Over the weekend, thousands of indie-film fans and Hollywood players swarmed the streets of Park City, Utah, fighting to get into the movies made by the next generation of aspiring artistes. Meanwhile, in malls around the rest of the country, another breed of moviegoer was lining up for the latest installment in the saga of the raging war between vampires and werewolves, "Underworld: Evolution."
This dichotomy in the weekend's cinematic activities underscores that there are now two distinct movie businesses in America. There is, however, some overlap. While "Underworld: Evolution" would seem to be the kind of blood-soaked, special-effects-laden extravaganza that is the antithesis of the soulful Sundance movie, its classy British cast has more often been seen in art houses and West End theaters than in the multiplexes where most horror films play.
"Underworld: Evolution," a sequel to "Underworld," a surprise hit from 2003, was not screened for critics before its opening, which is usually a sign of a stinker ahead. But the picture isn't terrible, just lurid and illogical. The first movie thrust us into the battle of aristocratic vampires and proletarian werewolves without providing much background, but the sequel offers a lot of laborious exposition about the origins of the combat. At one point, the bloodsucking heroine, Selene (Kate Beckinsale), even visits the coven archivist (amusingly played by Steven Mackintosh) to fill in her family history.
Yet despite all the time spent elucidating vampire lore, a lot of the action fails to make sense. As in the first movie, it's never entirely clear why some weapons prove lethal to the undead legions and others have the potency of a BB gun. The director, Len Wiseman, and the writer, Danny McBride, haven't demonstrated the ground rules. As a result, characters seem to die a terminal death when it's convenient for the filmmakers.
Yet Wiseman, a former art director and music video director, has a definite sense of style and pace, and the creature transformations are eye-popping. In addition, the cast raises the movie above the level of routine genre schlock.
Beckinsale has an elegant presence in her black leather ensemble, and she delivers the imperious lines with panache. The excellent Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen make brief return appearances from the first movie. Another fine actor is Sir Derek Jacobi, who brings genuine gravitas to his portrayal of the humane father of the monsters. Scott Speedman, as Selene's hybrid lover, may not have the acting chops of his costars, but he looks good in his frequent shirtless scenes, and you can't help rooting for this attractive duo to outwit their unsightly enemies and make it to the next sequel.
MPAA rating: R for pervasive strong violence and gore, some sexuality/nudity and language.
A Sony Pictures/Screen Gems release. Director Len Wiseman. Produced by Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Gary David Coatsworth and Richard Wright. Screenplay Danny McBride, story by Len Wiseman and Danny McBride. Cinematographer Simon Duggan. Editor Nicolas De Toth. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes. In general release.