Mixed Bag with Underworld Rise of the Lycans
By Kristin Battestella
As opposed to rushing to the theater for Underworld: Evolution, my anticipation of the 2009 prequel Underworld: Rise of the Lycans was meh. When I finally took a chance on the bluray, however, my feeling was, well, meh. While it’s wonderful to see a complete, complex storyline come to fruition, an abundance of ill effects and darkness undoes Rise of the Lycans.
Elder vampire Viktor (Billy Nighy) takes in a werewolf servant Lucian (Michael Sheen) and raises him along side his daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra). Lucian is able to control his Lycan urges and remain in human form; and over time, he and Sonja fall in love. Unfortunately, this upsets Viktor’s plan for establishing an entire class of werewolf guardians, along with his domination of local human nobles. Viktor and his vampire Death Dealers protect the populations from wild, ruthless Lycans; but when the Lycans bow to Lucian as their leader, both he and Sonja are subject to Viktor’s wrath.
Cinema today is somewhat bizarre. We have franchises that play out and go for far too long while others are butchered, cut short, and cease to realize their full potential. For Rise of the Lycans and the Underworld franchise, it seems they’ve suffered both. On one hand, it’s a delight that house writers Danny McBride, Len Wiseman, and Robert Orr along with Dirk Blackman and Howard McCain (Outlander) (whew) are able to bring their entire vision to the screen. Through the first and second films, we get tantalizing pieces of this complex back-story. It may seem a slim Romeo and Juliet knock off in some spots, but Rise of the Lycans serves its purpose for fans who want all the ins and outs of this universe.
Then again, Rise of the Lycans is a little bit of a downer against its precursor successors. Yes, it lays the foundation for what is to come, but this picture is too different from the others. A period piece following hot black leather-Rise of the Lycans reeks of that sub par, unloved third film that just goes too far. We loved the Ewoks as kids, of course, but now…Not so much.
As with most action films, regardless of what format or setup you have, the voices are always too damn soft and the action is too freaking loud. Unfortunately, Rise of the Lycans’ effects aren’t that good, either. Even though Underworld mated film, comics, and CGI before 300, Rise of the Lycans looks distinctly ‘300ified’. So many layers of repeated werewolf action in dark, nondescript forest settings; over and over, you can’t tell who is who unless it’s a slow motion panoramic Lycan up on his hind legs for a roar. Even the fights are unoriginal. Sure, it’s cool the first time, but after a dozen chops of the wolf’s head in half through the jaw, it’s not impressive. Modern Underworld fans liked the slick black leather and vampire gunnery, so I’m not even sure that such an audience would go for a film with swords, crossbows, and castle sieges. For whom then, is Rise of the Lycans made?
I’m sure there are documents out there clarifying who is who and when and where all this takes place, but the castle could have been any old castle, the vampire chicks wear sassy modern stuff, and Rhona Mitra looks just like she did in the futuristic Beowulf. Mitra is pretty, sweet Jesus of course; but her lips are kind of big, her hair is always in her face, and though skilled, she does not have the presence or appeal of Kate Beckinsale’s Selene. Her look and critical scenes match the Underworld flashback snips we received previously, fortunately. We hear time and again how Viktor adores Selene because of her kinship to Sonja, but I think it would have been too over the top to have Beckinsale portray both. Mitra’s dialogue and delivery are just right-I think it’s the film’s ill balance between romance and action that hinders Sonja. Rise of the Lycans is too short for any real love to develop, but its overlong in its action.
Confusing nighttime action also takes away from the fine performances of Brit A-listers Michael Sheen (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) and Billy Nighy (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pirates of the Caribbean). The battle of words and wits between them is wordy and confusing, yet not nearly enough. I’d love to see these two men at odds again in a straightforward dramatic piece-a film that allows them to sit opposite each other and debate. In Rise of the Lycans, it doesn’t seem like they have any time together. Again, the mix of action trying to be period piece hinders what talent and maturity it has. Sheen and Nighy could certainly handle a solid, gothic picture; but would Underworld fans watch that? No.
Going by the title, Rise of the Lycans is definitely pro werewolf. There are werefans out there who will eat up all the bad CGI wolves and cheer when these dogs get there day. The re-invigorated vampire audiences created by the first two films, are however, left by the wayside. Outside of a few lines ala ‘They are vampires!’ there is no evidence of vampirism. They have cool eyes, pale skin, and fangs, big deal. Not that the first two films gave us traditional bloodsuckers by any means, but after Rise of the Lycans, I realized how unscary and technically not horror this franchise is. Was I scared out of my werewatching wits like Silver Bullet or creeped out like An American Werewolf in London? No.
Although the bluray disc was easy to navigate, there were only the usual behind the scenes features. What, no deleted scenes- it seemed like there should have been more than the feature proper. Honestly, this wasn’t the best bluray transfer I’ve seen, either. In comparison with The Dark Knight’s multilayered and detailed nighttime streets and black on black costumes and gear, Rise of the Lycans is a blur. Everything is so dang dark. Was this cinematography error or bad bluray? Perhaps it is a bit of both.
Fans of the series no doubt love Rise of the Lycans and accept it for its story despite its flaws. Fans of the cast and collectors of course own the DVD, but casual viewers will be left out in the cold. Already confused with a fine story but poor action, Rise of the Lycans biggest fault is that you have to be intimate with the first two pictures to appreciate the plot or even care about the characters. General werewolf fans or vampire lovers should definitely wait for lower prices, rentals, or other viewing options before taking the plunge with Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. And while you wait, feast of the first two Underworlds.