Here we go again… Every few years, we get another chapter of the Underworld franchise because, hey, why not. It’s not like the Underworld franchise has some overarching mythology like The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, it’s not like they’re building towards a cohesive universe featuring dozens of characters like Marvel or DC, and it’s not like the storytelling is so complex that screenwriters have to carefully walk over their footprints in the proverbial snow as to not cross any continuity fauxpas. But here we are again, more blue-tinted gunfire and bloodletting based around the idea that Kate Beckinsale is a gorgeous woman who looks great beating up people in skin-tight leather.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but Underworld is a shake-and-bake franchise if there ever was one. Get Beckinsale, get a director that knows how to stage FX driven action, but together an eccentric cast of Eurotrash characters, throw them in a bag, shake, and put it in the oven for 90 minutes. It’s funny to see a series that was so painstaking in its world building in the first film seem to give up trying by episode five. What happened in previous movies bear little consequence to the here and now. What matters is that you came to see Beckinsale and company basically LARP it up for several million dollars a pop. If you’re expecting more, Fences and Hidden Figures is playing right down the hall at the multiplex.
In this entry, our heroine Selene (Beckinsale) has been marked for death by vampires and lycans alike. In a very Incredible Hulk like moment Selene tells a group of lycan bikers chasing her to leave her alone, but if they do there’s no movie, and they’re after Selene’s hybrid daughter because reasons. Like anything else that has to do with the previous Underworld adventure, Awakening, all the plot points and side characters are cast aside so as to presumably clear the air and allow the audience to enjoy the proceedings without carrying the baggage of four other movies, which doesn’t explain the excruciating recap narration that begins this, and all other Underworld movies.
So gone in this chapter is the subplot about humans learning about the existence of vampires and lycans, and gone (perhaps temporarily?) is Selene’s daughter Eve. Long gone is Scott Speedman as Selene’s lover, the lycan hybrid Michael, although he does get name-checked and flashbacked upon so Speedman doesn’t go without those juicy Underworld residuals. Instead, but in keeping with the Underworld tradition of feeling like a bouillabaisse of other, better fantasy franchises, this Underworld seems borrowed straight from Game of Thrones. Selene is caught in the middle as various factions and clans in the vampire and lycan realms seek to control her for their own ends.
If there’s a “Cersei Lannister” in this affair, it’s Semira played by Lara Pulver, who was, appropriately enough, the dominatrix Irene Adler in Sherlock. This is actually an aspect of Blood Wars that I can say without reservation that I enjoyed because of there’s one thing this series needed it was a juicy female foil for Selene. Even though this series is centred around a powerful female, pretty much every other woman ever seen in Underworld is a victim or window dressing. Semira though is a man eater, literally and figuratively, as she plots and schemes and seduces her way to the top of the vampire hierarchy.
That’s why it’s so disappointing that the plot hinges on another scraggly haired werewolf leader who’s out to teach the vampires a lesson because the war never ends even though nobody that started it is left alive (as you may recall from the previous Underworld films). Certainly Marius, played by Thrones and Outlander star Tobia Menzies, seems to have no reason, and his character’s such a nothing burger it’s hard to give a damn why he’s so eager to kill all the vampires other than he has to because the script says so. Marius is the one trying to find Eve so badly because he needs her blood, and the reason why has a twist later on in the plot so keep your eyes peeled.
But if you like seeing Game of Thrones people slum it, you get a two-fer with Charles Dance adding a touch of austerity as vampire elder Thomas, who actually appeared briefly in the last film. Theo James, no longer having to worry about any of that Divergent stuff, also returns as Thomas’ son David and gets a whole convenient secret backstory of his own. James makes a good sidekick because he either knows better than to stay out of Beckinsale’s way or he just doesn’t have much a screen presence beyond his pretty face. Either way, he’s just enough of a side of beef to be worth the effort of keeping him in on the fun.
Fun is a relative term, because there are still undoubtedly a few people that fall for Underworld’s schtick, and if ever there was a chance to actually make something of it, it was with this film. Director Anna Foerster brings something this film has so sorely needed for a long time now, a female’s touch. It seems likely it’s Foerster’s influence behind Selene’s inner journey through vampire spiritualism, and her inner torment about being separated from her daughter and lover. It’s also why we get compelling female characters like Semira and Lena (Clementine Nicholson), the leader of a Nordic clan of vampires that assists Selene on her mission.
Sadly though, you can’t say that Foerster came close to creating a satisfying Underworld, because at this point you can’t really innovate on the formula. Unless you’re called “The Fast and the Furious,” by the time you get to the fifth movie, you’re stuck with the cookie cutters you have, and the Underworld movies are so terribly formulaic because they have to be. Changing things up at this point would be too much of a shock to the system for many fans, and too much of a risk for the studio. Underworld is a tribute to fandom’s love of seeing supernatural creatures shoot at each other in an impossible hail of gunfire, but if you’re looking for innovation, you’re – pun intended – barking up the wrong tree.