Underworld: Awakening

The fourth Underworld movie, Awakening, recently opened in cinemas. Once again, it focuses on vampires and werewolves, and develops the idea of hybridity. Warning: Spoilers ahead!

KMC: I horrified one of my younger students the other day by admitting that I hadn’t seen all of the Underworld movies. She, in turn, horrified me by admitting (in an English literature class, mind you), that she hates to read and would rather watch movies. So what are these movies doing that’s engaging the audiences, and what do they say about werewolves, vampires and other creatures that go bump in the night?

RW: To state the obvious, I think on one level it’s simply reflecting the surge in popularity of the paranormal genre and on another level it goes back to the old familiar themes of racial purity and fears about hybridity. The original Underworld movie came out in 2003 and created this kind of Gothic, Matrix-like world with an enduring feud between vampire and lycan (werewolf), and many of the vampire-themed texts since then – Twilight, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries TV show – have played on similar themes: ’forbidden love’ storylines between vampire/human or vampire/werewolf, the hybrid daughters of Selene/Michael and Bella/Edward, experiments to create super races (hybrid species), and so on. Certainly there seems to be a move towards celebrating hybrids as being superior, desirable beings rather than unnatural, grotesque creatures as was the norm previously.

Subject 1: Selene and Michael’s hybrid daughter, a little ray of sunshine

KMC: One thing I noticed is that the leaders who focus on purity, bloodlines and “protecting these species” in these movies are depicted as being old, out-of-touch and in the wrong (Viktor, Thomas). There’s a very clear commentary that the fear of miscegenation is outdated, as you suggest; the idea that hybridity represents harnessing two sources of power rather than a watering down of one.

RW: But we lost some of the more complex ideas around racial disputes from the first film/s, where initially the lycans were set up as the villains but we learned that they were enslaved by the vampire race and  have some reason for their conflict with the vampires. And for all this current movie was billed as a vampire v human conflict, the humans really had very little to do with it and it was essentially returning us to the vampire v werewolf war … but this time the werewolves had no depth and were just villains. And Scott Speedman was sadly lacking from this edition in the series. Other aspects were a little confusing: how exactly could Selene give birth to a daughter (unknowingly) while cryogenically frozen?

Kate Beckinsale in Underworld: Awakening

KMC: I wish my pregnancies had been that easy! ;)  I was confused about the focus on the eye of the mutant Lycan guy; was it just an allusion to Blade Runner, maybe? Or am I linking this film to Blade Runner because the body-in-a-state-of-stasis-supporting-pregnancy reminds me of the infamous why-do-replicants-have-belly-buttons argument?

RW: Indeed. Also amazing how that leather outfit never saw a crease, tear or dirt stain despite bombs, blades, and gunshots, if only all our laundering was so easy …

KMC: It was interesting to see some variations on the mythology; it seems as though every franchise has its own version of the canon now. The new hybrid is a hybrid-vampire hybrid, so she changes in a different way than we’ve previously seen; the mutant werewolf which is bigger, stronger and has the ability to control partial changes. That’s pretty rare: the only other example of a demiform I can think of would be the ones from Amelia Atwater-Rhodes’ Shapeshifters.

RW: Yes, the partial transformation was interesting (Jackson Pearce’s Sisters Red and Sweetly come to mind for partial shifts, too), and it seemed to position the lycans who can do that (and only one could do it – because he had hybrid blood) closer to the vampires in terms of being able to control their shifting, whereas most of the lycans in this film are reduced to beastly monsters who lose all control when shifting.

RW: The bigger mutant werewolf was new, althought it seemed to owe a bit to LOTR or HP troll filmic images as well! More familiar ideas regarding shapeshifting included the language around lycanthropy/vampirism as infectious diseases, questions of genetics and DNA (and the laboratory facility where Selene was held was called Antigen), and then more loaded terminology around the cleansing and purges of the vampires/lycans, which recalls Nazi rhetoric and the holocaust. So although we can take the film as just another horror monster movie, we can also see some recurring ideas in popular genres about how society has imagined race in the past.

KMC: Anyone else got any thoughts on this film?

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