced to hide Eve to keep her safe from both sides, while she went off to search for Michael. Selene is now on the run from both Vampires and Lycans. Confused? I know I am.

OK, on with the actual movie. Selene is being chased by a gang of Lycans, who knock her off her motorcycle. They morph into their wolf forms and are about to kill her, when David (played by Theo James, of the aborted Divergent series) arrives to rescue her. He and Selene wipe out the Lycan gang, but not before he's shot (don't worry, he gets better after Selene removes the bullet).

Meanwhile, David's father Thomas (played by Charles Dance) arrives at the Eastern Vampire Coven. He meets with Semira, a high-ranking and ambitious Vampire. Thomas tells her that Marius, the new and powerful leader of the Lycans, recently destroyed the Western Coven and is planning a full scale attack.

Semira's main concern is replacing Viktor, a member of the Vampire Elders, who was killed by Selene. Semira and Cassius (another Vampire Elder) want to prosecute Selene for killing one of her own kind.

Are you getting all this?

Marius meets with his fellow Lycans to discuss their plan to wipe out the Eastern Vampire Coven. Why do these two sides hate each other so much? Has that ever been addressed in the series? It seems like there's room enough in the world for both species of monster. Right now it looks like the only reason for their mutual hatred is "because the script says so." Anyway, Marius also wants to find Selene's daughter Eve, as her blood will somehow grant him superpowers or something.

Thomas appears before the Vampire Elders and convinces them they're in danger. He gets them to drop the charges against Selene, so she can train an army of young Vampires in the ways of Death Dealing (shouldn't Vampires already be pretty good at killing, what with the fangs and super strength and all?). The Elders agree, and two vampires are sent to escort Selene (and David) to the Coven.

Selene begins teaching the Vampire recruits how to kill Lycans. Semira isn't happy to have her back, and plots to get rid of her. She insists that Selene have an exhibition bout with Varga, her bodyguard and secret lover. Varga cheats and cuts Selene with a knife smeared with deadly nightshade, which paralyzes her. He then shoots all the Vampire recruits with ultraviolet bullets (?), which causes them to burst into flame and die. Or, I guess, be more dead than they already are.

Selene and Varga then frame Selene for the murders. Thomas shows her and David a secret way out of the castle. As they're leaving, Semira kills Thomas in front of them, just to make a point, I guess (which sucks, because he's the best thing about the movie). Selene and David flee. Oh yeah  I forgot to mention that Selene and David are both special Vampires who are somehow unaffected by sunlight. I'm assuming this was probably explained in one of the other movies I've completely forgotten about.

Semira sends a young Vampire named Alexia after Selene. Alexia meets with Marius, her secret lover. You know, for all the alleged hatred between these two races, they sure seem to hook up a lot. Alexia tells Marius that Selene's escaped and that Semira plans to attack his clan.

Selene and David head for the Nordic Vampire Coven, the only other one left. They're welcomed there by Vidar and his daughter 
Daenerys Targaryen Lena, who has luxurious snow white hair. Vidar gives David a sword made of pure silver (which is deadly to Lycans) and says it was his father Thomas' greatest weapon. He also tells David that his mother was a powerful Vampire Elder named Amelia (so David's dad never told him any of this?). 

David doesn't believe any of this, so Vidar gives him a ring containing some of Amelia's blood. David drinks the blood, which apparently contains his mother's memories, and realizes it's all true. So what's the point of all this? It means that David is next in line to become a Vampire Elder, not Semira.

Just then, the Lycans attack the Nordic Coven. Um... how'd they get there so fast? And why are they attacking this remote Coven instead of the Eastern one, which seems like more of a threat to them? Because the script sez so, I guess. Selene and David help the Coven fight the Lycans, which is damned big of them, since they pretty much led them there. 

Selene squares off with Marius on the ice outside the castle. Marius gets the upper hand and stabs Selene with a sword. He demands to know where her daughter Eve is, and for the millionth time, Selene says she doesn't know. Alexia licks Selene's blood from the sword (a Vampire's blood contains their memories, remember) and says she's telling the truth. Selene then deliberately slips beneath the ice to escape. And by escape I mean drown. Or whatever Vampires do. Do they need to breathe? Can they really "drown" if they're undead Later, Daenerys Lena recovers Selene's body and begins a mystical process to revive her.

Alexia takes some of Selene's blood back to the Eastern Coven (I think). Semira drinks it in order to gain Selene's superpowers. She then tells Alexia she knows about her little Lycan affair, and slits her throat. Um... so slitting a Vampire's throat will kill them? Again, aren't they already undead?

David travels back to the Eastern Coven as well, and confronts Semira and the Council, telling them that he's the son of Amelia and next in line to be an Elder or something. Semira scoffs at his claim, so he gives Cassius and the other Elders the vial containing his mother's blood. They drink the blood and gain Amelia's memories, and realize he's telling the truth  David is the last pureblood vampire. Semira orders her bodyguard/lover Varga to kill David, but he says he only takes orders from "those in charge." Burn!

