Zombie Franchises: Underworld

Where does one assign the blame for an unkillable schlock franchise?

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Zombie Franchises: <i>Underworld</i>

Zombie Franchises is a series of occasional articles in which Ken Lowe examines one of the shambling intellectual properties that plods onward under sheer force of box office money. Be wary of spoilers for movies that have been out for a while.

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“I said no to him professionally many times over the years—some of which ended up with him screaming at me calling me a c*** and making threats, some of which made him laughingly tell people oh ‘Kate lives to say no to me.’ It speaks to the status quo in this business that I was aware that standing up for myself and saying no to things, while it did allow me to feel uncompromised in myself, undoubtedly harmed my career. —Kate Beckinsale, speaking of run-ins with Harvey Weinstein starting ca. 2000

I ask this earnestly: Why is it that I can remember reams of details about the founding of the Jedi Order, rattle off the names of every one of Commander Shepard’s squad members (even the knockoffs that stand in for the ones who die), or recognize the difference between an orc’s 3rd Edition and 5th Edition stat blocks yet remember nothing about the five-part Underworld franchise? Intricate rules and ridiculous continuity are supposed to be what draw me in. This series actually has less lore and yet none of it leaves any impression. It is a mystery I may never solve.

It’s tempting to call the Underworld franchise unique, but it manifestly is not. I’ve written, at length, more than once, about the sheer un-kill-ability of the Resident Evil franchise which is a 1) black-leather slo-mo gun fest 2) starring a cut female action star with superpowers 3) directed and/or produced by her husband. Evidently the theatergoers of the world have enough love in their hearts for this brand of schlock to support two such franchises.

Late last year saw murmurings of a possible Underworld television show, which is becoming the default course of action when your franchise has hit rock bottom. As we wait to hear more, I realize that, like me, many may not actually know much about this series, and more importantly, who is responsible.

Insert déjà vu joke here: The Case Against The Matrix
Maybe we should level that blame at the Wachowskis and specifically Carrie-Anne Moss. In the years immediately following The Matrix trilogy, there were no shortage of lame imitators in every medium. In those innocent days of early 2003, when we were still in just one unwinnable Middle Eastern conflict and even the poor X-Men needed to wear all-black outfits of dubious breathability, there was some unresolved tension between audiences and the character of Trinity: a badass lady in badass leather whose mission in life was mulching henchmen.

Screen Gems—the same font of artistic vision that gave us the Resident Evil series—set its sights on filling that oddly specific yet totally understandable niche and tapped director Len Wiseman to make Underworld.

Underworld (2003) is surely the product that many a red-pill IRC role-player was hoping for. As the vampire “Death Dealer” Selene, Kate Beckinsale is the incarnation of black-clad ultraviolence, a renowned slayer of werewolves, which this series for some reason groaningly insists on calling “lycans” and which I will not do anywhere else in this article. (I am not interested in seeing your homebrew Death Dealer prestige class that you successfully self-published under the d20 Open Game License.)

Memory fails me, but I am willing to state, in writing, in an article which bears my name and is subject to the scrutiny of the internet, that the plot revolves around Selene falling in love with a human scientist who is bitten by a werewolf. In an inspired bit of scripting that presages the sparkling wit on display throughout the series, that werewolf’s name is Michael and his blood is like, really special. Their forbidden love—and vampire/werewolf machinations far too complicated to enumerate here—lead to an absurd number of squibs going off, and equally absurd revelations about why werewolves were slaves of vampires and Who Killed Selene’s Father. Michael even becomes a vampire/werewolf hybrid two full years before Stephenie Meyer published Twilight. I decline to speculate whether we have Underworld to thank for Twilight and its risible unlicensed spin-off Fifty Shades of Grey, but if I had a corkboard and some string and no day job, it would be worth investigating.

All this overwrought ridiculousness brought in $95 million in worldwide box office when all was said and done, and on a $22 million budget. It’s a shame it did so while doing pretty much everything that Blade did but worse. (I acknowledge that Blade is responsible for this vampire-slaying kick, too, with its bad-and-by-bad-I-mean-awesome sequel debuting just the year prior to Underworld, but to suggest any other comparison is, in the words of its protagonist, to ice-skate uphill.)

Still, success will always breed imitators, and it’s hard to fault the late ’90s action movies for sowing the seeds for schlock like this.

A Marriage Born in the Underworld: The Case Against Len and Kate
When you have a franchise with installments that cost on average about $35 million and regularly make back more than double that, you’re going to see more installments made. But when your production is also a family affair, you get some of the blame for perpetuating it.

Director Len Wiseman married Kate Beckinsale a year after the first Underworld film, and it’s worth mentioning that the two collaborated on the final installment in 2016 (which Wiseman produced) despite having been separated for a year by that point. Before she launched the franchise, Beckinsale had been partnered with fellow Underworld actor Michael Sheen, but split up with him after the movie. Their daughter even starred in one of the sequels.

Beckinsale and Wiseman’s marriage and subsequent cooperation spawned four more of these damn things: Underworld: Evolution, Underworld: Rise of the L-Words (I won’t say it), Underworld: Awakening and finally, 2016’s Underworld: Blood Wars.

Try watching any of these movies. You will be able to count the number of colors on one hand. There is no sense of place or time, no sense of a world. The continuity with previous entries is perfunctory at best. If you haven’t been keeping up with the series, go ahead and watch Blood Wars, the latest installment, and tell me honestly: Can you tell if we’re living in a world where there are any humans, any governments, any other organizations that might be affected by a knockdown fight between factions of monstrous armies?

Much of the fault for these banal crimes against narrative cohesion surely lies with Wiseman and Beckinsale, who have shepherded the series since its inception. And yet it also somehow feels unfair to be too harsh on them. Again, her daughter by a previous relationship showed up, so it seems like there aren’t hard feelings between any of the parties involved. Their marriage was not the sort of cradle-theft, May-December coupling that makes the casual observer roll his eyes for the state of humanity, either. Beckinsale and Wiseman are the same age and, to be blunt, roughly equally attractive. If this is dreck, it’s dreck that seemed to be at least a fairly earnest family affair, without anything overtly unseemly. Which, speaking of…

“Kate lives to say ‘no’ to me”: The Case Against Harvey Weinstein
Beckinsale has alleged she turned down Weinstein’s advances when she was just 17-years-old. It’s important to keep these claims in context and to stress that no concrete materials have come out that definitively show that Weinstein sandbagged Beckinsale’s career because she, a minor and then later a grown woman of her own volition, refused to have sex with him. It is also important to remember that mounds of testimony have argued that Weinstein retained a small army to assassinate the characters and careers of women who spoke out to allege he harassed and assaulted and raped them.

Nothing Beckinsale has publicly said against Weinstein seems out of the realm of possibility based on the claims of dozens and dozens of other women and many in the industry and Weinstein’s own company. If he did purposely use his industry clout to deny her better opportunities, is it a surprise that this attractive, bankable, talented woman—a woman with credits in a handful of some really important films, yet with the occasional long gap in her filmography—has had to keep coming back to projects that were produced by her husband, perhaps the one man in Hollywood who could not be buffaloed out of casting her?

I’m not saying that this happened—I’m saying it’s easy to imagine that it did, and that it’s easy to imagine a woman who has starred in stuff like The Aviator but very little else of note may be the victim of a concerted effort to hold her back. If that’s true, who knows what she would’ve done besides creatively bankrupt trash like Underworld?


Kenneth Lowe can soak aggravated damage. He works in media relations for state government in Illinois and his writing has appeared in Colombia Reports, Illinois Issues Magazine and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Read more of his writing at his blog or follow him on Twitter.

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