While many may scoff when I say this, let me just go ahead and admit right here that I unabashedly love the Underworld movies, a series I once referred to as the “Lord of the Rings of Werewolf Movies.” The first Underworld came along right at the perfect time for me. I was still super into horror action cinema at the time (coming off films like Blade and The Matrix, whose influences were being felt industry-wide), and I just couldn’t think of anything cooler than watching werewolves and vampires kicking each other’s respective otherworldly asses.
Other than the films’ tendencies to sometimes take themselves just a little too seriously, I’ve always felt like the Underworld movies have unjustly received a bad wrap within the horror community and deserve far more love and respect than they ever get. From their commitment to creating intricate character-driven storytelling that has taken us through (now) five films, to their often awe-inspiring creatures and action sequences, to giving us one of the best modern cinematic heroines with Kate Beckinsale’s Selene, you can count me as one of the biggest Underworld fans out there.
What first began back in 2003 as a roll of the dice by three up-and-coming talents in Hollywood (Len Wiseman, Kevin Grevioux, and the non-actor Danny McBride), the Underworld franchise has grossed over $450 million dollars in box office receipts to date and is about unleash the fifth chapter in its ongoing saga, Underworld: Blood Wars. Because of Blood Wars’ impending release date, and the fact that it’s been a few years since we last saw Selene, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to not only take a look back at all the Underworld films as a whole, but to also highlight just a few of the reasons why I enjoy these movies as much as I have for nearly 15 years now.
At the beginning of the first Underworld film, we learn that there is a centuries-old blood feud that continues to rage on between the Vampires and the Lycans. Selene, one of the deadliest Death Dealers working on the side of the bloodsuckers, notices Michael (Scott Speedman), a medical intern, being hunted by the Lycans. She foils their experimentation plans on Michael and soon uncovers that he is derived from the Corvinus bloodline that is of great interest to the Lycans, who want to exert their dominance over the Vampires. What starts off as a thwarted kidnapping ends up turning into a love affair between Selene and Michael, and after the Lycans locate where the Death Dealer has stashed her new beau, an all-out battle ensues between the Vampires and the Lycans with huge ramifications for both species.
The first Underworld (until Awakening, at least) is arguably the best of the franchise, as it deftly manages to be brutal and sleek while working in about 300 years of backstory as well. With a two-hour-plus running time, I get how Underworld can be a trying experience for some, as some folks are ready to mentally check out on anything they’re watching if it’s over 90 minutes. But I got completely caught up in the mythology established here and was happy to go along for the entire ride. Soaked in a blue-steel palette, Underworld does a fantastic job of building and then reveling in its gritty comic book-infused world, evoking a strong visual style brimming with beautifully frenetic battle sequences that would become the trademark look for the entire series.
As far as Underworld’s story goes, there is A LOT going on here. We have the backstory on the Vampire elders and why the werewolves are treated like a second-class species, then the present-day implications of Selene and Michael’s growing romance, the truth behind how Selene became a vampire in the first place, and much more. I’m the first to admit that it’s definitely some dense material to get through, but at least Underworld gives its audiences a rich mythology to get immersed in while watching Beckinsale crack skulls and assert her dominance as a premiere badass. It would have been easy to only focus on the film’s hyper-stylized look and action, but Underworld dared to give us something more to balance everything out.
Also, any movie with Bill Nighy (especially in a villainous role) is a movie worth watching in my book, and the veteran actor’s performance gives Underworld an added sense of gravitas beyond its expansive mythology, elevating the entire project as a whole.
Underworld: Evolution, the first of the franchise’s sequels, was released in 2006 and picks up precisely where the original film left off, following Selene and her hybrid lover Michael, who are now working together to put an end to the war between the series’ two species. They hope that revealing the truth of what really happened between the Vampires and Lycans centuries ago will forge an understanding between the two factions, rather than continuing the battle between the two groups.
Even though there’s far more violence and gore in this Underworld sequel than its predecessor, most of the focus of Evolution is on Selene and Michael’s troubled love story. The film also lays down more of the groundwork for the entire Underworld mythology, exploring the origins of the Vampires and Lycans, as we learn how the first of each creature came to be, as well as centuries-old implications for members of both species.
