Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

Review by Mike Finkelstein

The problem with prequels is that whatever story you setup has to be good enough to carry the film on its own merits. Most prequels fail on this front because, whatever else the film might attempt, they're generally designed to fill in some part of the plot we've already had explained to us before. Star Wars gave us three films that showed us the rise of the Emperor and the fall of Darth Vader, but most of the salient detailed could already have been gleaned from the previous (original) trilogy. Those films showed us a lot of stuff but how much of it was really "essential". Prequels, by their nature, have a hard time getting over that hump.

That's not to say that Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is anywhere in the ballpark of the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy; for as bad as those sci-fi films were, they're award-winning fare in comparison to this fantasy series extension. But like those much bigger (and better) films, Rise of the Lycans struggles to give us a story that is compelling enough in its own right to outweigh the fact that this is a story we already know. The details of this film were explained to us in the first Underworld and then shaded in more via Underworld: Evolution. All this film can do is draw out that bit of history and that's not enough to carry a film.

This third film in the series picks up hundreds of years before the events of the previous two films. Here we learn about the creation of the lycans. These beasts started as a kind of plague, creatures that would attack and infect other humans, turning them into beast-men without control. However, from these beasts came a baby, Lucian, who had the beastly infection but could appear human. He was tended to by Viktor (Bill Nighy), a curiosity while the other beastly lycans were taken as slaves (to due the bidding of the vampires). Eventually Lucian (played as adult by Michal Sheen) came of age, a special ward of Viktor, working in the castle as a blacksmith even though he was still regarded, more or less, as a slave.

Secretly, though, Lucian was in love with Viktor's daughter, Sonja (Rhona Mitra). The two grew up together and, eventually, fell into bed. However, when Sonja goes out on a mission and gets into trouble, Lucian rides out to aid her, taking off his slave collar (with a key he made) so he could shift into wolf form and fend off the beast-men that were attacking his love. He saves the day, but once Viktor finds out he strips Lucian of his privileges, shoving him into prison with the other slaves. Only Sonja, and her allies, could save him, freeing him and his people so they could go off and be free away from the vampires. If only things could ever be that simple...

The love affair between Lucian and Sonja is a story we saw (via snippets) in the first film, explaining why there was a war between the Lycans and Vampires and while Lucian had such a hate on for the undead. While this film does show us more of that time period, giving us a lot of vampires riding around in armor while lycanthropes are used as slaves, the whole point of this film is to show us that whole storyline again. It doesn't amount to anything more than the star-crossed love of two night-creatures, and we already know the ending to that tale. Outside that, there's literally nothing new or interesting that Rise of the Lycans is able to provide.

In fairness, the film is able to bring back a bunch of the cast members that had been killed previously. Sheen's Lucian and Nighy's Viktor are the big returning characters, played by their original cast members, and that does help to carry the continuity of the production some. These are charismatic actors doing what they can with threadbare material (something Sheen would go on to do again with his role in the terrible Twilight films) but there just isn't a lot for them to go on here. Steely looks and bad dialogue, no matter how well they are delivered, do not make a movie.

I actually feel back for Mitra as she at least gets a (mostly) new character who can be defined by her performance. Mitra also does a credible job here, just like her male co-stars, but she's saddled with a part that constantly gets sidelined despite the fact this film is supposed to be equally about her alongside Lucian. Its her love for him that causes the whole society here to fall apart but the film is much more interested in those pesky Lycans rising up than anything to do with Sonja. She could have been a gateway for us to learn more about the vampires from a sympathetic source, maybe to justify why we should care about these undead creatures in the other two films. Sadly, that doesn't occur, wasting Mitra's great performance and her interesting character.

Frankly, this film messes up more than it should in the process of simply existing. The previous two films treated the lycanthropes as enemies, beasts that would kill humans and destroy society. Here, though, they're the good guys while the vampires are cold, hard villains. The film should have given us something to go off of for both sides, treated each with just the littlest bit of compassion so we could care about both sides and really feel it when the war takes off. We don't, as as such I was conflicted the whole time trying to decide why I should care about anything going on here. The lycans are the heroes, until they're the villains? And the villains become heroes (before going back to villains)? Man, just kill them all and be done with it.

I have to think that if a decent screenwriter had been attached to this project they might have been able to make something workable out of the ideas. There's threads here that are interesting, and with the right script (and also a decent director) we might have gotten something closer to good than this wreck of a film. But Rise of the Lycans was written by the same team that wrote the previous films and, as before, the story simply doesn't know what elements to focus on to make for a compelling adventure. It's tired and plodding, all shot in the same blue light and mostly at night (to cover for how threadbare the budget is), showing us nothing worth watching on any front.

Like with the sequel, Underworld: Evolution, tis prequel is just passable enough that you can sit through it without feeling the urge to turn it off. But as far as being a good film I'd want to watch again simply for the sake of enjoyment, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans misses the mark by a large margin. Passably made isn't good enough three films in.