The First 'Underworld' Movie and The Relentless Sequelization of Some Forms of American Genre Cinema: A Lament
I don't know about you, but one thing that mildly bothers me is when a genre movie is put out, and it tells a complete story, only to be followed by needless follow-up films, sequels. I think The Matrix franchise suffered from this, for example. The first movie was good, unique, and a complete story. The two sequels adhered to the law of diminishing returns. There were no unanswered questions at the end of The Matrix.
What was the issue with that movie? It was an issue of a 'war between man and machine,' and all that. The breach between humans and the sentient-ized machines was closed in a beautiful symbolic way, when you think about it. Neo (Keanu Reeves), a human being, the 'chosen one,' and all that, was born with the power of the machines, if you recall. Remember that scene when he and Trinity rescue Morpheus from the evil clutches of Agent Smith? In a Kung Fu gunfight with the Matrix Agents, Neo dodges bullets from the gun of one of the Agents trying to shot him. As Trinity would later observe, Neo moved with the speed of the Agents. Of course, as we all know, Neo's mastery would grow, and so forth.
Think about that for a moment. You have an inside-outside-inside scenario here. Computers and robotics (or 'thinking machines,' as the Dune novels call them). The machines started as an internal human idea, something that existed only as a spark in the human mind. Then the machines were made, come into existence in the physical world. There is conflict and then the circle closes with the birth a Neo, a both a human being with the power of the machines to affect cyber-reality.
The Matrix movie ends with the humans and machines coming to terms. Neo is shown figuratively waving a hand and making the cyber-reality world a sunny place, implying that it would be a second Garden of Eden. Basically, he allows the actually-comatose human beings to have their illusions; Neo bestows that to humans as their real world, out of which they can make anything they wish. Remember that last scene?
To put that scene into some perspective, recall the Star Trek episode with Christopher Pike as the captain of the Enterprise before James T. Kirk. Remember the telepathic, illusion casting Talosians from that episode?
The episode's drama was put together in such a way that clearly indicated the 'illusion' was infinitely preferable to 'reality.' We find Captain Christopher Pike so damaged that he is in a hover chair, unable to speak, or move at all under his own power. He had fallen in love with a young woman, quite beautiful.
But her real appearance is something else. She, along with a group of other human explorers had crash landed on the world of the Talosians. The young blonde woman was the only survivor. They patched her up as best they could, but they had never even seen a human before; and you know what that means: they didn't put Humpty Dumpty back together quite right. The results were hideous.
However the Talosians give her the illusion of outer beauty. What ends up happening is that Pike is restored to his former youth and vigor, and put back on the Talosians homeworld with his young lady to live out his life.
Well, take that scenario and times it by six or seven billion. The Matrix decided that it was more practical to leave billions of humans plugged in (to continue acting as bio-batteries for the machines); but Neo, benevolent mutant that he was, returned control of the cyber-real-world to human beings. Remember that scene in the phone booth. You know, the Matrix reminded me quite a lot of the movie, Dark City. In that film a human being is shown to have been born with reality-bending powers of Earth's alien conquerors. The end is very similar, in fact, virtually identical.
What I'm trying to say is that The Matrix story came to a proper end at the movie. Machines and humans had come to an accord. And what better a symbol than the fact that a human had been born with machine-like capacities? With that the story is finished, complete.
The way the Matrix ended was decisive. Follow up was unnecessary and extraneous.
Let's talk about the Underworld franchise for a minute.
Now then, there have been four Underworld movies, three co-starring Kate Beckingsale and Scott Spedman: Underworld; Underworld: Rise of the Lycans; Underworld: Evolution; and Underworld: Awakening.
1. Underworld. This is the first movie of the franchise, and as such, I think it is, in fact, an important, solidly constructed, and clever film. I'll come back to talking about why I believe this in a moment.
2. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. This was the second film, and as such, completely unnecessary. We learned nothing new. Every revelation had been explained in the first film. Redundant is the word I was looking for.
3. Underworld: Evolution. I thought this film was just forcing the issue.
4. Underworld: Awakening. I rejected this movie because it was built upon a premise that I found implausible when it was hinted at in the first movie. I'll come back to this.
Surrogacy refers to the practice of a married couple, who, between themselves, are not able to conceive children, getting another woman to carry their child for them. Underworld is an important film because it took this subject and folded it into the plot of an action monster movie, thereby doing something quite interesting and unique with the vampire vs. werewolf narrative.
This is the first movie of the franchise, and, in my opinion, the only essential one. What I'm saying is that a complete story was told with this film.
