Six years after the first “Underworld” introduced us to the centuries-old war between vampires and lycans, and three years after “Underworld: Evolution” took that war to the next level; we are finally shown what precipitated the conflict with “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans”.
“Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” chronicles the rise to power of Lucian (Michael Sheen), the first lycan in existence. Discovered by the vampire king, Viktor (Bill Nighy), Lucian at first serves as one of the loyal protectors of the vampires’ realm. However, over time Lucian’s loyalties begin to waver as he yearns to be free and to no longer be treated as a slave. Joined by his lover, Viktor’s own daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra), Lucian embarks on a daring plan to free all enslaved lycans, and if necessary, wage war upon their vampire overlords.
Prior to the “Star Wars” saga no one had really heard of a prequel. Nowadays, if a franchise proves popular and a backstory is semi-introduced in an installment, don’t be surprised if a prequel soon arrives on the scene. The odd thing for me in regards to prequels is that by definition they are created as afterthoughts to the original film and could be potentially weaker than their predecessors.
Sure, the basic story for any given prequel may have existed in someone’s head during the filming of the original movie, but it wasn’t deemed strong enough to kick-start a franchise on its own. For example: I’m relatively confident that everyone could agree that had “Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace” been the first “Star Wars” movie to be released to theaters, George Lucas would have been hard-pressed to continue his series amidst all the negative feedback from critics and many fans alike. So, by starting in the middle of the story (“Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope”), with an arguably richer narrative, the franchise exploded and has become the phenomenon we all know and love today.
The same can be said for this film, “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans”, written by Danny McBride (the only returning writer from the previous two films) and the writing duo of Dirk Blackman and Howard McCain (“Outlander”).
Is this a good movie on its own? Yes. Would it have found as big of an audience had it been released prior to “Underworld”? Most likely not, because the basis for its story was so narrow that it would have been a niche movie for a specific, undoubtedly smaller audience.
The reason being is that the story is essentially a history lesson on the war between vampires and lycans. When people go to see a movie involving vampires and/or lycans they want to see them either embroiled in battle with each other or humanity. By and large, the movie going public would most likely not be interested in an origin tale for a fictional war between fictional monsters. Unless they’ve already seen the war in action and would like to know more, thus the entire reason this film exists in the first place. But, I digress.
When this film was initially announced as a prequel, I had hoped that Kate Beckinsale would once again reprise her role as the vampire Selene from the first two films. However, at the time Kate was not interested in returning to the series, so actress Rhona Mitra (“Doomsday”) stepped in portraying a new character, Sonja. Although, anyone who has seen these films can attest, clearly Sonja was nothing more than a slightly tweaked Selene. The writers basically took Selene, changed her name and her heritage just a tad, but beyond that kept everything else about the character intact.
Even so, actress Rhona Mitra did a good job with the character. She brought out the same caring and protective side of Sonja as Kate had done with Selene. But the main difference between the two was that Rhona had to imbue Sonja with a very distinct rebellious nature that was constantly at odds with her father and her noble status within the vampire world. Also, Sonja seemed to possess a much more violent nature than her modern day counterpart, most likely a result of not only her upbringing as Viktor’s daughter, but also the environment of the Dark Ages in which she lived. After all, those were rough times by any measure.
Alongside Rhona we have two returning cast members from the previous films, Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen. As this film is subtitled “Rise of the Lycans”, obviously Michael Sheen’s character of Lucian is granted the lion’s share of the story here. That being said, this prequel film is as much Viktor’s story as it is Lucian’s, so veteran actor Bill Nighy is given ample time as well. For both characters I found it interesting to see new sides to them or at the very least seeing specific attributes or character traits previously seen in the other films, receive further examination.
With Bill Nighy’s performance as Viktor we see even more of the paternal side to this otherwise cold, calculating and undeniably cruel vampire king. We had seen this side to him before in regards to Selene in the previous films, but here we see more glimpses of that side of him as we see his relationship with his very own daughter unfold. Now, this character won’t win any awards for Father of the Year by any means, but he did have several touching moments where a softer side was evident, and Bill played these quieter moments to perfection.
As Lucian, Michael Sheen was also allowed to show a much softer side to his character, one that was caring, protective, and yearning for nothing more than to be free and live a happy, content life. However, through various acts of cruelty either directly or indirectly aimed at him by his vampire overlords, we see Lucian slowly lose himself to his anger, until he is ultimately consumed by it. At this point, we see Michael step into the version of Lucian we had grown accustomed to, which proved to be just as entertaining as ever.
Surprisingly though, there were moments where Michael portrayed Lucian as being almost ashamed of his true nature, and that he would willingly give up his birthright to be normal. I don’t know if this aspect of the character was written into the script, but I definitely saw glimpses of an internal struggle within Lucian, and found that it made the character all the more intriguing and relatable to the audience.
Lastly, I did have one noteworthy complaint regarding this film, which was that several times the werewolves and lycans looked horribly rendered. I know the budget was lower than that of “Underworld: Evolution”, but it was higher than the original film, and in both instances I thought the effects used for the wolves (lycan or werewolf) were quite good. Granted, I haven’t seen those movies in a little while, but I do plan to watch them again soon, so perhaps I will change my opinion of them at that point.
Still whatever the cause, whether the budget prohibited better quality output or if time constraints hindered the process, the wolves looked out of place much of the time. To the point where there were a few instances that I thought they were utilizing stop-motion animation rather than computer-generated or practical on-set effects (costumes). Although I truly doubt that stop-motion was implemented, that just illustrates how poorly executed some of these sequences looked to me.
All that being said, “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” is an entertaining history lesson regarding the war between the vampires and lycans depicted in the “Underworld” films. However, the film clearly assumes that the viewer has some prior knowledge of the goings on within the series, and as such does not devote much time in trying to educate newcomers to the saga.
Therefore, I would have to say that as far as prequels go, aimed solely at fans of the series (which is precisely what it is), the film is very good. But, by definition a prequel would now become the first in a series (despite its later release), so in serving as a jumping-on point for newcomers, the film suffers from lack of context in regards to why we should care about these particular characters and their plight. Plus, the cameo at the end of the film featuring Selene would be pointless and a source of confusion to anyone not familiar with the series’ characters.
So, in my opinion, if you have never seen the “Underworld” films, despite the fact that this is a prequel, I would recommend watching at least the original film first. Then, it’s up to you whether or not to continue in the order the films were released by watching the sequel or go back to this one for your history lesson.
“Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” is rated R for violence, brief language, and brief sexuality.