Kate Beckinsale, back as a vampire, in Underworld: Evolution.
Until the pubescent hordes move on to something else, Underworld: Evolution (Sony) will remain the biggest movie on the planet, and so it shall be reckoned with. "Movie" may be a misnomer—it's one audiovisual tomahawk after another, and if you exit the multiplex with your sternum properly centered and both retinas attached, consider yourself lucky. For roughly two hours, two competing tribes—vampires on the one hand, werewolves (or "Lycans") on the other—hunt each other down, utter some beautifully enunciated gibberish (about pendants, ancient feuds, and crossed bloodlines), then gore each other silly. I dare anyone to follow the plot, which manages, like some ill-baked meringue, to be both too light on the surface and too densely clotted underneath.
On the surface, Underworld: Evolution is a respectably simple chase movie, in which the foxy vampire Selene (Kate Beckinsale) finds herself stalked by the distinctly unfoxy vampire Marcus. (Marcus converts, when angry, into a giant pupa-like bat creature.) In the movie's one touch of inspiration, a vampire can TiVo back through the memory banks of its victims when sucking their blood. Selena's father imprisoned Marcus' twin brother William back in the Dark Ages, and so, deep in her "blood memory," Selena knows William's whereabouts.
The director, Len Wiseman, formerly a music video and commercial maker and now Beckinsale's husband, has said, "I hate color," and with the exception of a couple of flashbacks to Selene's childhood, every frame of this new installment is bathed in an ill-lit silvery glisten. Nothing, in fact, is allowed to compete with Beckinsale, starting with her negligible love interest, a Lycan-vampire "hybrid" played by Scott Speedman with the self-conscious humble-hunkiness of a Christian rock star. Beckinsale's colors—vulcanized black cat-suit on ivory skin—are the colors of the movie, and her tautened performance sets the tone—a tone so self-serious it's as if one tiny arch of an eyebrow would blow the whole thing sky-high in church-pew giggles. (Derek Jacobi has been brought in as an "immortal elder" to keep all brows properly furrowed.) Beckinsale is an elegant woman—before she was the Emma Peel of the undead, she was Jane Austen's Emma, and before she was Emma, she was passing A levels in German, French, and Russian literature—and all her stalking and seething keep the movie from being totally unwatchable. Maybe for the inevitable follow-up, Wiseman can give his vampire opus enough kinky panache to do his wife justice.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.
Still from Underworld: Evolution by Doug Curran © 2004 Sony Pictures. All rights reserved.