Film and drama

Screen Themes: The Mummy and the dire state of the Dark Universe

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Do you like classic monster movies? If so, then entertainment editor John Turnbull has some troubling news for you about the latest Mummy reboot and Universal’s planned Dark Universe expansion.

From a franchise to a universe

Back in the olden days, successful moviemaking was all about franchises. If a studio could come up with a James Bond, a Star Wars or even a Carry On, they could ride said franchise to box office success that lasted years if not decades. While James Cameron is still following this model with multiple Avatar sequels, the real money now lies in building universes.

Probably the best modern example of this is the Marvel Universe, which kicked off back in 2008 with Iron Man and now boasts 15 films that have grossed over $4.6 billion in U.S. cinemas alone. The folks at Warner/DC are Still working out the kinks in the DC Cinematic Universe, which until Wonder Woman had produced a bunch of average films that still made a lot of money. Hopefully the positive critical reaction to Gal Godot’s Amazon will steer the DC cinematic universe in a new direction, because I’ve still got my fingers crossed for Justice League…

It is no doubt the lure of this filthy lucre that has encouraged multiple studios to jump on the shared universe bandwagon, with propositions ranging from the slightly odd to the entirely ludicrous. Toy maker Hasbro is relying on nostalgia to drive their universe, with titles including M.A.S.K., Micronauts and ROM: Space Knight, but based on the poor quality of their GI Joe movies, their prospects look murky. Second-tier comic book publisher Valiant has teamed with Sony and announced titles including Bloodshot and Harbinger, but the limited knowledge of these properties among non-geeks may prove a challenge.

Likely more successful is the growing Lego universe, which kicked off with The Lego Movie in 2014 and followed up last year with excellent Lego Batman movie. In production are The Lego Ninjago Movie and The Billion Brick Race, along with sequels to the first two films, suggesting that the little bricks will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. And, of course, we can’t forget the Star Wars universe, which will continue to dominate the December box office for years to come.

Which brings us to Universal and their long in gestation plans to launch their Dark Universe. Originally slated to begin with 2014’s Dracula Untold (which has since been retconned into the same place as Ang Lee’s contemplative Hulk), the Dark Universe brings together the best of the old-timey movie monsters including Frankenstein’s Monster, Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and, of course, The Mummy. How could anything possibly go wrong?

The Mummy (2017)

Directed by Alex Kurtzman

In case you weren’t clued in by his front and centre position on the poster, The Mummy is a Tom Cruise movie. The Cruiser plays Nick Morton, a solider and art thief who’s a bit like Indiana Jones, minus the charm. While attempting to loot the country he’s supposed to be liberating, Morton stumbles onto the tomb of The Mummy and proceeds to make the worst decision possible in every situation for the next 110 minutes.

Morton is accompanied on his oh-so-jaunty thieving missions by comic relief partner Chris, played by Jake Johnson, under the command of clichéd incompetent Colonel Greenway, played by an vaguely embarrassed looking Courtney B. Vance. The title character in this version is played by Sofia Boutella, who you might remember from The Kingsman or Star Trek Beyond, neither of which demanded much from her than looking fierce. The other female lead and ostensible love interest for Morton is Dr Jenny Halsey, a feisty archaeologist played by Annabelle Wallis. The fact that Cruise and Wallis have zero chemistry apparently didn’t bother the filmmakers, who were too busy trying to build a whole universe to notice.

Literally 20 minutes of this movie is wasted on setting up Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, in which Russell Crowe wears some crappy looking makeup and chew the scenery in a variety of accents. In terms of Crowe performances, The Mummy is right up there with Virtuosity, with Big Russ slipping in and out of an Aussie brogue whenever he gets excited.

Aside from the frequent distractions designed to set up a universe, much of the blame for the mess that is The Mummy lies with director (and apparent universe builder) Alex Kurtzman. The Mission Impossible franchise has shown that Tom Cruise can be a compelling action star at the age of 54, however Kurtzman almost completely wastes the Cruiser’s talents. Where Morton should be charming, he‘s arrogant and clueless — a profoundly unlikeable character who elicited a small chorus of cheers from the audience when he appeared to die on screen. 

Of course, one might wonder why Kurtzman was in the director chair in the first place. An experienced writer/producer, but novice director, it seems odd that Universal handed the keys to such an important film to Kurtzman. This is particularly so when you compare what happened with Marvel under the direction of Joss Whedon vs DC under the direction of Zack Snyder. A successful universe needs a near-obsessed auteur at the helm (Whedon threatened to retire from filmmaking after Avengers: Age of Ultron) and the wrong person at the top can be disastrous.

Despite a production budget of $125 million, The Mummy often feels cheap — like an amateur dramatics production of an old-timey horror classic. A relative disaster in the U.S. (with a lower opening weekend than any of the Brendan Fraser Mummy flicks), the movies fortunes has been salvaged somewhat by the international box office, currently sitting at around $140 million.

Tonally uneven, the film veers between creepy horror and slapstick comedy at random, all wrapped up in a sub-standard CGI coating that makes even the real people look fake. It’s something of an achievement to make a movie this bad in 2017, but somehow Universal have done it.

Can the Dark Universe be saved?

Well, let’s see what they’ve got coming up...

There’s a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde movie starring Russell Crowe, who can be a fine actor under the right director but is hardly a guarantee of box office success. There’s a Bride of Frankenstein movie, rumoured to star Angelina Jolie (another actor whose box office cache has faded in recent years) and, of course, Johnny Depp as The Invisible Man, which could reasonably retitled The Formerly Great Actor Who Will Now Do Anything For Cash.

Add on to this the apparent fact that modern movie audiences don’t seem to care much for the old-timey monsters and Universal may have a serious problem. Frequent stop-motion sequences in The Mummy recall the walk of the skeletons from Jason and The Argonauts, which illustrates the main problem with the Dark Universe: they're targeting an audience that doesn't exist anymore. The Universal monsters ruled the silver screen in the days before John Carpenter and George Romero, before Hannibal Lector and Leatherface, when scares were easier to come by.

Campy and out-dated, the Universal monsters just don’t cut it anymore.

At this point, prospects look grim.

The Mummy: 2/10

Prognosis for Dark Universe: Poor

Books by John Turnbull are now available on Amazon and Kindle. There’s supernatural thriller, Damnation’s Flame; action/romance Reaper; black comedy, City Boy; and travel guidebook, Bar Trek: EuropeDamnation's Flame by John Turnbull is also available in the IA store HERE. (Free postage!)

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