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Underworld (Dutch Import) (HD DVD)
Dutch Filmworks / 2003 / 121 Minutes / Rated R
Street Date: October 18, 2007
List Price: $26.95
(Ships worldwide from xploitedcinema.com)
Reviewed by High-Def Digest Staff
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Editor's Note: This is a review of the Dutch HD DVD release of the theatrical cut of 'Underworld.' Non-format-specific portions of this review were originally published in our reviews of the Underworld: Extended Cut (German 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 onto 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 R-rated Theatrical Cut -- a version that is a full 13 minutes shorter than the Director's Cut.)
This Dutch HD DVD import features a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that matches the German 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 import displays 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 makes 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.
Fortunately, this Dutch import features a lossless DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track that lives up to the quality of the uncompressed PCM mix on the domestic Blu-ray release. Right from the opening scene, dynamics 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 constant barrage of sound from every channel creates a wholly convincing soundfield -- directionality and accuracy are spot on, and I had a great time closing my eyes and immersing myself in the soundscape. While the track is largely 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. All in all, fans who own any of the previous DVD editions will be extremely pleased with this bombastic and instantly noticeable upgrade.
Unlike the German HD DVD import, this Dutch import includes most of the significant supplements that appear on the domestic Blu-ray edition. The only major component missing from the collection is a cast and crew audio commentary, but such tracks are frequently missing on import HD DVDs.
- Fang vs. Fiction (SD, 48 minutes) -- An AMC network documentary about the genesis of werewolf and vampire legends over the centuries. This one's mildly intriguing until it suddenly veers into promotional territory and loses its steam. Also frustrating, the structure of this made-for-TV doc includes a number of repetitive information bits structured around its original commercial breaks, which not only slow down the proceedings, but hinder the playful tone the documentary is attempting to create.
- Original Featurettes (SD, 45 minutes) -- This clump of featurettes form a documentary that covers the shoot, the practical creature effects, and the music and sound that brought it all together. While the featurettes do delve into the script and the characters, they basically form a standard EPK that throws tons of talking heads at the screen to compliment every aspect of the production. The experience was decent enough, but ultimately left me shrugging my shoulders.
- The Look of Underworld (SD, 19 minutes) -- From the icy blue tones employed in the final edit to the shadow cloaked corners of the sets, this featurette takes a look at the design decisions and the aesthetic choices used to make 'Underworld' look so bleak. Even though it bordered on being overly technical, this was actually my favorite featurette of the bunch. It was informative, revealing, and quite interesting.
- Designing Underworld (SD, 11 minutes) -- This straight forward featurette explores the sets, environments, and ambiance used to bring the world of the film to life. I was relieved to find a more down-to-earth examination of the production, but I didn't learn anything that I didn't already assume simply from watching the film.
- The Visual Effects of Underworld (SD, 10 minutes) -- After watching every other featurette on the disc, this detailed rehash comes off as a bit redundant. It delves into the creation of the werewolf suits, the look of the vampires, and the final design of the hybrid creature.
- B-Roll (SD, 12 minutes) -- This secondary, fly-on-the-wall featurette includes candid, on-set interviews with the cast, make-up application footage, and some general information about several scenes.
- Outtakes (SD, 4 minutes) -- A short collection of moderately amusing flubs and gags that really don't add a lot of value to the package. The outtakes will mainly appeal to completists and 'Underworld' fanatics.
- Film Clips (SD, 4 minutes) -- This pointless "bonus" offers a group of scenes in a promotional montage that made little sense to me.
- Music Video (SD, 3 minutes) -- A yawn inducing vid for Finch's "Worms of Earth" that feels like something you'd find during an aimless, latenight YouTube session.
- TV Spots (SD, 2 minutes) -- Two television spots advertising the film.
- Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes)
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HD DVD importers have two choices when it comes to 'Underworld' -- a German edition that removes the supplemental content but includes the extended cut of the film, or this Dutch edition that includes a pile of features and the theatrical cut of the film. 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 the director's cut of the film, are willing to take a slight hit in audio quality, and don't care about special features, go with the German HD DVD. However, if you're looking for a reference quality audio track, a nice package of bonus content, and don't mind owning the shorter theatrical cut, go with this Dutch 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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