Five years have passed since the last film in the Underworld series, a franchise now 14 years old and five films long, signaled an Awakening for the cinematic lineage. Vampires, eternal though they may be, are no longer in vogue as they were in the late 2000s—more fashionable are franchise movies, which once upon a time were merely “popular” in the studio system and are now ubiquitous. Thus, coupled with the Underworld series’ box office durability, Underworld: Blood Wars’ production and release were always just an inevitability despite the downturn in the blood suckers’ cultural cachet.
Just because something is inevitable doesn’t mean it has to be terrible. Yet, as each entry in the Underworld franchise is worse than the one before it, the wanton awfulness of Underworld: Blood Wars isn’t especially shocking. If anything, the film’s condition is in keeping with the overarching badness of its forebears, which at least have something resembling structure, plot goals, and a plan for seeing those goals achieved. The White Wolf-cum-Matrix mimicry of the first film (2003), for example, and the supernatural medieval romantic drama of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009) both have a solid narrative backbone, a throughline that lends each a sense of coherence. They aren’t particularly good, but they’re rife with the self-assurance that comes from being complete. They’re the best cuts of the movies they want to be.
The same can’t really be said of Underworld: Blood Wars, which feels reckless and rushed, as though someone at Screen Gems was in a big screaming hurry just to get it wrapped up and in multiplexes. The film rockets from point A to point C and totally skips over point B on the way, hitting beat after beat without ever sparing a second for its story developments and its action sequences to breathe. The Underworld saga clearly has its fans, and they’ve clearly got enough pull to convince studios to make more Underworld movies, “pull” meaning “money.” But their funding wasn’t sufficient to positively influence Underworld: Blood Wars’ quality, so here we are, staring down the fourth chapter in the franchise to open in January, the month where crummy movies go to die.
If your memory of what all has happened in Underworld’s present tense is shaky, fear not: Underworld: Blood Wars begins by recapping the events of the first, second and fourth films, excluding the third on account of it being a prequel set in vampiric antiquity. We’re back again with the Death Dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a vampire soldier once dedicated to killin’ Lycans, the films’ colloquialism for “werewolf,” who is now on the run from Lycans and her own kind for committing a handful of interspecies party fouls: She killed a pair of vampire Elders, she had relations with a human-turned-Lycan-turned-vampire-Lycan-hybrid (it’s a long story) and she mothered a child whose blood is an essential ingredient in allowing her Lycan foes to create an army of vampire-Lycan hybrids, which would spell the end of the vampire race.
Primarily the film focuses on the last of these as its engine, which seems like a solid starting point for a self-serious movie about vampires warring with werewolves. (Queue iconic screen monsters awkwardly snarling at each other.) But there’s more, because vampires cannot help but make Machiavellian maneuvers, so the hunt for Selene is blended with a subthread in which the vampire Semira (Lara Pulver) schemes to exsanguinate Selene, drink her blood, gain her power…and after that the details of her ploy grow a tad murky. There’s a lot of “stuff” to work through here, which may explain why arcs introduced in previous Underworld movies go unmentioned. When last we spent time with Selene, for example, humanity had stumbled upon the existence of both Lycans and vampires, and hunted them with genocidal vigor. Underworld: Blood Wars doesn’t reference this for even a moment.
Maybe wiping out entire species is just drudgery, or maybe director Anna Foerster didn’t want to go there any further. Either way, dropping that plotline uncouples the film from its mythology. If the preceding Underworld films were any good, the chasm separating them from Underworld: Blood Wars would be cataclysmic. As it stands it’s only puzzling, but the film is a drag on its own merits, narrative dissonance be damned: Its FX work is on the same level as most Syfy original movies, its style still leans on the same goddamn steel-blue filter that’s defined the series’ aesthetic since 2003 and its script is afloat in undercooked political intrigue and painfully inert fight scenes. Semira’s Shakespearean treachery could sustain an entire movie on its own, but Underworld: Blood Wars is split between her indelicate subterfuge and set pieces that involve crowds of extras firing guns off-frame or clumsily swinging swords at digitized werewolves. It’s bifurcated into two equally listless halves.
Worst of all, it wastes the considerable talents of its cast, especially Charles Dance and James Faulkner, who alongside Pulver make the best impression as they chew into the film’s genre soap opera. (That’s saying nothing of Beckinsale, who, after a great showing in 2016’s Love & Friendship, has gotten her 2017 off to an unfortunate start with this cerulean trainwreck.) A movie where Tywin Lannister duels Irene Adler and where Faulkner vertically slices a werewolf in twain doesn’t deserve to be so coltish, haphazard and laughably absurd. That’s the legacy of the Underworld films in a nutshell, though: They’ve always deserved to be better than they actually are. But Underworld: Blood Wars exists on another plane of lousy from its predecessors, a product hustled into cinemas with no regard for its competence or its well being as cinema. It’s the rare dud that you’ll pity as much as revile.
Director: Anna Foerster
Writers: Cory Goodman, Kyle Ward
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Theo James, Lara Pulver, Tobias Menzies, Charles Dance, James Faulkner, Clementine Nicholson
Release Date: January 6, 2017
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.