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How Universal Should Solve Its Dark Universe Problem

"The Mummy" is an unmitigated disaster, so we asked a panel of film critics to share their advice if Universal wants its monster movies to succeed.

Sofia Boutella in “The Mummy”

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: With “The Mummy” opening to mostly negative reviews this weekend, Universal’s attempt to kickstart its “Dark Universe” franchise is stuck in a rut. What would you do (or recommend the studio do) to make good movies out of Universal’s classic monsters?

Violet Lucca (@unbuttonmyeyes), Film Comment

The obvious response is “don’t try,” but since we’re a few years away from getting back to using original intellectual property in film, I’ll give them a few options.

One: ditch the self-seriousness of the modern action blockbuster and revive the genre mashup of the “Abbott and Costello Meet…” series. Get Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill or Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key to do some self-aware schtick with “The Bride of Frankenstein,” and get Chris Miller and Phil Lord to direct. (Hell, why not get all six of them together on this?) Two: turn the keys of the franchise over to a really, really independent director like Joanna Hogg or Ben Russell and let them do whatever they want. We explore the quiet sadness of contemporary life (aren’t we all monsters, in some respect?) and sweetmeat Tom Hiddleston still gets a role. Three: the anti-disaster film where instead of being horrified by monsters, normal people just enjoy their super abilities. The Mummy kills that Ancient Aliens guy with the weird hair and leads a crusade against “alternative facts”; the Invisible Woman (really can’t trust a dude with this power—see “Hollow Man” for more details) fights campus sexual assault; the Phantom of the Opera gets the “Star is Born” treatment. I’m still waiting for the “Jurassic Park” movie where people just enjoy the park and don’t have to learn about man’s hubris yet again…

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

Universal should do the same thing with its franchise monsters that any producer should do anywhere anytime with any subject to make a good movie: hire good directors and get out of their way. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Jekyll/Hyde? Jordan Peele’s “The Invisible Man”? Sofia Coppola’s “Bride of Frankenstein”? I’ve already bought my tickets.

Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), Freelance for the Guardian, Nylon, Vulture

dracula

“Dracula”

You know how the three most important things in real estate are location, location, location? The key to making a good monster movie is tone, tone, tone. Kurtzman’s po-faced blockbluster couldn’t have made for a worse fit with the Universal Monsters IP. The original films from the ’30s worked due to their humble ambitions; simple yet effective design for the ghouls, stories privileging mood over narrative convolutions, no leveled cities. If the studio wants this Dark Universe boondoggle to work (which I almost hope it doesn’t, just on the principle of the thing), the first thing they could do is hire someone who understands what makes the monster movies fun, and that their being fun is more important than their being scary. Massive budgets fight the spirit of the material, which benefits from smallness and resourcefulness. I recently rewatched the 1931 “Dracula,” and it’s incredible how much atmosphere they’re able to conjure from a single soundstage set, an arched eyebrow, a clutched pearl. Shit, if they really want to do this up right? Set them all in the ’30s and establish a hard “no CGI” rule.

Miriam Bale (@mimbale), Freelance

Frankenstein’s monster is obviously a rich text, and worth delving into on its own. Godard did that very well recently in “Goodbye to Language.” (But who is a modern Elsa Lanchester who could play the Bride of Frankenstein in the many sequels she deserves?)

Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail

The obvious answer to the question is to have Universal hire good screenwriters and directors whose primary motivation is creative rather than mercenary. Following the lead of other big studios that have hired indie directors like Patty Jenkins (“Wonder Woman”) and Colin Trevorrow (“Jurassic World,” of which I was not a fan, but it made a gazillion dollars) to reinvigorate their franchises, I would suggest that Universal do the same.

