You need to watch the best sci-fi trilogy on Netflix before it leaves this week
The first three movies in the Underworld series aren't just perfect for Halloween, they're amazing relics of a time in action cinema gone by.
Even when it's my job to watch movies, there are some films I've never given the time of day. Until now, that included a popular dark action series that has grossed half a billion dollars. And it's weird I haven't. Because it has an actor I really like, and gothic, Dungeons & Dragons type stuff I really dig. Never paying it mind is now one of my biggest regrets.
I'll blame it on the rise of the superhero of the 2000s that stole all my attention. But with their imminent departure from Netflix, I did myself a favor I owed long ago: I finally watched Underworld, Underworld: Evolution, and Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, three dark action films you need to watch on Netflix before they all leave the streaming service on October 31.
An original concept not based on any books, comic books, or video games (though there was a lawsuit alleging plagiarism from the tabletop games Vampire: The Masquerade), the Underworld movies center around a secret, never-ending war between vampires and lycanthropes. At the center of it all is Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a gun-toting vampire assassin who seeks revenge against all werewolves for murdering her parents — she thinks.
In the first film, Underworld, released in 2003 and directed by Len Wiseman, Selene meets a medical student, Michael (Scott Speedman) who is bit by the leader of the werewolves, Lucian (Michael Sheen). They soon learn Michael is the descendant of the common ancestor between vampires and werewolves. As a result, he has rare blood that lets him turn into an unseen hybrid of vampire and werewolf.
The rest of the Underworld series centers on Selene, who gets caught up in the escalating vampire-werewolf war as it spills out into the rest of the world. The one exception is 2009's Underworld: Rise of the Lycans from director Patrick Tatopoulos, a prequel set centuries prior that chronicles the rebellion of the lycans against their vampiric masters. Sheen reprises his Underworld villain Lucian (now the hero of the story) with Beckinsale in a cameo.
In this era of superheroes with inflated shared universes, the first three Underworld movies remain impressive as relics of a time gone by. The plot is minimal; what matters is how the movies relish cinematic action.
Across the three movies, there is a competence in hyper-kinetic action — someone behind the scenes really loves John Woo — while at the same time respecting lighting and legibility. Fight scenes in underground tunnels and caves and night time taverns remain visually clear, something even big movies like Avengers: Endgame often flub. Sure, the color palette is consistently black and light blue, but it's not like Selene is known for a colorful costume that would be a crime to wash out in dark brown. (Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman, anyone?)
Something else I've missed in modern action movies that Underworld has in spades are physical costumes for its monsters. As CGI technology grew sophisticated and cheaper (and the turnaround time for such movies became quicker), it became a sin to utilize physical creature effects and costumes for dark genre movies. That's not so in the first three Underworlds, which use physical werewolf costumes and makeup more often than not.
There's a misconception we as an audience need to get over, and it's that real costumes for monsters make everything look like Power Rangers. If the alternative is CGI that ages so poorly it makes the movie look like a PlayStation 2 game in five years, I'll take Power Rangers any day. (And that's not to say Underworld's effects are a slouch. These monsters hold up even as the films approach 20 years old. It's cliche, but they don't make them like they used to.)
Finally, the X factor of the Underworld movies are Kate Beckinsale herself, who is also bizarrely underrated and underestimated in the conversation of onscreen action icons. Once poised to lead Hollywood as a dramatic, romantic lead — two years before Underworld, Beckinsale starred in the 2001 romantic comedy hit Serendipity, which seemed like the sort of movies where Beckinsale would flourish — the British actress took a left turn into action with Underworld. And its success, grossing $95 million on a $22 million budget, has made Beckinsale into a bonafide action heroine even while the rest of Hollywood still wonders if women can, in fact, be superheroes. Gal Gadot and Charlize Theron certainly deserve praise, but Beckinsale is long overdue for recognition.
The Underworld movies were the brainchild of Kevin Grevioux, who also stars as supporting character Raze. In a 2017 interview with Shadow and Act, he said he was approached for the concept by Wiseman, whom he befriended on the set of 1994's Stargate. Wiseman told him that Dimension Films was looking to cash in on the success of Blade, and Wiseman wanted to know if Grevioux could whip up a vampire story.
Grevioux gave him two. One of them as a "backup" that riffed on Shakespeare, in case the studio passes on their main pitch. In a funny turn of events, it was the backup that Sony's genre label Screen Gems went with.
"What if we do a Romeo and Juliet story but instead of Montague and Capulet we have werewolves on one side and vampires on the other and tell the tale of some surrealistic interracial love story that spans 200, 300, 400-year race war," Grevioux said. "And that eventually became Underworld."
After experiencing Underworld for the first time, I understand why I never watched them in the first place. That's not a knock on their quality; I just mean these are wildly good, wildly niche genre flicks that occupy the same cultural corners as horror video games and Slipknot albums. I love horror and I love Kate Beckinsale. (I don't love Slipknot.) But there was an ineffable magic spell that kept me allergic to Underworld until I finally gave in.
You might say, I've been bit.
Underworld, Underworld: Evolution, and Underworld: Rise of the Lycans are streaming on Netflix now until October 31.