Evolution also features the introduction of Vampire Elder Markus (portrayed by Tony Curran), who makes Nighy’s dastardly ways in the first Underworld seem like child’s play in comparison. The creature work in Evolution is definitely better than its predecessor, too (I’m guessing having a bigger budget at their disposal certainly helped) and Beckinsale finally seems to settle into her starring role in this installment. But as big of a fan as I am, I’d have to say Evolution is probably one of my least favorite entries in the franchise, only because the film’s final act feels needlessly rushed and certain reveals don’t do much to advance the current storyline, as Evolution is more content to just spin its wheels in the past.
That being said, Evolution does give Selene a few more tools to tuck up her Lycra sleeve for future battles—unfortunately, it would be another six years until fans would actually get to see Selene back in action.
For 2009’s Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, we start off several centuries before the first Underworld, when Viktor (Nighy) discovers an infant Lycan that can shift into a beast at will without the need for a full moon. This changes everything that the Vampires had known about the Lycans’ world, and we soon learn that the infant in question is none other than Lucian (Michael Sheen, who plays an integral part in the original film), who is bred by Viktor in order to fulfill his need for slaves to protect his kingdom. A forbidden romance soon blossoms between Lucian and Viktor’s daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra), which incites both an uprising and a war that (as we have now seen) would rage on for centuries to come.
While Rise of the Lycans‘ biggest issue is undoubtedly its lack of Beckinsale, there’s still something to be said for the prequel, especially considering it brings back Nighy and gives some of what we saw in the original Underworld a new twist, as we come to see that Lucian wasn’t necessarily the villain we thought he was. Understandably, Mitra’s and Sheen’s romance feels a bit sappy (which turned off some fans), and some of their romantic scenes slow the film down to an almost sluggish pace.
But once Lucian is ready to declare war against Viktor, that’s when Sheen and his character both come into their own, as the actor gets the opportunity to shine in Rise of the Lycans in ways he didn’t get to in the original Underworld.
After giving fans a Kate Beckinsale-less prequel with Rise of the Lycans, Selene made her triumphant return in the 2012 sequel, Underworld: Awakening. The fourth film pitted the Death Dealer (who had been cryogenically frozen after the events of Evolution) against both the Lycans and a powerful corporation named Antigen, whose primary focus is eradicating the world of the non-human “plague” by creating a cure for the otherworldly creatures via nefarious techniques that put Selene squarely in the center of an all-out battle for supremacy.
Awakening gave the Underworld franchise something of a needed jolt, as it not only allowed Beckinsale to explore a side of Selene that we had yet to see—protective mother—but it also introduced humans into the ongoing war between these two factions of creatures, giving this new chapter some much-needed complexity (after all, following three previous movies, there’s only so much left to do with their Lycan/Vampire war concept, especially since they were so thorough in their explorations of the idea) and adding a new dynamic to the overall story as well.
The introduction of Eve (India Eisley), Selene’s daughter in Awakening, was something I very much appreciated as a longtime fan because it was an extension of the relationship she first shared with Michael, which was not only the catalyst for the entire series, but also provided some emotional centeredness to counterbalance the Underworld films’ gritty and violent undertones.
Seeing their romance manifested in human form by way of Eve provided Beckinsale’s Selene with some real stakes, as the Death Dealer hadn’t needed to be concerned with the well-being of someone other than herself since Michael’s disappearance at the end of Evolution. On paper, Selene may not seem like the “deepest” heroine to grace the big screen, but the heart and soul of the super-stylized franchise has always been her forbidden love for and devotion to Michael, so seeing that play out in Awakening in a very different way (via Eva) gave Selene a new dynamic that was intriguingly fun to watch.
I know the Underworld movies have their fair share of detractors out there who have never really given this series much thought, and I get it. At first glance, it might be easy to dismiss these films as “The Matrix with monsters,” but for me, there’s a lot more going on beyond all the kickass action and creatures. And a big part of that comes from Beckinsale herself, an underrated actress (seriously, check out her performances in The Last Days of Disco, Laurel Canyon, or even Brokedown Palace), who has driven this franchise for almost 15 years now, and who I’d gladly welcome back for 15 more.
Very few franchises in horror have given us this kind of intricate material and wealth of characters to dive into the way Underworld has, and for that, the film series will always have my respect and gratitude. As a fan who loves it when action and horror come together on the big screen for a sweeping, epic story, Underworld is a series I wish more horror fans would embrace, because there’s really a lot of fun to be had with this universe. Plus, the way the Underworld franchise has paid attention to continuity over the years is truly unparalleled in comparison to many other modern horror series, and that’s something I will always tip my hat to as a fan.