Underworld: Endless War
Review by Mike Finkelstein
It seems like whenever any series gets popular enough there's a desire to flesh out the franchise with some form of anime anthology spin-off. The most famous of these kinds of tie-ins is likely the The Animatrix, although you can point to just about any long running franchise and find some similar kind of tie-in production. Batman: Gotham Knight, Van Helsing: The London Assignment, and now Underworld. The shorts are cheap to produce, expand the world, and can be used to tease fans with new stories to come.
While I'm not a huge fan of the Underworld series (despite having watched all of them films for this site), I won't deny that there isn't something cool about the concept of the series. Vampires and werewolves battling each other with a heavy smattering of Matrix-style aesthetics is the kind of idea that instantly sells itself. Hell, the franchise has five movies (and currently still counting) so obviously it's struck a chord with a certain segment of the viewing audience. This is a franchise primed for more media in other forms.
Created as a tie-in for the Underworld Trilogy home media release, Endless War is a set of three anime shorts set at different time periods during the storyline of the main franchise. It is anime-esque in design, created by Lakeshore Entertainment and Titmouse, Inc. animation house. And, they aren't bad. They certain evoke the inherent cool of the franchise, while going hard on the action and violence that fans actually want from an "endless war" between vampires and werewolves. The story here is just about as incomprehensible as the main movies (anyone looking for deep storytelling in the Underworld franchise really needs to look elsewhere) but when it comes to action, these shorts deliver.
The first of the shorts is set during the Victorian era. We find Selene (Laura Harris), death dealer for the vampire faction, out on a hunt for werewolves. She's tracked three werewolves posing as human nobles down to their estate and she invades, looking to kill them all. One of the three catches her scent, though, and goes fleeing back to his brothers. This leads the three to try and ambush Selene, but that plan fails, and while she kills one the other two run to lick their wounds (because, you know, wolves) and plan their revenge.
The story for this short is a barely there excuse to get Selene fighting werewolves. There's no explanation specifically to why she wants to kill these three in particular aside from them, "pretending to be nobles," which, okay? Werewolves can blend into society in ways that vampires cannot. Three of them finding power should be expected, but Selene is irrationally angry about it here. Of course, that ties into the fact that series has never been very good at highlighting motivations for the heroes and villains, or even really giving us a good reason why some characters are heroes and others are villains except, "vampires good, werewolves bad... except when they aren't." This short doesn't even bother trying.
And that's fair. This is a five minute bit of action and violence and it does deliver on that front. Setting the short in the Victorian era means Selene is stripped of all the cool gadgets that the franchise dumped on her over time. It's also early enough in the timeline that she doesn't have any of the extra special powers she picked up in the later flicks (which, in fairness, these shorts predate). So this is a version of Selene going up against three werewolves with just her wits and some basic weapons. It's pretty cool.
The violence and gore are on point. I actually think, for as short as this bit of story is, the film packed in more action and gore than you could get in the PG-13 rated main films. I appreciated that because, hell, we're talking about violent monsters. Let them act like monsters for once and really rip into each other. We get that here and it shows the real potential this franchise could have if it just embraced being action-oriented horror. It's great here, but I really want more in the live action franchise.
If there is one downside to this short its that the voice acting really isn't great. Laura Harris does a good job of Selene, almost sounding like Kate Beckensale, but Trevor Devall, Brian Dobson, and Paul Dobson sound absolutely terrible. They somehow manage to sound both flat and like they're overacting. When their character open their mouths, the short gets slightly worse. But then it turns back to action and everything is good again.
This short is pretty decent as a slice of vampire on werewolf action. It just doesn't manage any better when it strays from that. Still, watchable on its own for what it does manage to deliver.
In the 1960s, we find Selene back in Paris, still on the hunt for the two lycan brothers who slipped through her grasp the first time. Her superiors aren't happy that the werewolves haven't been caught, but Selene is sure they will appear again soon. And she's right, as the two brothers have been stalking her, waiting for the right moment to turn the tables on the hunter who ejected them from their lands. They launch an attack on their old home, now a vampire temple, and attack all the priests in the main hall. But it's Selene who gains the upper hand, coming in on a surprise attack of her own, killing the second of the three brothers and taking the arm of the third. He flees, but she knows she'll get her chance soon enough...
This second short feels lighter on plot, but there are moments I rather liked. Keeping the action in Paris, but moving it further forward in time, allows for a neat parallel of events. She stalked them in Victorian times, hunting the werewolves down to their home estate. Then they stalk her in the same way, stalking her down to the their old estate, not a stronghold for the vampires. That back and forth, commenting on its own story through the actions of the characters, gave this short a compelling hook I wasn't expecting.
With that said, there are parts of the short that are raised and not explored. What are the vampires doing in the stronghold? We see the priests doing some kind of sacrifice of the humans, but to what end? It's not explained, and the action moves on, but this seems like a detail worth exploring (and the films won't bother as these shorts are basically tied to continuity but ignored by the films). I want a bit more story here to give us depth and context now. It's still not as shallow as the films... but I'd hardly call it much better either.
This is an interesting second short, but certainly a middle episode for the set. One has to hope they don't just retread the same material again for a third film, reducing this down to just a fight between Selene and the brother in the final act.
So, of course, they stick to the retread style of this set. We're back in Paris again, now in 2012 (which was the future when these shorts came out), and things have changed for the vampires and the lycans. Now the humans know of their existence and they're actively hunting them both (as we see, with the humans stalking both the werewolves brother and Selene through various familiar parts of the city). But, despite this, Selene still has a job she's compelled to do: she will find the third brother and kill him, completing this grudgematch that has taken over 100 years to play out.
The humans going after the vampires was a big plot point for the fourth film (third mainline movie), Underworld: Awakening, so it's interesting to have that be a major part of the setting here in these shorts. A nice setup for the future of the series (even if by the time of the fifth film, Underworld: Blood Wars, that plot thread was basically ignored once more). Having the humans play hunter and hunted is a solid choice and it helps to re-contextualize the setting once more.
With that said, it does seem weird to have Selene, who at this point in here story is on the outs with vampire society, so hell-bent on chasing down a werewolf when, quite clearly, the humans would eventually take care of the task. She has Michael Corvin (voiced here by Mark Oliver) at her side, and there are bigger fish to fry than completing a mission the vampires gave her a hundred years ago. Why bother? Why does it even matter at all? The short answer is that there were three brothers to kill, and three shorts for this set, so that's an easy setup. But that's also a lazy answer (as much as it might be true).
With that said, at least the action for this last short is good. We quickly get to the final brother, holed up in a Paris hotel, and Michael goes in first to take him out before Selene shows up, acting cool as shit as she takes him down. There's a sequence part way in where a group of topless, lingerie-clad girls with machine guns start firing at Michael and it feels like we suddenly stumbled into an exploitation action flick. I never realized this was the version of Underworld I needed, but the film makes a case for it. At the very least, it's more fun than anything the films series came up with before (or after) this point. Fun is great.
The story for these three shorts basically becomes non-existent by the end of it all, raising far more plot holes than 15 minutes of animation can answer. Still, I enjoyed these a lot more than many of the main films of the series, making for a fun, short watch. If more of the Underworld series had been like these shorts, maybe I would have liked the films more.