2017 looks to be a year full of horror, and we’re not just talking about the incoming regime here in the U.S. In the world of film, a major horror release is set to hit theaters every week to start the new year, with The Bye Bye Man, M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter and Rings taking us right into February. Getting things started is the continuing battle between vampires and lycans, aka, werewolves, in the next chapter in the action-packed horror series, Underworld: Blood Wars, which may very well be the best one yet.
Kate Beckinsale returns once again as the gun-toting, knife-wielding, leather-clad vampire, Selene. The film takes place after the events of the previous installment, Underworld: Awakening, which saw Selene lose her beloved hybrid, Michael, but find out she had a daughter, Eve, who’s an even more powerful, true hybrid. Now, Selene finds herself on the run, an outcast, a pariah from her own coven, who want retribution for her killing the vampire elders, Victor and Marcus (justifiably, we might add). She’s also looking to stay clear of the lycan clan, now better organized under their new leader, Marius (Tobias Menzies), who want her to lead them to Eve so they can extract her precious blood to create a new army of super werewolf hybrids. For her protection, though, Eve’s whereabouts are supposedly unknown even to Selene herself. As the centuries old war between vampire and lycan rages on, new covens are encountered, surprising alliances are forged and allegiances shifted, and startling revelations are uncovered, with Selene forever caught in the middle.
Returning from Awakening is Theo James (Divergent series) as David, the vampire Selene brought back to life with her blood, and his father, Thomas, the former head of a now decimated coven, played by Charles Dance (Alien 3, Game of Thrones). New additions to the world of Underworld are, beside Lycan head, Marius, Lara Pulver (Da Vinci’s Demons) as Semira, the power-hungry leader of the Eastern Coven, Bradley James (Damien) as her lover and right hand Death Dealer, Varga, and James Faulkner (also Da Vinci’s Demons) as Cassius, head of the Vampire Council. Also a first for the Underworld franchise is having a female as director. Anna Foerster does a fantastic job of integrating all the vampire and lycan mythology into a fresh, exciting, action-packed tale. This marks Anna’s feature film directorial debut, though she has directed a number of episodes of TV’s Outlander and Criminal Minds. She has also been a frequent collaborator with Roland Emmerich, having worked as a cinematographer, second unit director or visual effects director on his Independence Day, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow, as well as other classic genre films such as Pitch Black and Alien: Resurrection. That stellar resume serves her well here – the battle scenes are most impressive, and having a woman in charge of a film series noted for such a strong female lead is a wise move.
Underworld would not be what it is without Kate Beckinsale. The current ubiquitous presence of so many powerful female characters on the big screen and small – Black Widow, Furiosa, Wonder Woman, Supergirl – can look to Kate’s Selene (along with Milla Jovovich’s Alice from Resident Evil) for providing such exemplary depictions of strong, determined, franchise-leading ladies. It is Selene’s prowess, combat skills and leadership abilities that make her so valuable, as she has taken down the most powerful vampires in existence as well as countless numbers of lycans in her role as the most lethal of Death Dealers, all in a skin-tight, leathery outfit. Here, Kate brings so much depth to her character, tough on the outside, but struggling on the inside after suffering so much loss and seeing so much violence and death. We also get to see her sport a new look as well in this installment, though any look by Beckinsale works in our book.
Underworld has always been known for its unique visual look and style, and that continues in Blood Wars with its blue-tinged saturation and dark, nighttime setting. Of course, since true vampires are vulnerable to sunlight, having so much of the action occur at night is integral to the story. There aren’t any special rings vampires can wear to render them impervious to the light, though, Selene remains special in that regard. The Prague location, with its historic architecture, adds much ambience to the film, where high-tech gadgets, like bullets which burrow into the skin faster than it can heal, contrast with the ancient history of the warring species. Though Blood Wars was shot with a significantly smaller budget than its predecessor, Awakening, there is little evidence of that on screen as the f/x are first-rate, from werewolf transformations to vampires turning to ash upon exposure to sunlight. This series has always proudly worn its R-rating on its leathery sleeve, and this chapter is no different, as bodies are sliced in two, heads are lopped off and backbones are ripped from their frames. These are Blood Wars, after all. Credit also must go to screenwriter, Cory Goodman (Priest), who, with Kyle Ward, have come up with a story that invigorates the franchise with added folklore and fascinating evolution.
In Hollywood, which so often rewards youth and male heroes, enough cannot be said for having a 40-something woman kicking butt, and leading the way as she shoots and slices her way through a beloved film franchise. One hopes that the tide is turning for women, and that we’ll continue to see more, not only in front of the camera, but behind it as well in well-made, entertaining works. In a country, and world, that remains so male-dominated, with old men making decisions for young women, it’s important that women see portrayals of their sex displaying just as much power and strength as the men, both physically and intellectually. Underworld: Blood Wars not only continues to provide an excellent role model in Kate Beckinsale’s Selene, it proves that you can inject new ideas into a long-running film franchise to keep it fresh and exciting too.
review by Brian de Castro