Sometimes, we compare movies to fast food: usually McDonald's and usually in the context, "Some entertainment is like McDonald's - no damn good, but it's comforting to know what you're getting". This is a lazy comparison, but it has the benefit of being a really poppy image that anybody who's ever eaten at a McDonald's, which is all of us, can instantly grasp. There are, however, other fast food joints than McDonald's, which is, while undeniably not good is also not bad, not as much as it surely could be.

A few years ago, Taco Bell had a limited-time menu item called the Black Jack Taco. It was a shell dyed dark purple, filled with their normal meat-surrogate, as well as a pepper jack "cheese" sauce. Anybody could tell it was going to be a piece of shit, but at the time I lived three blocks from a Taco Bell, and sometimes when it is 1:00 in the morning you are hungry, and the McDonald's where gay prostitutes and drug dealers hang out* sounds like a bad deal, so you go to the Taco Bell. Sometimes you even do this sober, as I was when I decided, what the hell, I have to at least see what this Black Jack Taco is meant to be all about...

It was all about the single worst case of indigestion of my entire life, in the end, like someone was pelting me with softballs right in the gut for the next hour. Curiosity assuaged, I moved on with my life, until about two weeks later - in broad daylight this time, and still sober, I found myself wondering, "could it actually have been that bad?" And being committed to the scientific method, I tried another one, and found out that, in fact, it was worse - it was the goddamnedest bad thing I'd ever gotten at Taco Bell (at Taco Bell, I declare), and I should really, at some point, learn not to toy with powers of darkness that I do not comprehend. Undeterred, I went back a third time, just to see, because, Christ, you can't make something that bad and actually legally sell it in a food-vending establishment, can you? This is the industrialised world, for God's sake. Anyway, the promotion was over by that point, for which the last tattered shreds of my stomach lining will always be thankful.

Underworld: Awakening is that Black Jack Taco given cinematic form. I saw Underworld, the 2003 steel-blue/slate-grey Matrix knock-off that can think of nothing better to do with vampires and werewolves than have them fire guns at each other. I saw, too, Underworld: Evolution, the 2006 sequel that added to this mix a whole lot of unnecessarily complex mythology stating, in effect, "werewolves and vampires are destined to forever fight one another because OOH SHINY!". I saw Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, the 2009 prequel that narrowly remains the series low point by virtue of telling, in numbing detail, a story that was already quite clear thank you from the first two movies, with a worse cast than the others. And yet, armed with more than five and one-quarter hours of Underworld's unabashed shittiness, I still managed to waltz right into Awakening while brightly thinking to myself, "Maybe this one will be good, though! I mean, vampires vs. werewolves, that's a heckuva concept! And Kate Beckinsale wearing a leather catsuit tighter than her own skin!"

Well, yes, Beckinsale in tight leather, and her one-note performance is at any rate a welcome return to normalcy after sitting out the third movie except for a small cameo. No, she is no damn good, but she is at least bad in a way that feels like a cozy, organic part of the series' background insipidity. And she is pretty much the single reason to bother with Awakening, unless you miss the days when CGI sauntered up and announced its CGI-ness with a weightless, otherworldly sheen. And here, it's doing it in 3-D; really overwrought 3-D that serves mostly to make the effects look even worse, for when CGI fog covers Beckinsale's lady parts in a singularly unpersuasive way, it is merely stupid; when CGI fog does the same, while moving back and forth and, if I am not mistaken, right through Beckinsale, it is not only stupid, but contemptible.

The plot, worked up by series godfather and Mr. Beckinsale himself, Len Wiseman, along with three co-writers (including, weirdly, Autumn in New York scribe Allison Burnett, and sci-fi/comic icon J. Michael Straczynski), starts up somewhat after Evolution ended, with rogue vampire Selene (Beckinsale) and her half-vampire, half-werewolf lover, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman, in a blindingly short stock-footage cameo) on the run from, not the vampires, and not the Lycans, as the werewolves are called her, but from humans. You see, now humans know about the vampire-Lycan war, and they've declared genocide on both races, which has not caused the centuries-old feud to simmer down in the slightest. No sooner is this set up than Selene and Michael are caught and tossed in a deep freeze, from which Selene awakes 12 years later, to find that both vampires and wolves have been reduced to a handful of scattered populations barely able to stay alive. Also, the hybrid who escapes along with her turns out not to be Michael, who we are assured by people who weren't there is dead, dead, dead (wink, sequel hook, good Jesus), but hers and Michael's three-quarters vampire, one-quarter Lycan daughter, Eve (India Eisley, who is 19 and looks 10). Conveniently, Selene can see through Eve's eyes and vice versa, which provided a decent plot hook and a better video game mechanic as Selene chases her daughter to a vampire coven where plot happens, and then to the headquarters of the Evil Pharmaceutical Company With A Secret, where plot also happens. In both places, Selene fights a ginormous Lycan mutant who is, by a huge margin, the most convincing CGI werewolf the series has yet bestowed on us.

I had one complaint about Underworld. That is a total lie. I had a shitload of complaints, but the biggie was that there were zero stakes: other than the uninteresting Michael, the film, and its first two sequels, lacked any human beings like you and me and the rest of the audience to be our surrogates so that we actually had any visceral investment in the gun play. Gun play, I want to remind you, occuring between vampires and werewolves. Gun play. Anyway, Awakening proves me the fuck wrong: it is all about the place that humans intersect with werewolves and vampires, and it is not remotely interesting, possibly because no sooner does it actually acknowledge the really keen part of this idea (the all-out three-way war), than it konks the protagonist on the head and skips ahead a dozen years, to find that the war is already over and all that remains is a tepid little jog over here and then back to start, firing guns and striking poses in skintight leather along the way.

Directors Måns Mårlind More and Björn Stein (credited, awfully, as "Mårlind & Stein" like they're some sort of damn world-renowned duo) push through this folderol with maximum attention paid to the series' trademarks: low lighting, blue all over, really damn loud fight scenes, close-ups of Beckinsale's pale face and artificially bright blue eyes; it's not their fault that this is the fourth time we've heard this tune, and it wasn't very good in the first place. There are a few good patches every so often - the choreography of an early car chase is uncharacteristically thrilling, and Eve's makeup when she goes crazy vamp girl is genuinely unsettling - and a whole lot of solemn mugging by Beckinsale while anonymous music screams in the background. The removal of all the tedious mythology of the earlier films in favor of lots of forward action is welcome; too bad that they removed the only thing resembling a tweak to the formula, the war with humans, in the process. What's left is super-slick; and it is irritating and chaotic and dumb as a box of rocks. Really damn dumb rocks. All the Kate Beckinsales in all the catsuits in all the world can't face that down.