There is a moment early in the 2003 vampires vs. werewolves actioner Underworld when the film enthusiastically lunges over the line that separates enjoyable pop nonsense from outright cinematic refuse. Vampire huntress Selene (Kate Beckinsale) discovers that her werewolf foes—”Lycans" in the franchise’s graceless mythological lingo—have engineered an undead-slaying bullet infused with ultraviolet light. This is a monumentally stupid notion on multiple levels, but what’s truly unforgivable is that the film depicts these bullets as glowing with a muted purple light. This suggests that director Len Wiseman and writer Danny McBride not only thought the viewer would accept the ludicrous concept of “light bullets” without batting an eye, but also assumed that said viewers were too stupid to know that ultraviolet light is invisible, and not literally violet. Such brazen contempt for the audience is sort of hideously magnificent, even by the standards of 21st-century multiplex fare.
The franchise has been reliably awful since that moment, albeit in a mind-numbingly consistent way. Underworld: Blood Wars is the fifth installment in this inexplicably durable series, and it continues the traditions established by its 2003 progenitor: ridiculous yet curiously boring action sequences; shallow, unlikable non-characters; a murky, blue and gunmetal palette; and a general ineptness that breeds narrative confusion and yawning logical chasms. There’s nothing to recommend about Blood Wars specifically, as all the Underworld films are basically the same, and they are all tedious crap.
The series’ worst offense has always been to so thoroughly squander a premise that has a certain pulpy promise: pitting classic Universal monsters against one another in a supernatural Hatfield-McCoy conflict. It’s not an inherently terrible idea, but like Twilight, Underworld is reluctant to truly embrace its underlying genre tropes with lusty enthusiasm, preferring an Our Vampires/Werewolves Are Different approach that paradoxically ends up feeling banal and lethargic. Underworld’s slant on these familiar creatures is particularly insipid. Its bloodsuckers are sub-Matrix badasses in vinyl catsuits and leather trenchcoats; little more than Eurotrash models who eschew their fangs and undead powers for assault weapons. The Lycans, meanwhile, are not cursed wretches but grimy hooligans who transform into mangy, hulking man-beasts. Presented with an opportunity to create something original with their gaudy conceit, Wiseman and McBride opt for the wearisome sight of black-clad gunmen pumping rounds into computer-generated monsters.
Like many late-model entries in undernourished franchises, Blood Wars is annoyingly demanding of its viewers, requiring an encyclopedic knowledge of the prior four films to make sense of what the hell its going on. Given that the Underworld films’ primary raison d'être is to gawk as Beckinsale slaughters werewolves and vampires alike while leaping around in tight outfits, director Anna Foerster is curiously devoted to the series' leaden mythology and convoluted cavalcade of double- and triple-crosses. Despite this, continuity with prior chapters is not exactly a high priority in Blood Wars, to put it mildly. At the beginning of the film, Selene and her bland, handsome vampire ally David (Theo James) have apparently forgotten all about the search for Selene's hybrid Lycan-vampire lover Michael, a search that seemed quite urgent in the preceding film, Underworld: Awakening. Selene is running from the vampire Elders who want her exterminated for alleged crimes against their race, and from the Lycans who want access to her super-special blood for Reasons. Given that it is an Underworld film, Blood Wars naturally introduces new, unmemorable characters, including yet another swaggering werewolf villain, Marius (Tobias Menzies), and yet another scheming, power-hungry vampire Elder, Semira (Lara Pulver), who is of course attempting to play both sides against each other.
Selene and Michael’s daughter Eve, who has been hidden away in a secret sanctuary that even Selene herself does not know, is a crucial component of the plot somehow. Yet she never appears except in flashbacks, and the characters never get around to actually finding her. Consistent with the rest of the series, Blood Wars has a muddled story with vague but apparently world-shaking stakes. This is directly at odds with the crudity of the film’s preferred mode of spectacle: vampires and werewolves ripping the ever loving shit out of each other. If the Underworld series had the decency to just be a gritty survival-horror saga about Selene’s struggle to stay (un)alive in the middle of an endless war, the violence might be more resonant, and the films might be marginally redeemable. Instead, Foerster, like her predecessors, asks that the viewer invest themselves in a dismal, byzantine story involving mutating viruses, necromantic rituals, hidden birthrights, and other derivative claptrap.
This results in an embarrassing narrative thud whenever the film draws back the curtain on a "shocking" reveal. The desired effect is far too dependent intimate familiarity with the Underworld series, which is not the sort of fandom that anyone should admit to out loud. Instead of gasps, Blood Wars’ twists elicit awkward coughs. Unsurprisingly, there are abundant plot holes and continuity errors, some of them so profoundly stupid that they stop the film dead in its tracks. (A favorite: Immediately after the film makes a big fuss out of the vampires locking down the elaborate security system in their Gothic Revival stronghold, David inexplicably strolls in through the front door.) The logic of time and space are thrown to the wind, as characters seemingly traverse globe-spanning distances to remote locales in a few hours. Any attempt to read the film—or its preceding chapters—as some sort of allegory for the conflict between the decadent haves (vampires) and the grubby have-nots (werewolves) gives the filmmakers too much credit. In light of the extent to which Blood Wars in particular privileges the viewpoint of the vampires and their nebulous “blood purity” obsession, perhaps that’s for the best.
It's a fairly terrible film from top to bottom, where even the attempts to create something fresh and visually interesting within the series’ oppressive style end up looking silly. When Selene and David visit an arctic vampire fortress, they find a coven of pacifistic, albino bloodsuckers who swath themselves in fur-lined white robes rather than the black garb of their southern kin. Instead of creating a striking contrast with the franchise’s usual look, this design evokes elves from a chintzier alternate universe version of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films, to laughable effect. (Jackson at least made his elves seem like capable, deadly warriors; when Blood Wars’ snow vampires don armor and take up swords, they look like the wobbly extras in some Nordic high school production of Camelot.) The only cast or crew member who seems to be enjoying themselves is costume designer Bojana Nikitovic, who plainly poured her energy into creating a dozen or so outré outfits for Pulver, all of them distinctive despite being uniformly black.
The hybridization of classic movie monsters with contemporary action cinema doesn't necessarily have to turn out this horribly, of course. Even at its nadir, the Blade series still has its comic banter and charismatic asshole characters to fall back on. Stephen Sommers’ steampunk mashup Van Helsing might be pop rubbish, but it’s also a guilty pleasure whose hammy acting, dumb quips, glaring anachronisms, and general sub-Hammer silliness are integral to its appeal. Hell, even the soporific, fun-starved Twilight series managed to sneak one or two original concepts into its crypto-Mormon mythology. Other media have mined similar territory successfully. White Wolf Game Studio made a name for itself in the tabletop role-playing game field in the 1990s with its fertile, complex conception of a shadowy modern world populated by vampires, werewolves, and other monsters. (Indeed, White Wolf sued and settled with the original Underworld’s producers and distributors over the, ahem, striking similarities between their games and the film.)
Ultimately, the fatal flaw of Underworld as a series is its cheerless obstinacy. The financial success of the 2003 film etched its aggressively dull formula in stone, and the producers have stuck to that formula for fourteen years now. Any hope of dislodging the franchise from its rut and creating something entertaining—let alone artful—from the raw materials has likely long vanished into the gloom. Given Beckinsale’s superb performance in last year’s Love and Friendship, one can only hope that she survives the apparently endless parasitic feedings that Underworld will demand of her.