Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)

When there’s a vampire around, odds are a werewolf isn’t far away. In the last couple decades movies concerned with the bloodsucking creatures of the night — Twilight, Van Helsing, even What We Do in the Shadows — seem inevitably concerned also with slightly hairier, howlier creatures. They’re never equally concerned with werewolves, though, casting them consistently in cameos for pure shock value, and so the conceit of the third Underworld film Rise of the Lycans is a smart one: give the werewolves their due.

The result is by no means a good movie, unless you’re somehow enraptured by the Underworld series. If you’re not, then you might refer to Rise of the Lycans as The One Without Kate Beckinsale, which is a large part of the film’s undoing in the same way the new Independence Day could essentially be subtitled The One Without Will Smith. The bitch of it all is that Michael Sheen, starring as head were-dude Lucian, is a far better actor than Beckinsale will likely ever be. He’s a Shakespearian tragedian, she’s an action hero. Underworld, of course, actually needs the latter, and sadly Michael Sheen just isn’t an action hero. His head’s too big. He’s got the biceps, sure, but everyone has the biceps these days. Have you guys seen Jonathan Lipnicki lately? Sheen is somehow more naturally proportional in his werewolf form than as a regular human. Maybe they should have CGI’d his forehead down.

Which brings us to the special effects in this third jaunt through the Underworld, the film’s other undoing besides a lack of Beckinsale. Lycans came out in the same year as the groundbreaking and amazing-looking Avatar, but the effects more readily bring to mind Pumpkinhead or the last third of the 1994 were-precursor Wolf. Here’s a helpful video of a few man-to-wolf transformations in the Underworld film series to date:

The best one in that rundown is by far the Raze one from the original Underworld, while some of the worst are from Rise of the Lycans. Not included is the almost-transformation of Scott Speedman’s Michael Corvin in Underworld, with the in-depth rib breakage, the most inventive and detailed CG-heavy sequence in the series to date. Hell, even the little blood-crawling part in that first film where Lucian gets shot with silver nitrate suggests a more nimble special effects crew than anything in Rise of the Lycans. This is your time to shine, canines! You blew it! Why is it so damn dark in every shot of this movie? By all accounts, the effects in Rise of the Lycans come across as hasty, unconvincing, and at times straight-up cheap. Speaking of straight-up: this is Underworld, guys. Rise of the Lycans didn’t exactly have a lot to live up to and it still dropped the ball.

Do we blame the special effects budget? The budget for the original Underworld was $22 million — small, and understandably so for the first film of the series. Likewise, the sequel Evolution upped the monies to $50 million, and the fourth episode — Awakening, marking the valiant (ahem) return of Kate Beckinsale — upped again to $70 million. Rise of the Lycans, the third entry but only one without Beckinsale, only mustered a budget of $35 million. One of these things is not like the other. At the time, the average budget for a major studio film was well north of $100 million. The aforementioned Avatar cost approximately $237 million, and while it’s certainly not fair to compare the effects of an Underworld threequel to those of Avatar it does raise the question of how exactly Rise of the Lycans spent its money.

So, here’s a totally factual, 100% accurate, honest, sanctioned, official budget breakdown for every cent of that $35 million*:

  • Bill Nighy — $13 million
  • Vamp-sequins to adorn Mr. Nighy — $5 million (there are a ton of sequins)
  • Army of PAs on hand to reassure Mr. Nighy that his career will be fine, just fine, and can I have your autograph? — $3 million
  • Gigantic cache of Gushers (Strawberry Splash, of course) for Mr. Nighy’s insatiable appetite — $3 million
  • Costumes made of cheap silk substitute, onto which sequins may be fastened en masse — $2 million
  • Costumes made of leather, PVC, rope, chains, leashes, studded collars, etc. — $2 million on a Hot Topic gift card
  • Actual production costs — $1 million, give or take $1 million
  • Michael Sheen — $7.50/hour and all-you-can-eat catering
  • Kate Beckinsale — $5 million (she narrates the beginning and pops up at the end, because movies)

*Not at all factual, 0% accurate, false, unsanctioned, unofficial. Seriously, do not sue us.

The most inherently disappointing thing about Rise of the Lycans is that the story demands it do away with the aesthetic that defined the rest of the series, that marriage between ancient stone castles and sleek glass-and-metal architecture. Though it might have copped that idea from bits of Blade or even Resident Evil, Underworld made a religion out of it and was rewarded when that first movie turned into a megabillion-dollar franchise. Rise of the Lycans purports to go back in time to the Dark Ages, thus losing the sleek glass-and-metal bit and keeping only the gloomy castles. In doing so it manages to be the least distinctive of any film in the series, blending instead with every other vampire/werewolf story not set in the modern day.

Again, the story demands that. Forgive and forget. What the story doesn’t demand is that these Ages be literally Dark, as in impossible to see what the f*ck is going on every time something cool is supposedly happening. The most well-lit scene is the sex scene, which is copped straight from 300 in the way it fades in and out frame by frame (it’s like the camera is gyrating, man). The only reason to do a sex scene like that (other than just because 300 is cool, man) would be to hide the fact that one of the leads isn’t a sexy action hero after all, which, with Sheen, well, yeah: we’re back to that.

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