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Universal's "Cinematic Monster Universe" is a Bad Idea

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Another week, another report about a planned remake! Universal, which had previously announced plans to turn its roster of monster movie characters into a cinematic universe it hopes will rival Marvel and DC (for serious) is plotting a remake of The Mummy, this time starring Tom Cruise. There’s so much to unpack here.

Let’s begin with Universal’s history of the studio of the monster movie. Universal had the biggest monster films of the silent film era, with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi both under contract. This led to masterpieces like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and yes, The Mummy (1932). The studio should champion this legacy wherever it can. The big question, however, is how they can honor their history in a way that will make decent movies that generate trainloads of cash – because trainloads of cash is what this is all about at this level, let’s not kid ourselves.

Despite a very strong 2015 (Jurassic World, Fast & Furious 7 and 50 Shades of Grey collectively grossed $5 billion), a studio executive bemoaned Universal’s lack of “capes” in their portfolio. No one can blame Universal for looking at the new Hollywood model, which is to revive old franchises that everyone is familiar with, in a bid to make gobs of money rather than lots.

Monsters are Not Superheroes

Universal’s problem is how to conceptualize the monster characters as superheroes who will eventually band together in an Avengers-like orgy of world-saving (which is what reps for Universal specifically said they want.) The stars of Monster and Creature movies were defined by their tragic circumstances and are often created by man. Humanity’s culpability in creating the monster is a central theme in monster fiction and cannot be separated from the story without changing its meaning.

Dracula and Frankenstein’s Creature are not superheroes ready to save us from certain doom. They are the doom. Monsters are a mirror for our human anxieties. Universal’s monster movies are the direct descendants of Gothic novels. Although Gothica is certainly present prior to the 19th century, the poets and writers of the Romantic era were the most influential to modern movie and Tv adaptations. After Lord Byron‘s ghost story competition, Mary Shelley and John William Polidori created arguably the two most influential stories in the genre, Frankenstein (1818) and The Vampyre (1819). Frankenstein is open to many interpretations – the rejected child, the danger of playing God, the perils of pushing science too far – but each one of these theories requires us to consider the causes and affects of excess and our own inhumanity to other people.

Vampire folklore existed throughout Europe and Russia for centuries and pops up in works of art like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem “The Bride of Corinth.”But it was Polidori’s short story which sparked a vampire craze in literary Europe. Later works like Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” (1872) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) made the psychosexual framework of vampire lore pretty obvious. Vampire stories also hint at terror over The Other, whether that is explored through colonialism, emancipation of slaves, immigration, or in the many modern terrors which seem to plague the American psyche.

Am I off topic? Not really, these facets of monster lore were translated to the big screen expertly in Universal’s pre-WWII movies. Over the next 75 years, there have been occasionally decent adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein. But the classic monster movies belong to another era of filmmaking, and recreating what made them unique and important is not easy. In an era where anything is possible, will creating the next spectacularly computer-generated movie monster really satisfy audiences on a scale that would make it worthwhile (aka generate miles and miles of cash?)

Van Helsing and Dracula Untold Say Hello.

Universal is overlooking the disappointing near past, where the Hugh Jackman-led Van Helsing (2004) bombed and Dracula Untold (2014) was a disaster. Despite this, the studio intended for Dracula Untold to be the launch of its new cinematic universe. Luke Evans played Vlad the Impaler, who is just a dad who wants to save his son from rule by the Turks. So he becomes a super vampire to save his country and his son. Then there are many big CGI battles where Vlad proves to be a big badass who Liam Neesons everyone and then dies. (Except spoiler alert – he lives! And is spotted in modern day London, just in time for a sequel!)

The Mummy

Which brings us to The Mummy. The original Mummy starred Boris Karloff. The 1992 remake starring Brendan Fraser was fun and cheesy. There is room in the world for fun and cheesy, but it’s hard to replicate that dynamic, especially if you aim to turn it into something “serious.” Even Star Wars, which I also classify as fun and cheesy (sorry), proved incredibly hard to replicate. George Lucas made those three awful prequels seemingly without a firm grasp on what made people love his original creation. It was the characters and their story, not digitally amazing SFX, that had people in love with his movies. (Which is why The Force Awakens taps nostalgia for the original characters to relaunch a story about new ones).

Universal’s new action hero will be a re-imagined Mummy. The story will reportedly jettison the 1920s setting so that it opens with a Navy Seal infiltrating a suspected terrorist camp in Iraq. If this sounds way off target to you, you are not alone.

“Maybe We’ll Consider a Woman. No Wait — Let’s Get Tom Cruise!”

Now you may recall that back in October, The Hollywood Reporter claimed that the filmmakers were going to perhaps consider a woman for the title role (gasp!). They allegedly had two versions of the story, and would make the woman-led version, but it would come down to“casting.” There was no follow up report to this cryptic report, nor any story about which woman the studio would actually consider casting. (Because you know they had someone in mind, such as “if we can get Angelina Jolie to do Tomb Raider: Mummy Division”….)

There was probably never a serious chance that Jolie or any other woman would be trusted with launching a cinematic universe. Variety reported last week that Tom Cruise was in talks to star. The Mummy has already been pushed back a year, with plans for a mid-2017 release. I am not dying for the opportunity to watch Cruise in anything, let alone watching him grin and grunt through an action adventure story based on the Mummy.

The movie was delayed because Universal is still having trouble grokking exactly what it is that will tie these monsters together, other than that they are Total Badass Dudes Who Can Kick Butt in the Modern World. But they are forging ahead anyway with the hope that once Cruise is on board, someone will come up with something that makes sense. Bigger budgets, computer-generated junk battles and modern action adventure stories don’t mesh with the moody, melodramatic monsters that we know and love. Although Universal’s monsters often crossed-over into each other’s movies, they were still scary and tragic. What Universal is proposing is cinematic drivel of the highest order. Somebody stop them. Quick, who has the garlic?

Alex is a lawyer and opinionated.

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