Marius and his Lycan army arrive at the Eastern Coven (dayum, these monsters sure get around!) and attack. There's a big bloody setpiece battle between the two sides. The Lycans start shooting holes in the windows (cough  From Dusk Till Dawn  cough), which destroys a ton of Vampires. Lena and an army of Nordic Vampires arrive to join the battle (again, these monsters can travel!). They bring a secret weapon with them  the now revived, new and improved Selene (now sporting partially bleached hair). Apparently after Selene "drowned," she visited the Sacred World, a mystical realm that's never adequately explained or shown, and Lena brought her back from it.

Selene faces off against Marius, while David battles Semira. Because she drank some of Selene's blood, Semira is now immune to sunlight. David says, "Whatever" and stabs her in the head with his silver sword. Marius morphs into a Super Lycan form and fights Selene. During the battle, a drop of Marius' blood flies through the air and lands on Selene's lips. She sees his memories, including the fact that he killed her Lycan lover Michael. She rips out his spine in revenge. Ouch!

David holds up Marius' severed head, which causes the Lycans to stop fighting and bugger off. The movie then can't wait to hurry up and end, as Selene rushes through a closing narration that wraps up everything in thirty seconds. She tells us that she, David and Lena became the new Vampire Elders and everything's cool now. We then get a very brief shot of Selene, back at the Nordic Coven for some reason, as her daughter Eve appears out of the fog. Smash cut to the credits!

If nothing else, this a fairly short film (since it doesn't have an ending), so you'll be in and out of the cineplex in no time. The official run time is listed as ninety one minutes, but if felt a LOT shorter than that to me.

• Humans have appeared sporadically throughout this series (especially in the third film), but for some reason this one is completely devoid of them. Literally EVERYONE we see is either a Vampire or a Lycan. Not a normal human to be found, not even in the background. Did the two sides wipe out humanity in one of the previous films?

• Literally EVERY scene in the film features the same dreary, desaturated blue and black color palette. Whoever color graded this movie must have racked up a record amount of overtime, and collapsed the minute they were done. After a while it becomes dull and bland.

Even the blood is bluish black instead of red! Why the hell would they do that? It's rated R, for corn's sake, so they didn't have to worry about rules regarding the depiction of blood. Just think how cool it would have looked if they'd made the blood bright red, to contrast with all the bluish tones.

It's also a very dark movie— not dark in tone, but dark as in "I can see what the hell's going on." I don't know if that was a deliberate choice like all the blue color grading, or if my local cineplex turned down the brightness to try and conserve the projection bulb (something they've done in the past, the rat bastards).

You know, now that I think about it, maybe the blue tones and all the darkness was an attempt to hide the awful CGI werewolf effects. Seriously, I've seen better virtual characters on the various The CW superhero shows.

• These days it's standard practice for most films to re-record (or "loop") virtually every word of dialogue, to eliminate background noise or fix a flat line delivery. I bet the looping on Underworld: Blood Wars served double duty. All the actors playing Vampires wear prominent prosthetic fangs, and it would not surprise me if these false choppers distorted their speech something awful. I guarantee you the Vampires all had to loop their dialogue sans fangs.

• Charles Dance plays Thomas the Vampire, and the movie perks up considerably whenever he's onscreen. Dance is a wonderful actor and a true professional, and has the ability to elevate the most mundane material (like Underworld: Blood Wars). Naturally, since Dance was the best thing about the film, he's killed off twenty minutes in. Idiots.

Every time he appeared, all I could think was, "Gee, Charles Dance would have made a great live action Grandma Tarkin in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

With a hairpiece and a bit of makeup to make his cheeks look more sunken, he'd have been a dead ringer (no pun intended) for Peter Cushing. He even sounds like Cushing! He definitely would have been less distracting than the CGI Tarkin abomination they used in the film.

 By the way, when I saw that Charles Dance and Theo James were in this movie, my first thought was, "Ah, I bet they're in this movie because of the popularity of Game Of Thrones and the Divergent movies."

Little did I realize that they were both in the previous film, Underworld: Awakening, and were reprising their roles here. See, I told you I don't remember anything about these films! 

• After David's shot, Selene takes him to her hideout. She x-rays him and discovers a special high-tech Lycan bullet lodged in his gut. The bullet has a motorized drill head, and is burrowing straight for his heart. She manages to clumsily (and no doubt painfully) dig it out and save him.

They spend an inordinate amount of time on this bullet (more than they did on the ending!), which made me think it was setup for something that would pay off somehow in the third act. Nope! Once she fishes the cool driller bullet out, it's completely forgotten about and never mentioned again. Talk about pointless!

I wonder... was this entire scene was just an excuse to get Theo James' shirt off, and give us a good look at his impressive abs?

• At one point Semira introduces David to a group of Vampire Elders by saying, "This is David, son of Thomas." So... do Vampires not have last names? Is there only one vampire named Thomas in the entire world? Do they not even get descriptive verbs after their names, like Thomas the Slayer or something like that?

• Varga wounds and poisons Selene with deadly nightshade. David revives her by cutting open his wrist and letting her feed on his blood.

Um... so a Vampire can get nourishment from another Vampire's blood? How the heck does that work? I thought they fed on human blood because we're alive. How would undead Vampire blood do Selene any good?

