Underworld has lost steam as a franchise at this point, I think it’s safe to say. But when that first film hit in 2003, no one expected what it would become. The movie was even shot on a relatively modest budget compared to its sequels, because even though vampires and werewolves were successful concepts, there was no safe bet that the movie would work or perform well. But the combination of post-Matrix action, nu-metal soundtrack and goth punk aesthetic—not to mention the allure of vampires and werewolves going toe-to-toe in a major theatrical film the same year as Freddy vs. Jason—was clearly enough to win audiences over.
But for all its leather-bound Evanescence flair, there’s a surprising and refreshing undercurrent of the winning side of history and how those in power sweep the past under the rug in order to make themselves look better. Metaphorical as it might be, it’s refreshing to have a sleek and stylish action movie that also has a central character arc about a main character who slowly realizes that they have been raised in a system that is inherently racist without ever being made to question it. It’s only as the movie goes on and the truth is revealed that our heroine, Selene, comes to terms with the truth and the way she has lived her life, turning her back on the structure that she has always called home.
At the beginning of Underworld, Selene is comfortable in her life as a Death Dealer. It is her job to hunt down the last remaining Lycans—why they change the name of werewolves but keep vampires is something I still don’t understand—and it’s something that she clearly loves, that even kind of defines her. She takes her work incredibly seriously and other vampires don’t get why she doesn’t enjoy reveling in the excess of their mostly immortal condition the same way that they do. But there are rumors that Lucian, the Lycan who she’s told started the war between the species and who she believes to have murdered her family, has resurfaced and she will stop at nothing to see if there’s any truth to these claims. Selene does not just buy into the lie she’s been told all her life, she’s completely driven by it.
From the beginning, with Selene as our protagonist, we spend most of our time with the vampires. They’re pure aristocracy. They’re the definition of literal Old Money and the hierarchy of vampires seems to be divided into elite families and bloodlines. Our glimpses of Lucian and the Lycan clan are much darker, literally, as they’re in the sewers and appear to be scheming. The vampires are on top and werewolves are literally on the bottom, forced to hide while the people hunting them to extinction live in mansions. On that level, it’s surprising that it takes us this long to realize who the real villains and heroes are, but the tension is explained so early on that we don’t really question it.
That’s one of the smartest things Underworld does. It sets up a world in which one side was simply told as the truth and we’re led to believe that truth for most of the film. We’re given no reason not to believe it because all of our main characters fall into that mindset, they’re in line with that way of thinking, that’s their history and they don’t question it. When we get glimpses of Lucian, they’re in dark sewer tunnels and purposefully lit in a scary and intimidating way. Which is smart, because it fuels our expectation that he is the villain of the story, while also highlighting the classism between vampires and werewolves that defines the story itself.
Of course, eventually the reveal comes from Lucian himself that he was born into a life of servitude, that the war had not been started by the Lycans as Selene had always been led to believe, but instead that her father figure Viktor had instigated it after learning that his daughter had not only had a relationship with Lucian but had become pregnant with his child. Viktor killed her for this, so sickened by her actions and the thought of what she had done that he could not allow her to live. It was nothing more than pure, distilled bigotry, but—as has often been done throughout history—the narrative was layered with justifications to make it sound like anything but. Essentially, this is a movie in which we’ve been tricked into watching from the villain’s perspective and it definitely deserves credit for pulling that off.
This sets up a great arc for Selene as someone who has so clearly defined herself one way, to learn that everything she’d been taught about her world and her purpose was a lie. Her hero’s journey is one of unlearning literally centuries of ingrained bigotry. She killed Lycans, she had been raised to see them as barely human, and it’s only until hearing the truth from Lucian that she even begins to really consider them as anything but animals. It kicks off an arc that carries into the second film of Selene’s drive to create something better. Lucian still has hope that the war between vampires and Lycans can be settled and reconciled by Michael’s ultimate transformation into the hybrid between the species. But Selene has a deep, insider’s perspective of just how strong the vampires’ hatred actually is. She’s both seen and done too much to believe that Michael’s hybridization will be seen as anything but an abomination, even if it proves that both vampires and Lycans share the same origin and can be traced back to the same bloodline.
At the end of the film, Selene isn’t trying to change anyone’s mind, she doesn’t go back to Viktor’s mansion to try to educate any other vampires as to how wrong they’ve been and how they’ve been lied to, because that kind of bigotry can explain itself out of any uncomfortable situation, and she’s clearly already arrived at the fact that they wouldn’t listen. Instead, the end finds her acknowledging a bleaker future and a much harsher life for herself. This is ultimately what allows her to come into her own as a heroine after having begun the film as a pawn for the villains. She had been raised into this life of luxury and gives up her home, her wealth, her family, and everything that defined her identity because she has learned how genuinely toxic and ultimately wrong those things were.
Selene’s victory at the end of Underworld is incredibly small. She hasn’t taught vampires that their way of thinking was bigoted and blind, she’s only learned that for herself. She hasn’t set out on a path to unite the races because she’s seen enough to likely believe that’s an impossibility and that, after so many hundreds of years, the damage is done.
All she’s really learned is to turn her back on her family though they’ll likely kill her for it, and to love Michael and embrace who he is knowing that almost no one on either side will. In that respect, it’s incredibly similar to the revolution fought by Lucian—forming much of the backstory here but ultimately depicted in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans—in that all he wanted was to raise his child (which also would have been a hybrid) and strike back at those who killed the woman he loved, and for it he and his entire race were hunted to near-extinction and he was forced to fake his own death. Selene pointedly notes at the end that she is facing almost the same future, noting that she herself will soon be hunted as well.
For Lycans, Lucian is a folk hero. They, of course, know that he isn’t dead and have followed him since virtually the day their failed revolution began. While the vampires have vilified him into an almost boogeyman status, his own people treat him with incredible reverence. This doesn’t just mark the different ways the character is seen by both sides, but more especially marks the different ways that vampires and Lycans interact with each other. The vampires are all out for themselves, there are constant shifts in status, people trying to usurp other houses, wanting a position of power for themselves, while the Lycans seem to have much more of a sense of community. Sure, there’s in-fighting and they’re even mauling each other in cage matches at time, but there’s a level of respect that the vampires just don’t share.
Simply from where he is at the beginning of the movie to the end, Lucian appears to have the most in-depth and complex character arc, but almost all of it relies on audience perception. It’s not about him learning anything necessarily, but rather about POV, which is an interesting distinction and largely drives home the point that Underworld seems to be trying to make, which is that it is so easy to sell a certain group as inferior to people who do not have any interaction with them, and that perspective is genuinely everything, and that you cannot have a full story when you’ve only heard one side. Lucian is a complex character, but he’s already arrived at a sense of purpose that he’s had for hundreds of years. He dies a hero and it feels like a redemption, but in reality, he’s the person he’s been from the very beginning, we were just led to believe him to be something much different than he actually was.
Underworld, at the end of the day, is a surprisingly complicated take on what is ultimately a very silly idea. It’s just the sleek, post-Matrix action thriller that it promises itself to be. But at the same time, I don’t think anyone expected it to do all those things while also weaving together a layered story about xenophobia, classism, literal fears of race mixing and so much more, and I love that this of all ridiculous movies manages to touch upon those things.
It probably shouldn’t exist and the franchise as a whole certainly strayed away from that central focus, but that the original fixates on these elements to the degree that it does is almost astonishing. Even if it takes it goes too far on the world building and offers very little levity, often taking itself way too seriously, Underworld has some earnest points to make and tells a rich and surprising story. It both exactly is and exactly isn’t what you expect it to be based on the premise, and I can’t help but kind of love it for that.