True, Alex Kurtzman, director of “The Mummy,” had only directed one feature before this (“People Like Us”), but a quick look at his CV shows how steeped he is in the usual commercial fare (as a writer and producer). So, I offer the following indie directors – who have all made atmospheric thrillers of some kind, some of them of a supernatural bent – as alternatives to whomever Universal has slated for the next movies in the “Dark Universe”: Ana Lily Amirpour (“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”), Ana Asensio (“Most Beautiful Island”), Robert Eggers (“The Witch”), Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook”), Michael O’Shea (“The Transfiguration”), Christopher Radcliff/Lauren Wolkstein (“The Strange Ones”), ‎Jeremy Saulnier (“Green Room”), Trey Edward Shults (“It Comes at Night”), Sang-ho Yeon (“Train to Busan”) and, for good measure, even though he’s too well-known to be truly “indie,” Jordan Peele, whose “Get Out” was truly frightening, indeed. There are many more, but that list should get us started. Let them each pick a movie, write a script, and off we go…

Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf), Time Out New York

I can’t believe we’re already talking about rebooting the Dark Franchise. Having not seen “The Mummy,” I’ll take everyone’s word that desperate measures are required. The problem starts with the name of the universe itself: “Dark” is a dour theme to unify any collection. DC Comics already suffered this malaise and averted disaster at the cliff’s edge by making sure “Wonder Woman” had fun and irreverence to it, as well as a noticeable spirit of humanity. (The thing I ogled most about Gal Gadot’s performance was her pure empathy: for babies, for beaten horses, for bombed-out cities and ice-cream vendors.)

“Bride of Frankenstein”

Speaking more creatively, Universal should stop trying to pound their square monsters in the round holes of generic action cinema. The wonderful thing about the classic monster movies was their elegance. They had verbal wit, comedy, a bit of camp. I cherish “Bride of Frankenstein” for its fright-wig psychodrama. Or Béla Lugosi saying, “I never drink…wine.” And the Creature from the Black Lagoon is best known as a plastic Halloween mask. You’ve got to account for the fustiness of these iconic monsters, and use it to your advantage. Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” did this beautifully. Universal should spring for a visionary director (one with a sense of humor, please) and stay out of that person’s way. Start with Guy Maddin.

Christian Blauvelt (@Ctblauvelt), BBC Culture

Scrap it altogether.

Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko), Nerdist/Pajiba

First off: fire Johnny Depp. He’s become a parody of his former self, and with problematic baggage to boot. Even invisible, there are many moviegoers who’d rather not see anything he touches. Boot him.

Two: Ditch this tightly (and ham-fistedly) knitted franchise plan. Roll out the monsters in their own independent movies first. Let audiences get to know them before wedging sequel setups down our gullets.

Ana Lily Amirpour - TIFF 2016

Ana Lily Amirpour

Daniel Bergeron

Three: Hire some of the exciting up-and-coming horror directors to bring something distinct and stylish to each solo film. Ignore the impulse to wedge in a studio hack to make some big budget, four-quadrant cross-genre tentpole. Hire Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook”), Jordan Peele (“Get Out”), Ana Lily Amirpour (“A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night”), Yeon Sang-ho (“Train To Busan”) or Damien Power (“Killing Ground”). Let them build you a rich world with complicated and creepy characters. Once the ball is rolling, find a TV director who’s used to taking existing properties and making them work in new material (the Russo Bros, Joss Whedon, Patty Jenkins, Michelle MacLaren) and give them assignment for Dark Universe’s equivalent of “The Avengers.”

The big trouble with “The Mummy”—aside from it being an ugly, senseless and dull mess—was that there’s nothing exciting or specific that hooks audiences to want to see more of this world of men and monsters. Forget playing it safe with the big stars of yesteryears. Invest in rising stars or overlooked ones that shine in theater or TV. Look at the MCU and the empire Jason Blum is building with his thoughtful low-budget horror hits (“Sinister,” “The Purge,” “The Visit”) and take a lesson or three from those. You have monsters that are already iconic. Forget focusing on star power and spectacle first. Focus on the monsters, on the characters that compel and repulse us all at once. And call Jessica Chastain to be your Bride of Frankenstein.

Jordan Hoffman (@jhoffman), freelance for The Guardian, Vanity Fair

I can not lie. At this point, just stay the course. Let’s see how this disaster plays out.

What is the best movie currently playing in theaters?

Most Popular Answers: “Wonder Woman,” “It Comes at Night” (tie)

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