It can be easy to overlook the fact that a heroine doesn’t need to be moral to serve as a compelling lead.
We may not have appreciated it at the time, but the early 2000s were a golden age for female-led action films, including 2000’s Charlie’s Angels, 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, 2002’s Resident Evil and, best of all, 2003’s Underworld. While the pleather-heavy marketing made Underworld look like a fangier version of The Matrix, in truth the film is an incredibly entertaining, slyly self-aware mixture of Blade and La Femme Nikita.
Though it was a moderate box office success, spawning a healthy franchise while opening up bigger opportunities for star Kate Beckinsale and debut director Len Wiseman, Underworld was critically panned upon its release and is still relatively misunderstood today. Many critics found the film to be painfully serious and excessively dour, with frosty protagonist Selene (Beckinsale) singled out for her lack of expression. But right beneath the film’s gloomy exterior is a layer of biting, dry humor, much of which comes from Selene’s expressionless delivery.
Before Underworld, Beckinsale had been called “cold” and “aloof” in the press, and regardless of how she actually acted, being an Oxford-educated British brunette in youth-obsessed, blonde Hollywood made her stick out. The role of Selene, a literal blood-sucking and ice-cold vampire, was perfectly self-aware casting, and Beckinsale flourishes in the role, using slight sneers and intense looks to convey more attitude than most actors can manage with entire monologues. She’s matched up with Bill Nighy as an ancient vampire and Michael Sheen as a werewolf (or lycan, as they’re called here), and the result is a satisfying mixture of gothic and satiric atmosphere. Watching these classically-trained U.K. actors suck blood, grow claws and spout mysterious gobbledegook about an ancient interspecies blood feud is pure magic.
Beyond this charming self-awareness, Underworld also gets its action right. Though it was criticized upon its release for being too shadowy, the darkness of many of the action scenes serves a significant purpose. Wiseman got his start in the props department on films like Stargate and Independence Day and in doing so developed a love for practical effects. Through a mixture of props, choreography and lighting, much of Underworld’s action is done without the assistance of special effects, which kept the budget low and the fight scenes authentic. It’s also important to remember that Underworld came out well before even the first Twilight book was released, so Wiseman and company were really onto something with their vampires vs. wolves approach.
Even without her self-referential iciness, Beckinsale’s Selene is a more complex character than her male counterparts in those better-received films like Blade and The Matrix, and Selene is a woman who treats her male romantic lead (Scott Speedman) like the damsel-in-distress for much of the film. She has Neo’s straight-faced silence and Blade’s casual coolness, but she also has the aforementioned biting humor. She has the gall to keep her clothes on for much of the film and also kicks the ass of every dude who gets in her way.
As recently showcased with the well-deserved adoration for Wonder Woman, audiences are extremely keen for female-led action films. Underworld, similar in that it treats its male lead as arm candy, is a colder, harder film than Wonder Woman, which admirably wears its heart on its sleeve. Wonder Woman’s Diana appeals to both men and women, because she is both strong and virtuous. Underworld’s Selene is not an unambiguously good person, nor is she traditionally funny. And just as audiences are hungry for more Wonder Woman, we also need more Selene-like roles in action films today. It can be easy to overlook the fact that a heroine doesn’t need to be moral to serve as a compelling lead.