The story concerns the six thousand year war that has been going on between vampires and Lycans (werewolves). The movie opens in the present. The vampires are the implied 'good guys' of the story. The werewolves are the implied bad guys.
Death-Dealers are the special detachment, the special operations/SWAT team of the vampires, who are on the front lines in the war against the Lycans. Their orders are to track down and kill every single werewolf.
Selene (Kate Beckingsale) is the very best of these vampire death-dealers. We know that the Lycans are bad because the wolves, allegedly, slaughtered her entire family. The legend is that the leader of the vampires, dark lord Victor (Bill Nighy), taking pity on the young girl who had lost her entire family to the Lycans, turned her, making her into a vampire, and thus giving her the power to avenge her family.
The Lycans pursue and ultimately capture a young man called Michael (Scott Speedman). That is a big deal because Michael is a direct descendant of Alexander Corvenus. Alexander Corvenus was the world's first true immortal. He had two sons: one bitten by a bat; the other bitten by a wolf. These are the founders of the vampire and werewolf species.
The leader of the Lycans (werewolves) is called Lucian (Michael Sheen). The reason Lucian wants Michael is this: Lucian intends to make Michael into the first hybrid. Half vampire, half Lycan. The strengths of both species, the weaknesses of neither.
Why does Lucian want to do this? Here, the issue of surrogacy, adapted for a monster movie, comes into play. What becomes quite clear is the fact that Lucian had engaged in this project because he wants to honor the love he had once shared with a vampire princess, Victor's daughter, in fact---Sonja (Rhona Mitra); and the baby they would have brought into the world, had Victor not had his own pregnant daughter killed.
It seems that Victor was a profoundly bigoted vampire, who regarded the 'mixed race' child growing in his daughter's womb as "a betrayal of ME and the coven."
Things happen, Lucian's project succeeds, and Michael is turned into a vampire-werewolf hybrid. This movie did a clever thing. It teased us with a romance between Selene (Beckingsale) and Michael (Speedman), as though that was the love story. I'm here to tell you that it was not; the true love story was actually centered on where it had always been: between Lucian (Sheen) and his dead vampire lover Sonja (Mitra).
That is why Lucian did what he did. His project was not about revenge, in the main. It was about LOVE. His project was to symbolically restore the child he had been denied by Victor's (Nighy) prejudice.
In addition to all of that, we come to understand that it had been, in fact, the Vampires who drew 'First Blood,' if you will; they are the ones who had declared war on the Lycans. We even learn that it had not been the Lycans who slaughtered Selene's family, all those centuries ago; it had been Victor.
My point is that the circle was closed at the end of that movie. A complete story had been told. There had been no loose ends or cliffhangers. America should have been allowed to move on.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
The only comment I shall make about this movie, is that its entire production had been unnecessary. This is the movie that elucidates the origin of the war between the Vampires and Lycans. Here's the thing: every single thing that is revealed in the movie had already been very carefully and thoroughly explained in the first movie. Simple as that. The thing that touched off the war was the fact that Victor had his own pregnant daughter murdered because she was carrying the 'mixed race child' of Lucian the Lycan. I challenge you to tell me one thing this movie revealed that had not already been covered in the first movie!
To be fair, this movie does offer new material---sort of. But, still, it didn't have to be made. As I said before, the first movie opened and closed the circle. It was a complete story. It was done.
It seems that the Vampires have a Two Kings system of rule. They take turns. When one rules for one hundred years, the other one rests in suspended animation. At the end of the first movie, Underworld, Michael and Selene kill Victor... because of everything.... and we are told that the other King, Marcus, would awaken and extract terrible retribution and all that. But, in my opinion, the threat could have been left hanging as a suggestion.
I am not going to bother summarizing the plot of this installment. Suffice it to say that this installment is premised on the idea that Michael and Selene had a romantic relationship, which resulted in the conception of a child. I rejected all of this as virtually impossible because Michael (Speedman) and Selene (Beckingsale), obviously had no on-screen chemistry, even if they were the two most beautiful people in the entire four-film series.
They were so plainly awkward around each other, it was so embarrassing watching them touch each other and kiss, that I never accepted the idea that those two characters would have ever had sex. I was so pleased that, in the first film, we were only teased with the idea of a romance between those two, while delivering the true love story---that of Lucian, leader of the Lycans (Michael Sheen) and his Vampire consort, Sonja (Underworld: Rise of the Lycans).
If you can't accept the idea of a romantic relationship between the two main characters (and neither can they from the look of their performances when they had to touch and kiss), one really needn't go any further.
Thank you so much for reading. Take it easy!