Saturday, 11 November 2017

The Missed Opportunities of the Dark Universe

Back when I reviewed the trailer for the rebooted action/adventure/horror The Mummy nearly a year ago my cynicism was high. The trailer looked like it was aiming for the lowest common denominator, but still, I hoped at least that it would just be a bad advertisement. Then the film came out in June, and we all know how that went down. A ham-fisted attempt to start a cinematic universe, the Dark Universe, collapsed at the first hurdle. Heavy handed exposition, unlikeable characters, and side-lining the Mummy in her own movie provided us with an, at its best, boring trip to the cinema, and at its worst, it insulted the intelligence of its audience and spat in the face of its history.

Scraping together just over $400 million in the box office, against a production and advertising budget of $345 million, The Mummy proved to be a spectacular dud, and could very well be nailing the hopes of the Dark Universe into its very own coffin. Recent reports have stated that producer Chris Morgan and writer/director Alex Kurtzman, the architects of the Universe, have jumped ship, putting the production of the sequel Bride of Frankenstein into trouble, and the whole franchise itself is waiting for someone to come along and give it the love and care it needs. Even though I hated this years attempt at a Mummy movie, the thought of the old Universal Monsters being cast aside makes me sad. These are truly wonderful characters and stories, and they deserve to be retold. If you'll indulge me, I'd like to make some futile suggestions on how they could retrofit this franchise and possibly capitalise on their past successes.

First off, Universal could of been smarmy arseholes about the whole thing and run big advertisements saying that the Monsters were the original "cinematic universe". Before Marvel and the DCEU there was Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. While not akin to the contemporary view of what a shared universe is, it shows that Universal were ahead of the game while also planting the idea that a Dark Universe is not an entirely new construction, and therefore not as desperately grasping at current trends as it initially looks like.

Another missed opportunity was to remind people of the original films. While there would be a ready made audience made up of people familiar with the classics, there is a whole bunch of people who *gasp* have never seen them. You could easily licence them out to Netflix (I say easy, I don't know how it works), the familiar ones like Dracula and Creature from the Black Lagoon, and let people rediscover them, become nostalgic for a franchise they didn't realise they loved. Maybe sponsor a bunch of YouTuber's to talk about what makes the old films so great, because we all know the young kids love YouTube.

One aspect that garners much praise from the original movies is the make-up and practical effects. While the studio didn't treat legendary make-up artist Jack Pierce with much respect while he was alive, the rebooted franchise would be a perfect vehicle to honour the man and his famed designs. Truly, one of the things that disappointed me about this years The Mummy was its over reliance on CGI and the lazy design of Princess Ahmanet. It really made the film indistinguishable from every other under-baked summer cinematic romp. Heavy emphasis of practical effects and select use of CGI would be visually impressive and pay homage to a very admirable aspect of the originals.

As I said, there wasn't much to separate this incarnation of The Mummy to all the Transformers and Fast & Furious' and the like that swell the cinema up with mediocrity. Its a bland landscape of juvenile humour, explosions and nonsense. Maybe they could of taken a little bit of the tone from the original films. The 1932 Mummy film is a quieter affair, and built more of its understated horror from its use of editing and Karloff's terrifying glare. A creative interpretation of "horror", to loom more on suspense and the uncanny, would of stood it apart from the jump scares and screaming that is common nowadays.

Speaking of the uncanny, its this aspect that really gives the original Universal Monsters a special place within many peoples hearts still to this day. While some characters like Dracula and The Invisible Man are clearly the bad guys, they are still charismatic. Meanwhile, characters like Frankenstein's Monster, The Wolf Man and Gill-Man are sympathetic characters, easily lovable despite the situation they are forced into. Princess Ahmanet was just boring and indistinct, a bad guy just for Tom Cruise's Nick Morton to fight against. And don't even get me started on Nick Morton. Universal didn't even have the balls to have a monster be the protagonist, we had "young man" Nick Morton become the over-arching figure. And they couldn't even make him likeable.

Truly, it wouldn't of been too difficult to update the franchise. Bram Stoker's original novel emphasised current technology, and of course Mary Shelly's stellar A Modern Prometheus used the impressive at the time science of galvanisation to focus her story around. They could even of worked in the Egyptian Law on the Protection of Antiquities into this years The Mummy, instead of inexplicably setting the film in Iraq. Horror is not just easy scares and loud music cues. What about the "ghost in the machine" of our modern technology? Within the right hands, a contemporary setting could still contain the same eeriness of the originals.

The Dark Universe is a lamentable affair, and it would be a travesty for the studio to turn around and blame a lack of interest from the audience instead of their own mistakes. Maybe if they take a long hard look at the franchise, and really appreciate the legacy they have to play with, this could be salvageable. The cynic in me though believes they'll go through the easy route though.


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