Face-Off: Resident Evil vs. Underworld

More than a decade ago, Paul W.S. Anderson and Len Wiseman both began franchises that center on badass female leads taking on various types of monsters - in 2002, Anderson dropped Milla Jovovich into a world inspired by the RESIDENT EVIL video game series, while Wiseman put Kate Beckinsale in the middle of a war between vampires and werewolves in 2003's UNDERWORLD. Jovovich and Beckinsale have both gone on to star in multiple sequels to those films, with the latest installments of the RESIDENT EVIL and UNDERWORLD sagas set to be in theatres by the end of January. But before we see UNDERWORLD: BLOOD WARS (which opens this Friday) or RESIDENT EVIL: THE FINAL CHAPTER (January 27), let's take a look back at where it all began for these franchises and see which one got off to the better start.
The most obvious thing this film does to set up a franchise is to introduce the Umbrella Corporation, a supplier of computer tech and medical products in public but which is making their real money off their secret work in military tech and genetic experiments. Such a shady and powerful organization will give the series plenty to work with in future installments. Less obvious is why viewers should be interested in watching the continuing adventures of heroine Alice (Milla Jovovich). As this movie ends, you might expect her to show up in a sequel simply because she survived, but there's no indication that the character will become anything special.
The promise of seeing werewolves fighting vampires draws the audience in, but around this concept Len Wiseman, Kevin Grevioux, and Danny McBride built a world worthy of a role playing game, with enough drama, grudges, double crosses, back room dealings, and tales of star-crossed lovers to fuel a soap opera, let alone a franchise of films. There's a lot to dig into here, with the centuries-long werewolf/vampire war providing plenty of story potential, especially once it's revealed that not everyone is as they seem. Wiseman and his collaborators leave you wanting to know more about this world and these characters, and fittingly left the door open for a sequel.
She's not one of the many flesh-eating zombies that the film is populated with, but heroine Alice is a zombie of sorts for a good portion of the running time. With her memory wiped out due to the effects of a nerve gas, Alice stumbles through about half the movie with no idea of who she is or what's going on. Gradually she comes to recall that she is a security operative who was working against her employer, helping activists try to expose Umbrella's illegal activities. Faced with monstrous opponents, Alice also realizes that she has fighting skills and can handle weapons. She's not the most interesting heroine at this point in her story, but Milla Jovovich still makes her worth rooting for.
Kate Beckinsale's Selene is a super-powered, highly capable killer who has been dedicated to eradicating werewolves for centuries, ever since the beasts murdered her family and a wolf-hunting bloodsucker turned her into a vampire. She could have easily come off as being one dimensional and uninteresting, but Beckinsale infuses the character with a vulnerable side that helps you care for her while the events of the film completely change her life. The romance angle that's added in seems forced and rushed, but it's doubtful that the love story could have been sold any better as it is. Questionable matters of the heart aside, Selene ends up being a cool, tough heroine.
The primary threat to characters in this film are the hundreds of slow-moving zombies that are packed into an underground facility, and (some bad CG makeup enhancements aside) Anderson presents them quite well, making them reminiscent of Romero's shamblers. Skinless zombie dogs also show up for a fun sequence. Then there's a creature called a Licker, which is cool in theory, with its claws, long tongue, and exposed brain, but the CGI used in bringing it to life hasn't aged all that well.
Despite the fact that these werewolves can crawl on walls and ceilings, I don't find them to be all that impressive beyond that. There's a bit too much CGI to them for my taste, and the design makes them look CG even when they're not. The vampires are hoity-toity types with big fangs and weird eyes. When a character becomes an unprecedented vampire-werewolf hybrid, he turns out to be the least impressive creature of them all - just a shirtless dude with painted skin.
A virus is released inside an underground research facility, causing a memorable sequence in which the A.I. in charge of the place wipes out the staff. We then follow a team of commandos as they enter the facility to shut down the A.I. and end up encountering not only deadly security measures - the standout being a hallway filled with body-dicing lazers - but a whole lot of monsters, which they proceed to pump all of their bullets into. There's a decent amount of action here, but upon watching the film all these years later you might be surprised at how little there actually is.
If you tell me a movie is going to be about werewolves and vampires fighting, my first thought would not be that the majority of the fighting would involve the bloodsuckers and wolves (in human form) firing guns at each other, but that's what most of UNDERWORLD's action consists of. Still, there is a good amount of violence, with shootouts in multiple locations, vehicular action, and other weapons (throwing stars, grenades, a sword, whips) being employed at points. The best stuff is when werewolves - completely wolfed out - start tearing vampires to pieces.
Taking place within the ruined labs and maintenance areas of the research facility, RESIDENT EVIL isn't the most stylish film, but it's a fun, fast paced creature feature with a ticking clock element (the characters have to escape the Hive within 3 hours) that is propelled forward by an electronic rock score. I haven't seen all of the movies in this franchise, but the more simple, down-to-earth approach taken for this entry is much more appealing to me than the overblown stuff I've seen in the trailers for sequels.
This monster mash is a stylistic mash-up of gothic horror and modern sensibility, and Wiseman pulled it off pretty well. UNDERWORLD looks great, an over-abundance of blue lighting aside, and evokes memories of old school monster movies while being undoubtedly a movie of its time. This wasn't what I wanted from a story of vampires and werewolves when I first saw it, but I have a new respect for it after revisiting it for this article - I appreciate the effort that was put into crafting the world and characters.
Back when the films were first released, I enjoyed RESIDENT EVIL more than I enjoyed UNDERWORLD, but the tables turned somewhat when the time arrived to assemble this Face-Off. Putting the two directly against each other, I found UNDERWORLD to be the better film, with more going on, a more interesting story and heroine, and better action sequences. I still prefer RESIDENT EVIL's shambling zombies over UNDERWORLD's versions of vampires and werewolves, but the latter film provided more entertainment this time around.

Which of these films would you have given the win to? Going beyond the first installments, what do you think of the RESIDENT EVIL and UNDERWORLD franchises overall? Share your thoughts in the comment section below. If you have suggestions for future Face-Off pairings, you can send me an e-mail at [email protected].



Latest Entertainment News Headlines