Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)

It's remarkable how little Michael Sheen looks like Michael Sheen in this picture; more a gracile Russell Crowe than a seriously ripped Simon Pegg.
It’s remarkable how little Michael Sheen looks like Michael Sheen in this picture; more a gracile Russell Crowe than a seriously ripped Simon Pegg.

“Every War Has a Beginning.”

Directed by Patrick Tatopoulos
Starring Michael Sheen, Rhona Mitra and Bill Nighy

In ye olde Transylwherever (I’d say at least five centuries south of Captain Kronos, but it’s hard to say for sure,) the war between the savage werewolves and the corsetry-pioneering vampires wages on, despite the captivity of William, the first werewolf. Then the birth of an apparently human child to a captive werewolf leads to the creation of a new breed of immortal; the shapeshifting werewolves known as Lycans.

Flash forward, and in a long and involved backstory we won’t get into, chief vampire Viktor (Nighy) has bred a force of Lycans to guard his castle, foremost among them the first of the breed, Lucian (Sheen), who has fallen in love with Viktor’s daughter, Sonja (Mitra). It’s like Romeo and Juliet, but with more crazy thunderstorm wall sex to boost the rating. Then one night, he removes his shackle in order to shapeshift and protect Sonja, discovering an ability to control the werewolves but earning the rage and enmity of Viktor, who plans to have him killed as an example to others.

Political machinations lead sniveling librarian Tannis (Stephen Mackintosh) to help Lucian escape, and he leads a breakout of the other Lycans, who gather in the forest to build their strength. Lucian is lured back, captured and witnesses Sonja’s execution for getting knocked up by a werewolf, but breaks his own chains and summons the werewolves and Lycans to war, decimating the vampire council and forcing the badly wounded Viktor into retreat.

What’s wrong with it?

What period are we aiming for?
What period are we aiming for?

Like so many prequels, the film suffers from predestination. Ultimately we know that Sonja will die, and how Sonja will die, and how not only Viktor, but also Lucian and his massive, basso profundo sidekick Raze will die in Underworld, and how Tannis meets his end in Underworld Evolution. Never mind that in retrospect we now know that the werewolves will go on to become the Nazis in their own turn. It means that there’s no tension, nor any real chance of persuading the audience to invest in the characters they know to be doomed.

The historical period of the film is just fucked to all buggery. Sophisticated mechanical crossbows rub shoulders with quasi-mediaeval plate armour, carriages that could belong anywhere from the 15th to 19th centuries, and decidedly 21st century corsetry. In addition, the internal timeline is just confusing, with Viktor giving his daughter a pendant, which in the second film was revealed to be the key to a prison built by Selene’s father, whom Viktor then killed, sparing Selene because she reminded him of his dead daughter, which means that this film takes place in the roughly ten year gap between the building of the supertomb and the death of Selene’s family, despite Viktor going into the Odinsleep at the end of the movie.

Sonja is literally the only female character in the film. There’s a councillor who has some lines, and a few more who have corsets, but that’s it, and there isn’t even a single female Lycan. Actually… are there any female Lycans in the entire franchise? Female werewolves, yes, but Lycans… I don’t think so.

What’s right with it?

"So, you write comic books?" "And make Ving Rhames look like a tiny man."
“So, you write comic books?”
“And make Ving Rhames look like a tiny man.”

Okay, I have to give them this; everyone involved in this film tries really hard. Michael Sheen pours his heart into Lucian’s many big no moments, and screenwriter/producer/comic book writer Kevin Grevioux puts a great many full time actors to shame with his hulking nobility and damn, that voice. Even Rhona Mitra, who has not always been good, is pretty decent in a role that, while slight, is at least not the useless, fragile flower Sonja could have been written as.

Sonja does not have a designated girl fight, and is ultimately defeated not by being outmatched by her father, but by being less willing to kill family.

Production designer Patrick Tatopoulos takes over from Len Wiseman as director. It’s his only directorial outing, and as you might expect, results in a film stronger on look than emotional truth, but it does bring us a substantially lower level of plastic-looking CGI in favour of practical stunts and effects, and means that the film spends substantially less time leering at its leading lady.

How bad is it really?

"Underground, overground, wombling free..."
“Underground, overground, wombling free…”

Arguably, Rise of the Lycans is the best entry in the Underworld franchise. If there’s a competitor it’s the original, but Michael Sheen is a more appealing tragic hero than Scott Speedman and the absence of impossibly superhuman hybrids actually makes the conflict more interesting. It’s pure insanity at this point to even pretend that this is set in anything close to the real world, but I don’t think anything since the original has suggested that.

Best bit (if such there is)?

Any moment when Lucian is in pain. I mean, my god Sheen is giving it some in this performance.

Alternatively, the sheer insanity of a moment when a volley of ballista bolts creates a completely impassable barrier for a horde of super-strong Lycans.

What’s up with…?

  • The timeline all up in this bizniz?
  • The historical period?
  • Lucian and Sonja deciding that the best way to keep their affair a secret is to hang of the top of walls during coitus?

Ratings

Production values – Tatopoulos is a production designer who has worked on some pretty epic movies – including Stargate and, less gloriously, Godzilla – so it’s not surprise that the film looks pretty great. Dark, but great. As so often happens, its practical effects have aged better than CG, although in this case the CG isn’t bad either. 5
Dialogue and performances – The script is… not good. No colossal howlers, but nothing really outstanding either. The performers, however, treat it as if it were Shakespeare, occasionally becoming laughably portentous, but overall lifting the material beyond its deserts. 9
Plot and execution – The plot is basically predestined. There’s never any doubt who is going to live or die, because nobody new is ever made interesting enough to care about. Even the named Lycans might as well be numbered for all the individual personality they have. 15
Randomness – This is set after the flashbacks in Evolution, right? Or… in between? And in what year? Where? 15
Waste of potential – Underworld was bad, Underworld Evolution was terrible, and Underworld Awakening was borderline farcical. That this movie was anything other than completely dreadful is an achievement. I kind of wish they’d started here so we didn’t know how it ends. 8

Overall 52%

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