Updated: Nov 5, 2021
Monster movies. They can either act as commentary on humanity and what it means to be truly human, or they can be cool horror movies with lots of gore. Underworld (2003) happens to lean towards the latter. However, unlike a lot of monster movies before it, 2003’s Underworld combines elements of action and horror. Directed by Len Wiseman, Underworld (2003) is a monster movie that created a whole genre of action-horror movies to come.
The film opens up with a vampire named Selene sitting on the ledge of a church window, narrating about an ancient war between vampires and Lycans—or werewolves. She finds a group of Lycans heading to a subway station following a young man named Michael Corvin. Selene follows them into the subway and rendezvouses with two other vampires and a shootout between both vampires and Lycans break out. The Lycans and Michael escape with Selene hot on their tail. She manages to find Michael at his apartment, but the two are attacked by a pack of Lycans led by Lucian, the leader of the Lycans and the most powerful Lycan ever. Lucian bites Michael, but Selene rescues him and the two manage to escape, but not before Lucian deals a severe wound to Selene. Michael, a medical student, manages to treat Selene’s wound. Selene returns to her vampire coven and is informed that Kraven—the leader of the coven—plans to awaken a vampire elder named Marcus. However, Selene defies Kraven’s orders and instead, awakens another vampire elder, Viktor, to seek advice on what to do.
Kate Beckinsale was cast to play Selene. Beckinsale said that she loved playing the character Selene, because “she [Selene] could do anything that the men could do, rather than just look pretty of be a damsel in distress.” Beckinsale had to undergo martial arts and gun training in preparation for the role, both which she picked up at an impressive rate. Scott Speedman plays Michael Corvin, a human caught up in the war between vampires and Lycans. In interviews, Speedman felt that the overall tone and feel of Underworld (2003) is unique and unlike anything he’s seen before. Michael Sheen, Kate Beckinsale’s ex-husband plays Lucian, the leader of the Lycans. Sheen enjoyed playing the role of Lucian and expressed interest to reprise his role in further installments to flesh out his character’s reasons for starting the war. Bill Nighy plays Viktor, the elder vampire awakened by Selene. Nighy had to wear heavy special effects makeup to imitate decaying flesh upon Viktor’s awakening. In interviews, Nighy joked about his initial costume and how he was frequently asked whether the flesh was actually a suit, to which he responded in the negative.
Len Wiseman stated in interviews that he grew up watching monster movies and always wished for a movie that involved high-octane action sequences among the various types of monsters. Alongside actor and screenwriter Kevin Grevioux, who also had a major role in the film, Wiseman wrote the story revolving around a war between vampires and Lycans. According to Wiseman, he wanted to make a film that would look and feel like a comic book. To his credit, the film does achieve this, from the overall style, aesthetics, and even the weight of the action of the film. In fact, in the opening scene of the film, we see Selene jump off of a hundred foot ledge, landing in what we call the classic “superhero landing”. In addition, Grevioux later adapted the story of Underworld (2003) into a comic book series.
Grevioux wanted Underworld (2003) to have a more real world feel to it. As such, unlike most monster films before, Grevioux used his genetic engineering background to explain that vampires and Lycans evolved from a virus that affected certain peoples’ genetic makeup, known as the Corvinus Strain. The Corvinus Strain acts as the parent strain of both vampire and Lycan strains. According to Grevioux, the Corvinus Strain in its purest form can cause an individual to experience the powers of both a vampire and Lycan, though this is an extremely rare anomaly. To competently explain the history of the war, Wiseman and Grevioux studied the various mythic tales and the history of vampires and werewolves all around the world, in addition to several authors of books regarding the possible existence of vampires.
The special effects were a combination of practical animatronics and CGI. The overall look and design of the Lycans was all practical, with the actors and stunt actors wearing werewolf suits with animatronic faces that are operated by a puppeteer. To make the gait of a Lycan believable, the suits contained special leg braces that allowed the wearer to walk with a wolfish gait, while not restricting the range of motion of the actor. Initially, the Lycan costumes had less hair to them, showing off the musculature of the Lycans underneath possibly to convey the fusion of the physiologies of both man and beast. However, in later films, he changed his mind and added more hair to make them appear more beastly than man. In addition, the sequels starting with the fourth movie began using CGI to create the Lycans rather than animatronic suits. Meanwhile, the costumes for the vampires primarily consisted of leather duster coats and spandex under suits. While fighting in a duster coat may be impractical, it certainly looks cool whenever any of the actors move in an action sequence.
According to Wiseman, the Underworld franchise was originally going to be a trilogy, with the first movie acting as a gateway to a larger universe. Its sequel, Underworld: Evolution (2006) also written and directed by Len Wiseman, takes place directly after the first movie. The film revolves around Selene and Michael being on the run from both vampires and Lycans. As the two spend more time together, they gradually fall in love. The third film, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009) serves as a prequel to the first movie, explaining Lucian’s origins as a slave for Viktor and how he fell in love with Victor’s daughter. When their love was discovered, Viktor had his daughter executed. This prompted Lucian to take vengeance and cause an uprising among the Lycan slaves against the vampires. The fourth film, Underworld: Awakening (2012) takes place after Underworld: Evolution (2006) and tells the story of a Selene and Michael’s daughter and how she possesses a new Corvinus-vampire strain which makes her stronger than any other vampire or Lycan. Scott Speedman did not reprise his role as Michael Corvin for reasons unknown. In 2016, the final film, Underworld: Blood Wars (2016) came out, centers around Selene and her ambition to take down the Lycans for good. When asked whether she would return for another Underworld film, Kate claimed that she was “uninterested” as she “did too many of those films.”
When I first watched Underworld (2003) a few years ago, I was not very impressed by its story. I thought the action and wardrobe was too similar to that of The Matrix (1998) and that the romance was very thin at best. However, as I got older, I recently re-watched the film and found out that it was actually very entertaining. Keep in mind, it’s simply a monster movie with vampires and werewolves killing one another using modern day weapons and technology. I especially liked how the Lycans managed to somehow make ammunition with UV light in them and how the vampires make their own liquid silver bullets to increase maximum damage to the Lycans. How they crafted these bullets and the plausibility of it seems far-fetched, but you do have to remember what kind of movie it is that you are watching. At the end of the day, it’s simply an action movie with vampires and werewolves in it, treat it as such and you won’t be disappointed.