Six years ago Underworld brought an unimpressive vampire vs. werewolves story to theaters. Playing with far too frequently used archetypes and concepts, and featuring horridly filmed combat sequences, the result was underwhelming and disappointing. Now we get a prequel that shows us the back story that Underworld told the audience in its dramatic climax. Despite being material we’ve heard before, with no real twists to speak of, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is probably the best movie in the series, although that’s still not saying too much.
The third movie in the franchise backs up several centuries in the Underworld storyline, showing the origin of the Lycans, a breed of werewolf that starts with Lucian (Michael Sheen). The vampires breed the Lycans as protectors - slaves intended to protect the vampires during the harmful daylight hours. Through the events of the film, the werewolves rebel against their former masters, exactly as we’d been told before, and the war between the vampires and Lycans begins.
The key to Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is substitution - take the elements fans liked in the original movie and find a way to make them fit here. Instead of Kate Beckinsale, Rhona Mitra steps into the corset of the heroine, playing Sonja, who is the daughter to Viktor, the vampire leader (Bill Nighy). It also borrows the star-crossed lovers caught in a forbidden romance storyline from the previous movies, placing Sonja and Lucian, as the young couple, which is what leads to the beginning of the war as their secret passion is revealed.
Rise of the Lycans takes on a difficult task - tell a story we’ve already been told, without any possible threat really occurring for the main characters, since we know both of the mortal enemies, Lucian and Viktor, are around for the subsequent films. Despite that, the movie does a good job of telling its story, perhaps because it doesn’t try to throw any twists in or adjust the story from what fans know it to be. We were told the original story in the first Underworld, and the writers stay faithful to that 100%.
Somehow, the more primitive setting works better visually for this movie than the gothic take on the contemporary city did in the previous pictures. In particular, the ornate armor and garb of the vampires creates a really neat environment that feels a lot more true to the vampire culture the movies have established than the Matrix appearance the other movies have sported. The visuals aren’t perfect though, especially because that annoying inability to film combat sequences has been carried over from the other pictures. When the action starts, prepare to get dizzy and lose most of the context of what’s going on. The visual effects for the Lycans, which put me off from the first movie, look a little improved here as well, although that could be due to the fact that they mostly appear during the ill-filmed action sequences.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans isn't solid enough to fully convert anyone unimpressed with the previous chapters, but this is definitely the strongest movie in the series and sure to please existing fans of the series, especially because it stays true to the pre-established history of the franchise. I would even go so far as to say I wouldn’t mind seeing another Underworld picture set in this era. Maybe a departure from the previous movie’s storyline and characters is exactly what this franchise needed.