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Underworld: Extended Cut (German Import) (HD DVD)
Concorde Video / 2003 / 133 Minutes / Unrated
Street Date: November 10, 2007
List Price: $33.95
(Ships worldwide from xploitedcinema.com)
Reviewed by High-Def Digest Staff
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Editor's Note: This is a review of the German HD DVD release of the extended cut of 'Underworld.' Non-format-specific portions of this review were also published in our reviews of the 'Underworld (Dutch Import) HD DVD and the domestic Blu-ray edition.
For more information about importing HD DVD discs, visit the HD DVD imports thread in our forums area.
When I was just a budding, twelve-year-old horror aficionado (sneaking gory scares over the weekend at friends houses), I remember imagining a cinematic clash between vampires and werewolves. Obviously, a generation of fans for flicks like 'Near Dark' and 'The Howling' shared the same imagination. But while dozens of tooth-and-claw screenplays swamped Hollywood throughout the '80s and '90s, sadly most of the projects fell apart before a reel of film was shot. As fate would have it, a decent incarnation of this pairing never received a legitimate treatment and the idea continued to fly under the radar for decades.
That is, until 'The Matrix' stormed theaters in 1999. Bizarrely enough, the insatiable desire for lead-flinging, leather-clad super freaks was the key to finally greenlighting Hollywood's first big budget, vampires-n-werewolves feature. Rookie writer/director Len Wiseman was the lucky gambler who hit triple sevens, as he just so happened to be selling a project that borrowed plenty of elements from 'The Matrix,' while also managing to pit horror's greatest heavyweights against each other. The result was a 2003 action-horror flick called 'Underworld.'
The film itself focuses on Selene (Kate Beckinsale), an icy, vampiric Death Dealer caught in a centuries-old war of deception and propaganda. Over the years, the war has evolved beyond the claw-to-claw battles of the past -- instead, modern technology and firepower has made this a war of distance and convenience. It doesn't hurt that a hibernating vampire named Viktor (Bill Nighy) has ensured his aristocratic coven with plenty of toys and riches to fuel their war with the werewolves. His chief lieutenant, Kraven (Shane Brolly), leads the clan's Death Dealers into the thick of battle with the thuggish Lycans, who dwell in the sewers and plot attacks against the vampires.
Meanwhile, Lucian (Michael Sheen), the central canine baddie, is attempting to genetically manufacture a strain of vampirism that can successfully create a werewolf/vampire hybrid. As it is, any time either creature tries to turn the other, the victim dies since their system can't integrate both diseases. Lucian is tracking a human named Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), a young man who is oblivious to the raging war in his backyard. When Selene discovers their plot, she must stop the Lycans, discover the truth about their conflict, and strike a balance between the two clans.
On the surface, 'Underworld' has a lot to offer action-horror fiends -- it features plenty of shootouts and tussles, stuntwork galore, and a nice dose of seamless effects work. The storyline is well developed and keeps things clipping along at a welcome pace, while the script itself isn't weighed down by heavy-handed dialogue. Last but not least, its lead actors are engaging (particuarly Nighy and Beckinsale), and the film's visual asthetic provides an eye pleasing, post-modern take on gothic designs through and through.
Unfortunately, a number of issues undermine these selling points, at least for a hardcore genre fan like myself. First off, in its most obvious nod to 'The Matrix,' most of the action in 'Underworld' is disappointingly limited to bullets and other weapons. While this would arguably be fine if there were a glut of vampire-vs-werewolf films already out there, I personally felt robbed of the opportunity to finally see a big-budgeted toe-to-toe clash that involved the natural abilities of both creatures. On the few occasions where the beasts fight do hand-to-hand, the results are short and uninspiring.
Speaking of uninspiring, the film's predictable use of a successful vampire/werewolf hybrid is surprisingly boring. Everyone comments on how much more powerful he is, but the on-screen action never seems to live up to its promise.
Then there's the film's average ending that blatantly leaves major plotlines unresolved until a sequel can settle them. In fact, by the time the credits roll, the entire film begins to feel like an extended prologue for Wiseman's eventual follow-up, 2006's 'Underworld: Evolution.'
But of all these issues, my biggest problem with the film is that despite all appearances, it really isn't a horror flick in any shape or form. Instead of focusing on a human stumbling on to a frightening conflict, we're forced to immediately side with one of the creatures. As a result, the tension and fear factor deflates long before the first act has run its course, and the film devolves into a pseudo-telling of Romeo and Juliet that places more emphasis on a contrived love story than on the war itself.
