Underworld: It’s all about Selene, baby

I loved Underworld. I practically danced my way out of the theater when it was over. It’s a fabulous action movie. Guns, swords, huge fights, suspense, conspiracy, betrayal, and a non-sappy love story. Nothing really blows up, but I can let that go because Selene, the main character, is amazing.

She is strong and decisive, and she takes care of herself and those she cares about. The film’s creators respect the hell out of her, and it shows throughout the film. She is portrayed as extremely capable, and they’ve even dressed her in clothes and shoes that she could walk and fight in without breaking an ankle. As far as heroine content, Underworld knocks it out of the park. Things on the anti-racism side are a little shakier, but overall I feel like the anti-racist message wins out.

For those who aren’t familiar with the plot, it goes something like this. Selene’s family was murdered by werewolves. She was adopted into a patriarchal aristocracy of vampires by Viktor, one of the rulers. She becomes a Death Dealer, a soldier in the genocidal war against the werewolves. When she begins to suspect that the war isn’t quite what she’s been told, her investigation starts to unravel vampire society.

As the story plays out, we learn that Selene is deeply loyal to her father-figure Viktor. But unfortunately for her corrupt kin, her loyalty doesn’t stop her from questioning the history she has been taught. She trusts her own instincts when things just don’t seem right. It brings her into conflict with Kraven, the jackass currently in charge of her coven. When he’s not sexually harassing her, he’s threatening her with punishment and ordering her not to continue investigating.

But to Selene, protecting her people and finding the truth matter more than protecting her own standing. She’s possibly the only one in the movie acting out of anything other than self-interest. True, she doesn’t play politics well. Her loyalty to Viktor blinds her to his real nature until late in the game. But I completely disagree with Grace’s description of Selene as a pawn of powerful men. Her actions continually challenge and threaten those powerful men and their plans. She shrugs Kraven off no matter how far he escalates, and she even defies Viktor to bring him proof of her accusations.

There are light touches of the usual action heroine cliches. When Selene is driving and passes out, forcing Michael to save her, it just felt like a mechanism to add vulnerability to her character. It didn’t fit. I also wish that there were other women. There is a quick glimpse of one other female Death Dealer. There is Erika, the stereotype of the manipulative pretty girl. Amelia, the vampire elder, just dies. That’s all. The film’s creators are unwilling to admit that any other women could be strong or powerful.

However, the film’s creators don’t take away from Selene by indulging in all the formulaic garbage that plagues so many supposedly strong women in action films. There is no gratuitous cleavage. There is no strip and torture scene. There is no fainting or crying under pressure, only to be rescued by a man. When Selene and Michael fight the bad guys, they work together, and more often than not she’s saving him. Her love for him doesn’t suddenly make her weak.

From an anti-racist perspective, I thought the film also succeeded by showing Selene reject what she’s been taught about the relationship between vampires and werewolves. She moves from seeing werewolves as subhuman targets of violence to an understanding that they are people who have been done wrong by vampire society. And since Selene has a solid grounding in right and wrong, she rejects Viktor’s racism. We are strongly on her side by that point in the movie, and we are cued by the film to have the same reaction she does.

But since I’m white, I’m not the expert on racism. So I did a Google search to see if anyone else had commented on this aspect. Most of the reviews I found mentioned the race and class aspects of Underworld with an approving nod for the message the film conveys. That’s not to say it’s perfect. You may want to check out this comment on Underworld and racism from a forum on Starpulse. The basic issues raised by the commenter can be summarized as follows:

  • Why was there only one black vampire?
  • Why was there only one black werewolf?
  • The werewolves, analogized to African-Americans, are often shown in their animal form, which is dark, violent, and non-human.
  • The film conveys the message that mixing vampires and werewolves is bad.

The first two points are definitely a weakness. Further down the forum, one of the commenters points out that the black werewolf was actually one of the executive producers of the film, but I don’t know if that makes me feel better or worse! They couldn’t find any actors of African descent? But as to the fourth point, I thought the film was actually quite strong in its rejection of Viktor’s racism around mixing between vampires and werewolves.

The third point is troubling. The most “civilized” werewolf, Lucian, is white. The film portrays him as the leader of the werewolves, but in many ways he’s shown as “more evolved” than they are. He does not change into his animal form very often, if at all, and he chastises several of the other werewolves for acting like animals. Since the creators of the film decided to tell a story about race and class, I wish they had been a lot more careful with this part.

So I’m torn between giving Underworld four stars because of the amazingness that is Selene, and giving it three stars because the overt messages about race and class aren’t always reflected in the choices the film’s creators made about casting and portrayal of people of color.

In the end, I give it four stars, because to me it is one of the Greatest Hits of female action films and its heroine decisively rejects prejudice and racism. Heck, I’d make my children watch it if I had any – and if I thought it wouldn’t give them nightmares!

This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.