Underworld: Blood Wars
Review by Mike Finkelstein
Far be it from me to dictate what should and shouldn't have a sequel. There are terrible movies out there that, when I've heard a sequel was being made, I still felt a giddy sense of anticipation. A bad movie getting a bad sequel can be it's own kind of fun. But even within those metrics, it's hard to fathom the reasoning behind yet another Underworld sequel. Arguably everything the franchise had to say about the eternal war between vampires and werewolves had already been fully explored in the previous four films in the franchise. The series would have to come up with something really new to justify continuing to milk the concept.
That, in fact, was one reason I actually enjoyed the previous film the seres, if but a little. Underworld: Awakening actually moved the series for, setting up a new time period with a new set of stakes; we were now in a close future where humans had discovered that vampires and werewolves existed and had hunted both sides to extinction. The vampires had floundered, but a cabal of werewolves had actually prospered, pretending to be humans while they secretly rebuilt their ranks. That was interesting and gave us a new angle on the series. Had Blood Wars managed to find yet another new take like that to explore, it could have been a winner. Instead it goes back to the old, tired setup of all the previous films, marching out yet another round of leather-clad vampires and hobo werewolves fighting because... reasons? This film, more than any before in the series, showed just how little life was left in Underworld.
This film picks up some time after the events of Awakening. Despite that film ending with Celine (Kate Beckinsale) and her hybrid vampire-werewolf daughter reunited, this film starts with Celine on her own, having ditched her daughter (at her daughter's request) because the two couldn't know where each other was. The werewolves were going to hunt for the daughter, Eve, so they could gain her power, so she goes into hiding and Celine, for some reason, can't go along to... wherever. The movie essentially pulls a big reset button.
Thus Celine ends up running around with David (Theo James), son of the leader of one of the last vampire covens. Surprisingly the vampire council votes to forgive Celine for all her past indiscretions, giving her a full pardon. They need her, they say, so she can train the next generation of vampire Death Dealers to fight the werewolves. The wolves have a new leader, Marius (Tobias Menzies), the biggest, most power werewolf the world had seen, and the vampires need all the help they can get. But pardoning Celine was just a ruse so the coven's leader, Semira (Lara Pulver), could steal Celine's blood. Celine years before had fed on a vampire elder and that gave her improved strength and the ability to day-walk, which she passed on to David. If Semira had that power she could run the vampire world. This sends Celine and David on the run again, chased by both werewolves (who want to know where he daughter is) and vampires (who want revenge), which will only lead in yet another endless war.
When the original Underworld came out it got by on the concept of cool vampires dressing in leather and fighting, a la the Matrix, against werewolves. It was a magnificently stupid movie but it was a success because it had the right blend of big, action-packed elements to distract audiences. No one would proclaim that film, or any of the movies that followed, to be good flicks, but they all featured hot vampires in tight leather looking cool, and that's what audiences wanted. The rules of diminishing returns, though, seemed to weight on the franchise, leading to Underworld: Blood Wars, a film made on half the budget of the previous film, yet it still managed to under-perform at the Box Office.
Much of the issue with Blood Wars is that it lacks stakes. The film is predicated on Celine having to run from two different villains, Marius and Semira, but the only way those villains would have any weight on the story is if they had some real connection to Seline. One wants her kid (who doesn't feature in this film, mind you) while the other wants her blood, but neither of them are really connected to Seline. She hasn't known them from previous films, there's no history between them and our heroine. They just exist because there had to be a bad vampire and a bad werewolf and these guys were slotted into that role. Their connection to each other, and Seline, is tenuous at best, leaving the whole arc of the film feeling hollow.
That could have been different if Eve were around for this film, mind you. Omitting this character is probably the film's greatest sin as Eve gave Seline stakes in the previous film, finally grounding her character with a story we could relate to. Had Eve been in this story, she and Seline would have been forced to run around the world together with Seline protecting her. Hell, the fact the vampires want Seline's blood while the werewolves want Eve's means we could have had each woman protecting the other for the same reasons. That's a lovely parallel that Blood Wars completely wastes. Instead of having Seline work with a character we actually know and care about it just throws her in with a bunch of bland vampires and werewolves that don't matter. That's a real shame.
What that leaves us with, then, is an empty story and a lot of action. Arguably these films are all just vessels for action so, had the action been interesting that at least would have elevated the whole affair. However, director Anna Foerster clearly didn't understand how to get good action on a small budget. She places a lot of characters around on small sound-stages, then uses tight camera angles and a lot of choppy editing to make up for a lack of solid action performances. More than a few times you'll see Seline go in for an attack that then requires eight different cuts to perform even a simple action. That's over-edited to the point where all style is lost. It's power-slop, an editing nightmare where the cutting has to keep happening because that's all the production team can do to stitch things together. It's really hard to watch.
But then hard to watch action covering up for a bad story is, really, the whole modus operandi of the Underworld franchise. This film ends right where all the others have before, with the eternal war between vampires and werewolves once again at a kind of stalemate. Nothing is decided, nothing changes, and all parties continue to fight a bloody war that, at this point, feels more exhausting than anything else.
Perhaps, one day, someone can pitch an Underworld that doesn't feel so weightless and stupid. In theory we could always be "treated" to another one of these awful films, but I think we all have to hope that isn't the case. All the life (and unlife) of these films has long since been drained. It would be better if we let this franchise stay buried, where it belongs.