Centered around the ebb and flow of a 1000-year-old war between Vampires and Werewolves (here called Lycans), Underworld traces a final turning point in this age old conflict, a shifting of the balance of power away from the decadent vampiric elite toward the traditionally marginalized Lycans, and the discovery made by one Vampire warrior (Kate Beckinsale) that her long held beliefs in the righteousness of the civilized undead over the savagery of the Werewolves may very well amount to a house of cards. Underworld is horror action in the Matrix age, a bullet riddled flourish of body-glove leather and acrobatic contortions. Yet what the film lacks is the substance of its progenitor, the concreteness of a certain visual grammar and narrative originality The Matrix used to transform itself into a work of surprising science-fictional elegance.
Underworld quite eagerly swallows the bait by ingesting and regurgitating the look of the Matrix films, hooked by the promise of their eye-popping spectacle, only to be ultimately failed by its inability to rise above the limited canvas of its own art direction. Set in an inky, rain-beset metropolis, unnamed yet spatially hybridized in a crumbling mixture of Eastern European architecture and 21st-century technology, the film is pure comic-book gothic where a certain chintzy expressionism holds court. In a haze of blue/gray shadows and the silvery glint of fluorescent-light-on-leather, the characters do little more but snarl their rage at one another in a series of surprisingly lifeless action sequences. Whatever dramatic investment is made amid all of the self-consciously violent “poetry” is squandered by the tawdry visualizations.
The film takes the fetishization of the vampire in contemporary pop culture quite literally, strapping them into corsets and sex gear body armor which all have the vaguely fascistic uniformity of a corrupt ruling class. The Lycans, on the other hand, are united in their quite literal subterranean disheveledness (and, on a positive note, the actual appearance of the creatures once transformed is quite effective, their bestial ferocity providing a stark contrast to the emaciated sophisticates of the undead). By portraying the conflict as between two such radically divergent societies, both culturally and economically speaking, what appears at first to be a mere battle of monsters becomes a war between the Haves and Have-Nots.
In fact, the commentary on this social stratification is perhaps the most interesting thing about the film. The Vampires—depicted as a languishing, indulgent, wealthy elite squirreling themselves away in a palatial mansion—are forced to fend off the insurgent hordes of an unwashed, sewer dwelling Werewolf underclass, who appear at first to be little more than a gang of thugs. This initial impression is challenged, however, when it is learned that the Lycans once formed the slave society on which the Vampires’ built their empire; it would seem that this is less a war then a revolution. While one hesitates to locate any kind of social awareness in so relentlessly shallow a film, there is an undeniable glimmer of narrative intrigue in the revelation. Yet despite this stab at what must pass for political savvy on the part of the filmmakers, Underworld leaves little behind save the lingering tacky taste of eye-candy, and penny eye-candy at that.