Underworld (2003)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Featurettes, Storyboards, Music Video, Trailers, TV Spots

I am typically not a friend of contemporarized horror motives, meaning horror films that take classic horror icons and transplant them into our modern day world. Vampires, werewolves and such are gothic material and in my book have little place in a modern day high tech world. The fact that virtually all of these attempts in the past have been ridiculously misguided and fall flat on their face, is further proof of that.

With that in mind I was extremely hesitant about "Underworld," a film that once again walks the thin line of transplanting these night-dwelling creatures into a modern world scenario. It was only a few minutes into the film however that I realized that in this case the attempt was at the very least sincere and atmospheric.

Vampires and Werewolves – here known as Lycans – have been waging war against each other for centuries. Disguised as regular human beings they walk modern day cities but still have the traits of their ancestors and have become masterful shape shifters to hide their true natures. One day vampire Selene (Kate Beckinsale) witnesses two Lycans stalking a human in broad daylight, something they typically do not do. The vampires try to kill her on sight in a furious shootout in a subway station but they fail. The event strikes her too odd to be a coincidence and she tries to find out why there werewolves would be interested in that human in particular. The more she tries to find out, the more it seems as if she has discovered a vast conspiracy that could very well mean the end of all vampires. Her research also indicates that Lucian – a legendary Lycan leader who was reportedly killed centuries ago – is once again walking the Earth. Trusting no one, Selene decides to wake her mentor from his deep sleep, much to the horror of her fellow vampires.

The thing that is immediately striking about "Underworld" is its look. Despite its modern day settings, the film manages to create a dark gothic flair almost throughout through its wonderful production design and the great cinematography. Like a comic book, almost, it creates an imagery that is very visual and memorable. The scene of Selene leaping off the balcony in the rain right at the start of the movie is without a doubt one of the most memorable shots I’ve seen in a horror movie in a long time. Its elegance, its atmosphere, and Beckinsale’s radiance in that shot is giving it a supernatural feel that creates a cinematic magic moment. Throughout the film we are treated to moments like these, making "underworld" a very enjoyable experience.

The film also has a certain coolness that oozes from the characters constantly, keeping the viewer glues to the events as they unfold. While the story may not be very remarkable all by itself, it is the combination of visuals, characters and pacing that help make this movie a great genre entry. At the same time however, "Underworld" oftentimes has more of an action movie than a horror film in general. Whether this is a good thing or not, is up to everyone’s personal taste. I found it a bit too heavy on the gunplay, but at least it was executed in the best John Woo tradition with well-crafted slow motion shots, and great visuals as opposed to the ridiculous Matrix-style editing hack jobs.

Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment is bringing us "Underworld" in its original <$PS,widescreen> presentation on this DVD. The transfer is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> TV sets and look beautifully rich and clean. A <$PS,fullframe> version is available as a separate release, but frankly, who cares? The presentation is absolutely clean and free of blemishes. Color reproduction is superb with natural flash tones and effect lights that are vibrant, featuring vivid hues. Black levels on the release are meticulous, creating blacks that are absolutely solid. Shadows are finely delineated but never loose definition, adding immensely to the wonderful cinematography of the film, as they give depth to the image. No notable edge-enhancement is visible and the compression is equally free of artifacts.

On the audio side, "Underworld" pleases with a powerful <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> track that is aggressive and makes very good use of the surround channels. The wide frequency response of the track gives it plenty of oompf with basses reaching far down to give your subwoofer something to work with. At the same time the high end of the spectrum is crystal clear at all times, adding clarity to the mix. Surrounds are engaged almost constantly and especially during the action scenes the surround effects are used to maximum effect with bullets and action elements bombarding the listener from all directions. Dialogues are well integrated and never drowned out by the music. Apropos music, while the majority of the film features a great score that helps set the mood for this film, occasionally the filmmakers revert to the same bad habit other contemporary genre filmmakers have fallen into by bombarding the audience with trashy heavy metal at the most inopportune moments. For me it takes away from the experience, especially because the pieces used are not very good by any stretch of imagination, creating nothing but a shrill, squealing cacophony that gets on your nerves after all but a few seconds.

"Underworld" comes packed with a number of extras such as a <$commentary,commentary track> featuring director Len Wiseman and his writers. Especially Wiseman is a very amicable guy who manages to bring across his thoughts in a very conversational manner. The track elaborates on many aspects of the film and the story in general and is a great addition to the release. A technical commentary is also included which focuses mostly on the actual production and the special effects and stunts from the film. As the title suggests, the more technically inclined will find plenty of great tidbits here.

A series of featurettes is also included on the DVD. They cover various aspects of the production and are very well put together, making for an informative and entertaining viewing. Some o these featurettes focus on the story and the world that the film is set in. With many interview snippets and a lot of on-set footage we learn how the idea for the film came about and what the filmmakers’ intentions were. Another featurette focuses on the action scenes and stunts, and we’re treated to footage of the cast preparing for the film. Another featurette then takes a close look at the creature effects in the film, explaining how certain shots were achieved, and why a rather low-tech approach was chosen for this movie.

A section with storyboard comparisons can also be found on the release to give you an idea how certain scenes in the film evolved. The Finch music video "Worms of the Earth" is also included on the release as well as a series of trailers and TV spots.

I was very pleasantly surprised by "Underworld." A lot of it is, no doubt, carried by Kate Beckinsale’s wonderfully enigmatic performance and the great cinematography making the film a visual feast. While the filmmakers still stepped into a few of the pitfalls of modern filmmaking, overall, "Underworld" is a powerful and charming film that will definitely keep you engaged for its entire running length.