Sunday, May 17, 2009

What if you built a universe and nobody came?

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
Directed by Patrick Tatopoulos

Rhona Mitra (Sonia)
Michael Sheen (Lucian)
Bill Nighy (Viktor)

In the first Underworld, Lucian explained the origin of the centuries-long conflict between vampires and Lycans in about five minutes of exposition. But what would happen if you took that five minutes and expanded it into a feature length film? Well, you'd end up with an incredibly boring exercise in "universe building."

Ever since J.R.R. Tolkien invented two dialects of Elvish, fantasy and scifi writers have shown a keen interest in building a comprehensive universe around the adventures of their characters. The fan-ish appeal is obvious: fans of The Lord of the Rings want to know more about the Elves or the Dwarves, fans of Star Wars want to know where Boba Fett came from or where the Empire gets all its Star Destroyers. From a narrative perspective, universe building can be useful when it adds needed context. But it's a narrative tool that can easily hi-jack a creative work, as filling in minor parts of made-up history gradually becomes the entire point of a story. And no matter how intricate a universe is, any story that's more interested in its context than its characters is going to be tedious, at best.

Rise of the Lycans is, at its core, a self-indulgent expansion on a backstory that was never very interesting to begin with. There may be someone out there who's curious about the origin of the Lycans, but that doesn't make a two-hour history lesson involving made-up races any less pointless. And how many people actually care about any of this vampire vs. Lycan stuff? The primary selling point of Underworld was always Kate Beckingsale in skin-tight leather, and this flick doesn't even have that.

The pointlessness of the story is made only worse by its glacial pacing, a bleak and derivative art design, uninspired action sequences, cheap-looking special effects, and dinner theater quality acting. Bill Nighy, in particular, chews up the scenery like its made of chocolate (dark chocolate, judging from the universally black sets).

In short, don't see this movie. You're only encouraging Hollywood to churn out more unnecessary prequels and origin stories. Let's leave the universe building to the professionals: obsessive nerds and fan-fic writers.

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