After the fifth movie in the series, Kate Beckinsale said she’d never be in another Underworld sequel, which was wise. The trouble with Beckinsale wasn’t that she got old or outgrew the original concept of Selene, the heavily armed boarding school goth, who falls for a hunky ER doctor in the middle of a werewolf war. It’s that she never seemed young.
At first, Beckinsale was perfect for the role because, although Underworld played up her waifishness and had her dress like Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, she radiated a natural depth of character that went beyond Blade cosplay into actual acting. Unfortunately, as the highly stylized sequels dragged on, actual acting seemed increasingly verboten.
By the fifth, Underworld: Blood Wars, everyone seemed fatigued, even the new additions to the franchise. They were all a bit glazed, as if they’d been frying crullers in hot grease and were now told they had to put on the leather, bring out the fangs, and make with the sexy banter. No one wants to sexually titillate adolescents for pay in a monster movie sequel that follows three consecutive stinkers, certainly not Kate, who impersonated driftwood for most of that last film.
Part of what made the original Underworld seem like such an artifact of late 1990s / early 2000s pop-culture (and made its sequels come off like shoddy tin replicas) was the casting. And Beckinsale, who attended Oxford University and went on to act in many stage plays, radio productions, British costume dramas, and about six feature films before donning the Pfeiffer bodysuit, did a good job with what they handed her.
She always seemed slightly elsewhere—which is oddly consistent with her character. Only in a movie equivalent of Vampire the Masquerade meets La Femme Nikita in gothed-over Budapest could there be a character like Selene, who comes across as two parts slick fashion model, one part roleplaying game convention nerd.
She’s an interesting mixture of traits and tropes, carefully designed, no doubt, to appeal to the movie’s general demographic: frustrated guys who dig pale girls majoring in English and the pale girls who would prefer to meet Mr. Darcy instead. Guys who never miss a Comic Con. Guys with a fantasy life all out of proportion to the topography of obstruction and despair that they consider to be “real life.” Trust me. I know this group well, having been in it for most of my youth. For this type of young college guy, Selene represented the Hot Girl With a British Accent Who is Unbelievably Into Nerd Culture and Therefore Understands.
Ah, yes. That.
And while I like to think of myself as being immune to that kind of Hollywood syrup, I have seen all the Marvel movies; I did take my sad self to Van Helsing (when I knew it was bound to be a flaming train barge of crap); and I did think Underworld was pretty cool the first time around. I even found a way to enjoy Blade: Trinity after a bit of fair-minded self-talk and some alcohol.
So can I automatically conclude that Selene—the girl you really want to invite over to play Dungeons & Dragons but won’t because maybe she’s busy reading The Mysteries of Udolpho in the library and doesn’t want to be bothered and anyway probably has a boyfriend in a band—wasn’t part of my subconscious calculus? Evidently, I cannot. The jury remains out, 17 years and running.
But this is the heart of the problem, isn’t it? This is why we have to return to these films and think about them, even if we’ve since dismissed them as insubstantial Hollywood distractions. We’re hearing messages in films like Underworld that are phrased in a language we only partly understand, subliminal messages crafted by experts who know us better than we know ourselves, who speak to the inner Dungeon Master instead of to the slumbering adult. The only way we can truly understand is in retrospect.
Underworld, like The Matrix, could never have been made in our viral, post-covefefe 2020s. These movies are too sleek, too manicured, too self-satisfied and sure of their own epic stylishness. It’s the super-sweet junk candy you liked as a kid but now can’t tolerate. It’s finely crafted garbage.
Oh, sure, the werewolves, I know. One shouldn’t overlook them. On one hand, Selene was a “Death Dealer” vampire ninja, capable of throwing rigid hand strikes to the temples of giant, slavering, vaguely Neil Young-looking beast men in spite of her delicate wrists. On the other, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman) is so impossibly dreamy and sensitive that what upper-division English student wouldn’t fall hard?
He’s a doctor (smart, admirable) but just might be the chosen one (special) who, by virtue of his DNA (gifted), could unite the werewolf and vampire bloodlines and end the war. And so, unto this, the two dark, star-crossed lovers, cast about on seas of passion and uncertain destiny, risk all to unite their people. That’s pretty special. It doesn’t get more special than that. It’s also grossly saccharine. It makes you want to focus on the violence as a palette cleanser. Bring on some more of that sweet vampire-on-werewolf sewer-tunnel violence so I can push down my gag reflex.
As someone who loves science fiction, I think carefully about what it means when a vampire movie from 2003 sticks in my memory beside Romeo and Juliette. As someone who loves vampire stories in which the vampire is evil and not just a form of relief from post-industrial anxiety, I think carefully about what it means that early vampire myths and films depict the creature as a hideous cannibalistic corpse, while modern ones turn him into a Dionysian sex god or an introspective Byronic sufferer or her into an immensely relatable, dateable, heroine.
We all want to be special, to be beautiful and admired, to be gifted and immortal—because we’re trapped in our lives and we feel time passing. Most days, we do not feel special. We know we aren’t beautiful. We doubt our gifts and (quietly, secretly) believe our lives will be too short to have romantic adventures with all the people we’d like (or, in some cases, anyone—save vs. despair). But we won’t admit that, even in our most private moments.
We’ll go to a movie like Underworld instead and project all those grinding anxieties and unfulfilled desires onto the characters, who’ve been put there precisely with that in mind. Maybe the actors just fried up the dramatic equivalent of a glazed cruller. But, to us, they’re a magic mirror: “My Queen, you are the fairest of them all.”
You know, mirror, I like you. Tell me more . . .
So go put on your black leather catsuit and ruby earrings. And don’t forget to load up on Uzis and Ginsu knives and long spiked whips. We got us some lycans to kill and I’m feeling sexy.