With the upcoming release of the latest vampire vs. werewolf film, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, I’ve been pondering my inexplicable affection for the first two Underworld films. By all rights I should hate them: at first glance they’re surface-intense, drama-light, filled with inconsistencies and missed dramatic opportunities. They use the tattered trope of sexy, leather-clad vampires and sexy, hairy-bodied (and oddly all-male) werewolves. They’re Twilight for the fetish set.
Some people close to me think it’s all strictly because of Kate Beckinsale.
I dispute that, though: Ms. Beckinsale has been in some of the worst movies I’ve seen, such as Serendipity, Pearl Harbor, Van Helsing, Click and Brokedown Palace. She is attractive, certainly, but she’s a Hollywood actress and that’s part of her job. Praising an actress for being beautiful is like complimenting a doctor for knowing anatomy.
Instead, I think it’s her Underworld character, Selene. In the story that encompasses the first two films, she is undeniably the hero. Not, let me point out, a heroine, which is a designation that insists upon gender. She is the hero.
This is what makes the Underworld films different. They completely invert the sexual dynamic of the standard action movie. Michael (Scott Speedman) takes the traditional “girl” role, constantly in danger and in need of rescuing. Even when he develops his own powers he still needs saving, and in both films it’s Selene, not Michael, who confronts the main villain. She does so in the first film specifically to save Michael, and in the second film without Michael’s help.
Not that she doesn’t show physical weakness; she is a vampire, after all, and can be (temporarily) hurt, or destroyed by the sun. But she shows no stereotypically female emotional weakness. No betrayal or surprise is enough to cause her to crumble. She defeats physically stronger opponents with speed and skill, and suffers injuries when these aren’t enough. She is, in fact, an antidote for every adolescent-fantasy, over-the-top caricature played by Milla Jovavich, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Garner, Sarah Michelle Gellar or Summer Glau. Yes, she’s sexy in that black leather suit (or out of it), which certainly doesn’t hurt. But what makes her unique is that beneath the sexiness and fetish gear, she’s a hero.
I’m not really looking forward to the new Underworld film, mainly because director Len Wiseman has stepped aside for newcomer (and former special-effects guru) Patrick Tatapoulos. And because it’s a prequel there’s no Selene, although casting Rhona (Doomsday) Mitra as the heroine is about as close as you can get without actually using Kate Beckinsale. Still, we know how this story ends: it forms the background for the first two films. Like every prequel, it’s ultimately pointless.
I’ll give it a shot, though, to see if the Underworld magic is still there. And if not, that’s okay. Underworld and Underworld: Evolution tell a complete story about a hero who sheds her illusions, determines her own fate and finds love on her own terms. And if she looks good in black leather doing it, that’s a bonus.