In the end, 'Underworld' is entertaining enough and certainly well-produced, but with so much promise, it's hard not to be disappointed by its merely average results. Although this one has a better story than its poorly conceived sequel, it still doesn't give horror fans the true titan clash we've been looking for.
(Note that the version of the film included on this HD DVD import is the unrated Extended Cut, featuring an additional 13 minutes of footage. There is an extension to the film's finale that gives this cut some value, but otherwise most of the extra beats are character-based and add little to the overall story.)
This German HD DVD import features a 1080p/VC-1 transfer matches the Dutch HD DVD import and domestic Blu-ray edition shot for shot. The only minor difference I noticed between the three releases is that both HD DVD imports display a bit more grain in the darkest scenes. However, the grainfield discrepency is so negligible, that it doesn't hinder the picture quality on either import edition in any way.
Thankfully, like the domestic Blu-ray, color fidelity is excellent and the picture exhibits a level of stability that rivals the best transfers on the market. Fine objects and texture details are astounding at times -- bristled hairs on the back of an actor's neck, tiny chips in a werewolf's claws, and brickwork on distant buildings all provide a surreal level of clarity that occasionally make the picture feel like instant high-def demo material. High end whites aren't overblown and source noise is never a problem. As it stands, this transfer even outshines the Blu-ray release of 'Underworld: Evolution' since it's not held back by the bothersome instability, noise, or softness that Peter noted in his review of the MPEG-2 encoded sequel.
Sadly, the presentation still stumbles in a few key areas, although to be fair, many of the problems I have with the video can be traced back to the cinematography and the abundance of correction work applied to the final footage. Black levels become bottomless pits where objects suddenly disappear and the oft-two-tone palette sometimes absorbs details and textures rather than bringing them to light. While the oppressive black levels help the filmmakers achieve their desired effect -- a comic book like experience -- the crushing makes the resulting comic book feel over-inked and undersaturated. Adding to the problem is an obtrusive level of grain that spikes in darker scenes. Again, these issues seem to be the result of directorial decisions and can't fairly be attributed to this transfer, but they nonetheless prevent 'Underworld' from standing toe-to-toe alongside true high-def demo transfers that have more to offer the viewer.
Still, compared to all three previous DVD releases of the film (a fuzzy R-rated release, a highly compressed unrated release, and a much improved Superbit edition), this HD DVD import is a clear upgrade, and fans of the film aren't likely to be disappointed with its very strong high-def presentation.
Unlike the Dutch import and the domestic Blu-ray, this German import merely offers an English DTS-HD High Resolution 5.1 surround track (not to be confused with the DTS HD Master Audio mix found on the Dutch import). However, while the results don't quite live up to the reference quality tracks on the other two high-def releases, the audio quality still blows all available standard DVD editions out of the water.
Dynamics still take center stage, demonstrating the raw power and dexterity of the film's soundscape. Bass booms are resonant and earthy, adding real depth to gunfire and roars, while treble tones are clean and steady, injecting a welcome clarity to dialogue and environmental elements like water. The confident use of the surround channels creates a suitably convincing soundfield -- directionality and accuracy are spot on, and I found it relatively easy to immerse myself in the soudscape. While the track is aggressive, even the film's quieter scenes impress. Channel movement is natural, conversations are nicely prioritized, and there's a palpable acoustic atmosphere that fills the soundfield.
The most noticeable issue is that the entire track feels a bit thin when compared directly to the domestic PCM track or the Dutch import DTS HD MA mix. Even once I bumped up my volume levels (higher than usual), I still felt that low-end LFE support didn't pack the gut punch of the other two experiences. Even so, fans who own any of the previous DVD editions will be extremely pleased with the bombastic and obvious upgrade.
The German HD DVD import doesn't have any special features. Missing is a cast and crew commentary, a lengthy series of featurettes, and a host of other worthwhile content. By contrast, the Dutch import includes the majority of the video supplements from the domestic Blu-ray edition.
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HD DVD importers have two choices when it comes to 'Underworld' -- a Dutch version that includes a pile of features and the theatrical cut of the film, or this German edition which includes the extended cut of the film, but a veritable wasteland of supplemental content. For the record, both imports feature the same excellent transfer as the domestic Blu-ray, but each will appeal to a different type of fan. If you want a reference level audio track, a nice package of bonus content, and don't mind the shorter theatrical cut, go with the Dutch HD DVD. If you want the director's cut, are willing to take a slight hit in audio quality, and don't care about special features, go with this German import. It's a shame that importers can't get the best of both worlds on one disc, but either version will make a worthy addition to your collection.
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