It's hard to say whether Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is more terrible or inessential. Of course, that's something of a false dichotomy - part of the reason it's terrible is because it's so very inessential.

Set many hundreds of years prior to the unlikely, undeserving hit movies Underworld and Underworld: Evolution, Rise of the Lycans tells the story of how those films' central conflict between the hidden nations of vampires and werewolves came into being: with the vampire ruler Viktor (Bill Nighy), who kept the subset of werewolves with the ability to consciously change from wolf to man - the Lycans - as his slave race; and with a Lycan called Lucian (Michael Sheen), who was in love with Viktor's daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra). The film tells of how Lucian led his people to break their chains and rise up, of how Viktor learned of his daughter's betrayal; and of how Sonja's death became the inciting incident in a centuries-long war between wolf and bat.

If you thing you've heard that story before, it's probably because you have (that, and the fact that it's a wheezy old Romeo-and-Juliet riff). Everything in Rise of the Lycans that matters to the series mythology - certainly, everything that I included in my little précis - was already explained, and in many cases, already shown onscreen, in the first Underworld. Leaving its prequel to twist in the wind with literally nothing to reveal: filling in the edges a little bit, giving some color to a legend, all that nice stuff, but there's not one single line of dialogue or cutaway shot that tells us anything that we didn't already know from the first two films. There's not even the playful Star Wars prequel trick of thoroughly invalidating everything about the established narrative. There's just... I suppose that the mere fact of dramatising events that had only been spoken of before would be appealing for viewers who really enjoyed the backstory of the first two films, but to be perfectly honest, the mindset of a viewer who really enjoys the first two Underworld films is so completely alien to me that I can't begin to imagine what expectations such a person would bring to the prequel.

From my perspective, Rise of the Lycans is, by a generous margin, the worst of the franchise. There was basically one thing that made Underworld whatsoever enjoyable, and that was watching Kate Beckinsale in a leather catsuit working her way through action sequences that baldly, but successfully, aped The Matrix. Save for a tossed-off cameo, there's no Beckinsale in the new film; and it amplifies the trend begun in Evolution of decreasing the frequency and Matrixicity of the action sequences in favor of people in Gothic dress explaining things at length. In this respect, the prequel is what's left when the shallow pleasures of the first two films have been boiled away, leaving only their worst elements behind. It's always been the most peculiar aspect of the franchise that these movies, which are positioned as being empty, stylish entertainment, should be taken up with such a wildly convoluted backstory; I am not an easily confused filmgoer, but I'm only a little ashamed to admit that the Underworld mythos is as baffling to me as anything I've ever seen in a movie. Rise of the Lycans goes quite a way to making that mythos even more confounding than it already was: by the time the credits began to roll, I realised that I have no idea whatsoever how the vampire society presented in this franchise works.

Of course, it's also a characteristic element of the Underworld movies that their treatment of vampires (and werewolves, to a lesser extent) has very little in common with any normal wisdom about what vampires do. This is the franchise, recall, which takes the irresistible hook of "vampires versus werewolves" and gave us an unending series of gun battles. It wouldn't take much tinkering to remove vampirism from the equation altogether; except for their allergy to sunlight, the characters could by and large be any old race of immortals that you like. Rise of the Lycans amps up the absurdity by presenting a clutch of human nobles who are in thrall to the vampire coven; what exactly "in thrall" means in this context is left almost entirely as an exercise for the viewer.

The story and its borderline-incoherent tangents are so wearying that it's hard to even notice how many other things the film does wrong. Director Patrick Tatopoulos, the series' creature designer taking over from Len Wiseman - and what a shock to find myself missing the contributions of Len Wiseman behind the camera - continues to utilise the palette of cobalt blue and slate grey that made the other films such a cold, antiseptic treat to look at, and stakes his own claim by making everything much, much darker: dark enough that at times it's difficult to tell exactly what is happening. Other than that, Wiseman's style (as crabbed and unappealing as it was) has given way to soulless hackwork. This is the work of a techie thrown behind the camera without really knowing what to do there, and not for one second do you forget that fact.

Absent the lovely Beckinsale, an actress who is significantly better than you would think to look at her career, with all its Pearl Harbors and Van Helsings, the acting suffers. Rhona Mitra (looking eerily like Beckinsale, for reasons that are well-supported by the script) seemed ready in Neil Marshall's Doomsday to leap into the forefront of hot chick action stars, but she's completely flat and uninteresting in this role; nor am I willing to completely blame the script. Beckinsale took a character almost exactly as cardboard and, at the very least, turned her into something marginally worth watching; Mitra is nothing but a pretty face and a scowl. As for the two bigger names, paying the price for having associated themselves with the series all the way back in 2003, when neither had the career they do now, the best thing that can be said about Sheen is that he plays the role completely straight, without lapsing into easy campiness; whereas the best thing that can be said about Nighy is that he plays the role with as much campy gusto as you could possibly conceive. They don't seem to belong in the same movie, but insofar as they're the only elements onscreen that I enjoyed watching, I am making the choice not to mind.

As far as I can tell, the film serves no purpose: it is not entertaining, nor does it add anything to the Underworld legendarium. I guess it's likely that the franchise's fanboys will probably enjoy this chance to see a key moment of the backstory given voice, but really, who wants a world where movies are tailor-made for Underworld fanboys?