Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Underworld (2003): My Opinion

Plot summary provided by IMDb:

"A war going on for centuries between vampires and Lycans/werewolves, never seen by humans eyes, until one of the werewolves by the name of Lucian (Michael Sheen) finds out about one human that can bond with vampire blood and Lycans blood, Michael (Scott Speedman). Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is the vampire Death dealer that finds out why the Lycans are following Michael and falls in love with him. Kraven (Shane Brolly) is the leader of the vampire house after Viktor (Bill Nighy) dies and wants Selene by his side, but she is a wild cat to break."

Again, I read a lot of the viewer's comments and I have to say I'm surprised by the number of people (okay 2 out of several pages, and I only read the first few pages) complained that one of the reasons they didn't like the vampires in this film is because they had reflections in mirrors. Okay, I can respect all the of the viewers who complained about the constant night, the continuous rain, and the blue, BLUE filter cast on everything (my cousin Jonathan and I speculated that perhaps this film was supposed to take place in Helsinki in the winter, since there never seems to be daylight. Our other possibility, Seattle during the spring, since it was, in fact, constantly raining, I'm not sure there was a dry moment in the film.) But, you're mad because the vampires have reflections and cast shadows?

EVERYTHING casts a shadow. EVERYTHING has a reflection. Dead or alive. Next time your gerbil gives up its ghost (and they die, a lot. I had gerbils for several years until I realized that a two-year life span was going to kill my very sensitive and rodent-loving heart), put it in front of the mirror or out on the pavement in the noon sun. You will see that being dead makes no never mind to shadows and reflections. Okay, you're saying, but vampires are magical. Yes, I agree, but they still wear clothes. The clothes would have a reflection, unless like Superman vampires have some kind of personal ionic field of "alienness" that makes everything within inches of his flesh also invulnerable (which, frankly, makes more sense to me than the undead's clothing suddenly lacking a reflection. Turning invisible along with the Invisible Woman, that can be explained; not having a reflection, harder.)

And, WTF? I don't understand why this particular characteristic would make or break a vampire film for someone. I mean, one of the two who commented about the shadows/reflections, said that s/he was disappointed because the vampires didn't bite. That, to me, is a legitimate reason not to like a certain fictional portrayal of a vampire. For a lot of people, myself included, the bite is essential to vampirism. And, let's face it, when done right, biting is sexy. And vampires should be all about the sexy.

But, the rest of it – staking, shadows, turning, reflections, daylight tolerance, etc. – is all up for debate as far as I'm concerned. Given that Bram Stoker's Dracula walked around in the daylight, I don't see the need to follow Nesfaratu (the movie) in terms of its vampire lore. If you wanted to get into a fist fight about it, I think a person could make a pretty serious claim that Stoker's Dracula is the definitive answer on that one, which makes all the vampire movies that show daylight sizzling the fiends "wrong." And you don't see a lot of people complaining about that (myself included – I actually kind of like the night restrictions, because it makes for a puzzle to be conquered for the author of vampire stuff.)

Vampires have such a diverse and various set of "assumptions." One of the things I look forward to when watching a new vampire film or reading a new vampire book, is how the screen/writer is going to play with the usual mythos and, correspondingly, how they're going to explain their vampires and their vampire's various restrictions/strengths. I like most answers. I am less fond of "vampire as separate/parallel species," but I have enjoyed those stories, when done right. And, all it usually takes for me to consider something done right is a plausible back story.

I'm not entirely sure how vampires were explained in Underworld (because I actually missed the first half of the film), but I really enjoyed the idea of werewolves as the day-time guardians (slaves) for the vampires. The werewolves were clearly, to me, the heroes of this first film. As someone on IMDb pointed out, this film is either consciously or unconsciously about class. The werewolves are working class in appearance and dress and, as it is revealed, back story (and, therefore, in my opinion, much more likable); the vampires are aristocrats. More than that, the vampires are the former slave-owners. Slave-owners = bad.

There were two star-crossed lover stories in Underworld, which is, as Shakespeare knows, always a crowd-pleaser. First, Michael our human turned wolfpire or vampwolf (half werewolf, half vampire) and Selene the death dealer (vampire), who, OF COURSE, is later sent to destroy him. The second is Lucian's (head were) back story, in which we discover he was a slave who loved the master's daughter. To be absolutely and perfectly honest, this kind of love story always appeals to me.

The part that confused me was actually the main plot. I gathered that the werewolves were attempting to find Michael because he was the descent of the human line of the father of both the vampires and the werewolves and wanted to specifically turn him into this hybrid. (Note: I also liked this sort of Biblical, Son of Abraham, Son of Isaac thing, where both weres and vamps come from the same people, even though they now are bitter enemies.) What I missed (or couldn't figure out) was what purpose he would serve, exactly. A lot was made of the fact that he would be stronger than either weres or vampires, but I wasn’t sure to what end, since, quite clearly, he didn't want to be party to this underworld war at all. Perhaps Lucien realized his was the far more sympathetic story and figured Michael would agree to fight on their side when he heard it. But, thing is... a vampire from the other side, Kraven, was involved in this plot to find Michael and turn him.

I wondered if maybe mating vampire and werewolf was meant to be some kind of symbol of unity, embodied physically in Michael. A kind of, "look, we really can get along, even if it’s only on the cellular level. So, let's stop all this silly fighting." Except Kraven was not presented (at least in what I saw) as sympathetic in any way. If he was trying to lead his people to peace, I didn't see an evidence of that agenda in the way he acted (in the last half of the film, anyway.) Plus, his name sort of implies that he's the villian.

What I will say about Underworld is that it made me want to read the novelization of the movie so that I could see if any of my bigger questions are answered. The universe is compelling enough that I intend to put Underworld: Evolution on my rent-it Netflix list.

So is that a recommendation, Tate? I don't know. Probably not. But, if it I had the chance to see it again for free, I would. Take that for what it is.


Zoe said...

Whether it's a recommendation or not, you did make it look more interesting than it did in the previews.

And I agree that there's lots of ways to tweak the vampire mythos. When it comes down to it, I think the only parts you can't do away with are the undead part and the blood-drinking part - and come to think of it, I didn't really have the undead part in my story where the vampires are actually fallen angels. Vampires that don't drink blood just wouldn't work for me, but I'm open to considering anything else.

Michele said...

Vampire reflections. Yeah, that's a fun one to figure. Recently watched the Russian vampire flick, Nightwatch. They did something very neat with the reflections, in that, sometimes the vampires were invisible. A person couldn't see them, nor could another vampire. But. If you held up a mirror and looked into that, you could see the vampire's reflection. So they had this fight scene, where one vamp is holding a mirror, trying to slash behind him at the reflected vampire. That was about the only thing I liked about that movie.
I do like it when an author puts a really neat twist to one of the old and tired conventions of vampirism.