I'm starting to realize the creatures in this movie have very little to do with traditional Vampires (That was, I say, that was a joke, son. The creatures in these films have ALWAYS been Vampires in name only).

• Speaking of blood: Marius, the leader of the Lycans, is all het up to find Selene's daughter Eve. Why? Because he believes her blood will give him some sort of special powers. Exactly why he thinks this is apparently none of our business, because it's never explained.

 After Selene's framed for Vampire murder (?), she and David head for the secret Nordic Coven. We see a shot of them approaching the icy outpost on horseback.

Oddly enough, their horses seem totally cool with the fact they're being ridden by Vampires. You'd think they'd be spooked (heh) by having undead monsters riding on their backs.

By the way, I sat in the theater thinking about this for a good two or three minutes after the scene played out, instead of paying attention to anything that was happening on the screen. Such is the awesome attention-commanding power of Underworld: Blood Wars. Hey, I had to occupy my mind somehow!

 All the Vampires in the Nordic Coven have obviously fake white wigs pure white hair, in a patently obvious attempt to look like Daenerys Targaryen of Game Of Thrones fame. Seriously, Lena the Vampire looks so much like Daenerys that any minute I expected her to start screaming about her damned dragons.

 Inside the Nordic Coven, Selene enters a room filled with gauze-covered, comatose Vampires. Lena tells her that these subjects have entered the Sacred World, whatever the hell that is. Apparently it's another realm or dimension or something, and going there will grant a Vampire additional powers and abilities.

After being beaten by Marius at the Nordic Coven, Selene slips through a crack in the ice and drowns herself, because "the water shows the way" to the Sacred World.

During the big Vampire/Lycan battle at the end of the movie, Selene dramatically reappears as the music swells and the god rays illuminate her form. She's now sporting a fur coat for some reason (I'm betting it's so it can swirl impressively around her as she spins and fights), and the tips of her hair are now platinum blonde like Lena's. I'm assuming this is to indicate she went through some sort of arduous trials in the Sacred World, and emerged victorious and more powerful than ever before.

Note that this is all MY interpretation of the events, as the movie doesn't bother itself with spelling out ANY of this.

So what's the Sacred World supposed to be? Is it some kind of Vampire heaven or hell? Is it another dimension? Was it filled with tortures that Selene had to endure and escape? Did she have to battle through armies of ghoulish demons? Once again, it's apparently none of our business, as we never bothers with an explanation.

Why bring up the Sacred World at all then if they're not going to explain it? It plays a pretty significant role in the film, as it resurrects and transforms the main character. You'd think something that important would warrant at least a line or two of explanation. It's not fair to just TELL us that Selene went somewhere that changed her. This is a movie. You've got to SHOW us. It's Screenwriting 101.

I wonder if whatever disaster caused the movie's truncated ending affected the Sacred World scenes as well? Did they originally plan to show Selene battling her way out of the Sacred World, but ran out of money and had to settle for just telling us about it? 

Or was this all just setup for a future movie? Your guess is as good as mine.

• I couldn't find a good shot of it, but during the big third act battle scene, Selene jumps from a great height and sticks the Superhero Landing (much like the gals of Sucker Punch, as seen above). You know, when a character lands on one knee, with the other one raised, and one hand on the ground and the other thrust out jauntily behind them.

One would think that after Deadpool, no self respecting director would ever use that trope again, but one would be wrong.

• I think my favorite part of the film occurred during the big Vampire/Lycan battle in the third act. David and Marius run screaming toward one another, their faces contorted into exaggerated grimaces as they fire away with their automatic weapons. They then stop and empty their machine guns into one another's bodies, and I swear to Thor they're standing about five feet apart!

There's no way to watch that scene without thinking of the shootout in The Naked Gun.

Even better, once their guns are empty, they both strain and grunt as if they're taking a mighty but resistant dump, and all the bullets pop out of their rapidly healing bodies and land on the floor beneath them. It literally looks like they're both sh*tting bullets! Bravo, Ms. Director!

• At the Nordic Coven, Vidar gives David a large, ornate ring (don't worry, they're not engaged or anything). When David opens the ring, there's a tiny thimble-sized container inside containing just a few drops of his mother's blood. He drinks it down and immediately gains his mother's memories. 

Later at the Eastern Coven, David needs to prove to the Vampire Elders that he's next in line of succession or something. He then gives some more of his mother's blood to Cassius and four or five other Elders, so they can drink it, experience her memories and gain the truth. Thing is, it now looks like David has a whole vial of blood, not the dinky little thimble that was inside the ring. So where'd THAT come from?

Underworld: Blood Wars is yet another (literally) forgettable entry in this interminable series. Like all the others it's filled with leather-clad people trying to kill one another in between bouts of droning on and on about bloodlines and rights of succession. It's also incredibly dark and murky, most likely to hide the subpar CGI werewolves. Worst of all, the movie doesn't end so much as it just stops, which feels odd and jarring, as if something bad happened behind the scenes. For die hard fans of the series only I advise everyone else to skip it. I give it a C-.

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