Despite what its prologue implies, this movie is not based on a comic book or anime. The inspiration, however, is clear. Whole stretches resemble a Saturday morning cartoon, and characters appear as though their faces have been caked in Vaseline.
It’s terrible. It’s awful. Its script is inert and its action choreography cranks up style over substance to the point where suspension of disbelief feel afloat in zero gravity. But the style is there in spades, which is more than can be said about the majority of action blockbusters today.
Released in 2006 at the height of Milla Jovovich’s status as genre movie queen, Ultraviolet is a baffling science fiction action movie that needs to be seen to be believed. And it’s the sci-fi movie you need to stream before it leaves HBO Max on February 28.
“I was born into a world you may not understand,” begins the narration by Violet, Jovovich’s butt-kicking, sword-wielding revolutionary. The accidental irony in her statement, which sets up the film’s dystopian setting, is that it bears a likeness to our real present. In Ultraviolet, a disease known as “hemoglophagia” results in vampire-lite attributes, such as sharp teeth and superhuman abilities; watch in horror as the movie fades in to a “dark future” where people wear masks to prevent its spread. Imagine!
Despite the vampirism in the lore — even the film’s Wikipedia page says carriers are averse to sunlight, which is incorrect — nothing about it is committed in the movie, as characters stand unharmed under sunlight. Even Violet lacks sharpened molars. What Ultraviolet is actually about is a woman robbed of motherhood trying to hold on to her maternal instincts.
During a heist where she poses as a courier, Violet collects a “weapon”: A child named Six (Cameron Bright, of the Twilight films, in an early role) whose blood might hold the cure to hemoglophagia. Everyone wants Six, and it’s up to Violet to keep him safe. Many plot twists ensue and, if you can keep up with all of them, you’ve put more thought into this movie than writer/director Kurt Wimmer.
Where Ultraviolet succeeds is when it embraces its absurdity as a living anime. While Wimmer and editor William Yeh clearly made the movie between bumps, there is a hyper-hyper-stylized surreality weaved throughout. From the choreographed ways henchmen move as a unit to the rows of characters dying onscreen, Ultraviolet isn’t shameful of its anime and tokusatsu inspirations. It embraces camp with the open arms of a child in a candy store.
“Verisimilitude” was the word filmmaker Richard Donner operated under while making his landmark 1978 epic Superman, a picture that laid the groundwork for superhero blockbusters today. It’s because of verisimilitude — the existence of truth in non-truths — that Marvel movies like Doctor Strange or Thor: Ragnarok can be as “weird” as they are, because it has its feet planted in a tangible reality audiences can latch onto.
Superman and the MCU that followed it don’t shy from their comic book roots, but they acknowledge them in a way that makes them material to a realistic world. Ultraviolet doesn’t posture with any of that. Violet herself says as much in her narration, but the rest of the movie makes damn well sure to remind us.
Ultraviolet is by every definition a bad movie. Its stench of middling early millennium filmmaking is potent to the point of nauseating, and its abundant male gaze forgets to credit Jovovoich’s midriff as a co-star. After 16 years, it simply hasn’t aged well.
But in contrast to Marvel blockbusters with bland cinematography and weightless action, Ultraviolet pops. Visually, its palette of bold reds, strong blues, pristine whites, and vivid yellows allows the movie to look more like a comic book than any of the many movies in the overtly gray and brown MCU. And as the Marvel and DC films bend backwards to set their epics in reality, it’s nice when movies like Ultraviolet seize the opportunity to do the opposite.
You’d be forgiven for missing Ultraviolet in the first place, especially back in 2006. When superhero movies were still in their infancy, edgy genre pictures aped Blade and The Matrix’s aesthetics to become indistinguishable from one another.
Female-led action movies in particular got hard to pick apart; Jovovich more than established her foothold in this space through her pile of Resident Evil sequels. But there was also 2005’s Aeon Flux, still the only blockbuster from the otherwise calculated filmmaker Karyn Kusama, and the Underworld series starring Kate Beckinsale. These movies had a thing for slender, pale brunettes in leather.
With so many movies like it, it’s no wonder Ultraviolet has dwelled in only the deepest recesses of Blu-ray bargain bins. But, after all this time, it still has something to offer. It’s dumb, yes, but that’s not offensive. It’s hard to look at, but there are “better” movies that have the color palette of a landfill. Ultraviolet is neither misunderstood nor underrated. It deserves its place in the outer edges of cinema canon. But with such outsized imagination on display, it’s concerning to think that maybe our imaginations got smaller.
Ultraviolet is streaming now on HBO Max until February 28.