Universal Pictures Unveils a DARK UNIVERSE of Gods and Monsters

[Dark Universe logo courtesy Universal Pictures]

If British secret agents (James Bond), custom car enthusiasts (The Fast & the Furious), and comic book superheroes (Marvel & DC Cinematic Universes), are suitable subjects for multi-picture, multi-million dollar grossing interconnected movie franchises, then why not The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and Dr. Henry Jekyll?

Universal Pictures is getting their monsters together and putting on a show — or several shows, to be more precise. This week, Universal announced plans for an interconnected series of movies under the Dark Universe banner, featuring iconic characters like Frankenstein, his Bride, The Invisible Man, and The Mummy.  Each movie in the Dark Universe series will feature a new musical theme intro by Danny Elfman along with the Dark Universe logo (seen above).

The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise and Sofia Boutella, is the first movie in the series; it’s scheduled for release June 9.  Universal confirmed the second film in the series will be Bride of Frankenstein, directed by Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Beauty and the Beast) and scheduled for release in 2019. Johnny Depp is slated to portray The Invisible Man, and Javier Bardem will become Frankenstein’s Monster in future installments.

Russell Crowe, Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise – the Dark Universe is certainly star-studded; along with the respected Javier Bardem and newcomer Sofia Boutelia. [Photo credit: Marco Grob /Universal]
According to Unviersal, “At its organizing principle, Dark Universe films are connected by a mysterious multi-national organization known as Prodigium.  Led by the enigmatic and brilliant Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), Prodigium’s mission is to track, study and—when necessary—destroy evil embodied in the form of monsters in our world”

A look beyond this summary at the announced talent and resources involved in the Dark Universe projects makes it clear what this series of movies is – and what it is not. For diehard fans of the classic Unviersal Monsters, realistic expectations now may save a lot of angst down the road.

The creative brain trust setting up the Dark Universe includes Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan. As The Mummy press release notes, both “have been instrumental in growing some of the most successful franchises of the past several years.”

Kurtzman’s experience with multi-movie franchises includes the Star Trek, Transformers, and Mission: Impossible movies. Chris Morgan has been involved in The Fast & Furious movies since Tokyo Drift (2006). Other creative personnel familiar with the care and feeding of blockbusters includes writer/directors Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible) and David Koepp (War of the Worlds, Jurassic Park).

After being denied the throne and entombed for thousands of years, Princess Ahmanet is – rather upset. [Photo Credit: Universal Pictures]
Iconic characters and franchises have to adapt – or die. But for every Star Trek relaunch or new James Bond actor that manages this trick, there is a Lone Ranger or Tarzan remake that fails to reignite the interest of the moviegoing public.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) may be the example Universal is going for – a movie series interconnected by characters, advancing each movie’s story while also forwarding a larger series-wide saga. But there is a twist. Instead of bringing comic book characters and their stories to the big screen, Dark Universe wants to take the Universal Horror icons created on the screen, and graft them onto original action-adventure tales.

Horror fans in general, and fans of these classic monsters in particular, might want to accept that these movies are not aimed specifically at them. DU looks like a series designed to thrill and terrify like The Mummy ride at Universal Studios Orlando, not inspire a creeping sense of dread and fear.

The nature of the Dark Universe mission is made clear by a quote from Kurtzman and Morgan. “When Universal approached us with the idea of re-imaging these classic characters, we recognized the responsibility of respecting their legacy while bringing them into new and modern adventures.”

Russell Crowe as Dr. Henry Jekyll – and the villainous Mr. Hyde. [Photo Credit: Universal Pictures]
Another concern? The star power some of the announced actors outshines whatever character is supposedly the focus of the movie. Looking at the group photo, I see Johnny Depp (not the Invisible Man), Russell Crowe (not Dr. Henry Jekyll), and Tom Cruise (not the character playing somebody very much like “Tom Cruise”).

The original Universal Monsters featured the characters first, played by actors who became famous after their turns as Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and Frankenstein’s Monster (Boris Karloff).  While Lugosi did become stereotyped as Dracula, Boris Karloff avoided that fate. He went from Frankenstein, to The Mummy, and then to a long and varied career.

Speaking of Dracula – where is he? Aside from a skull with very prominent fangs in the VR tour of Prodigum available online, there is no hint of Universal’s heaviest hitter in the monster department – Dracula, the Lord of the Undead.

Which could be a problem. An interconnected monster universe without Dracula is like MCU without Captain America or the DCU without Batman. Donna Langley, Chairman of Universal promises “we will expand this series strategically.” Let’s hope this absence of Dracula is strategic misdirection on Universal’s part; much like DC keeping Superman out of the publicity buildup for Justice League, even though every fan knows he’s coming back in that movie.

Bela Lugosi as the amazingly fabulous Dracula in 1931's Dracula. [Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]
Bela Lugosi as the amazingly fabulous Lord of the Undead in 1931’s Dracula. Let’s hope he’s part of the Dark Universe. [Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]
Will Bill Condon approach Bride of Frankenstein as he did in 1998’s Gods and Monsters? The true horror in the Bride’s hissing at her prospective groom, both trapped in a world has no place for either of them moves Bride from horror and into heartbreaking tragedy. Or will Bride be another Maleficent – a movie that discards whatever darkness was in the original characters to make a feel good Girrrl Power movie about someone who’s not actually a monster, just misunderstood?

The horror genre has many winding rooms, hallways, extensions, and annexes. If it can encompass everything from the latest Friday the 13th slasher movie, the Blumhouse business model of micro-budget and interesting story, and the art house stylings of Get Out (2017), The Witch (2016), and The Babadook (2014), it can handle – and maybe even welcome – the new Unviersal thrill ride in the backyard.

 

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