Monday, June 12, 2017

June 12, 2017 - The Implosion of the Universe, or Here There (won't) Be Monsters

...Would it be too much of a cliche' to talk about "Putting the cart before the horse"?

Okay, then maybe we should try the exchange between Groucho and Chico Marx from Horsefeathers:
 C:  You know what I do when I kidnap somebody?  First I call them on the telephone, and then I send over my chauffeur.
G:  Oh, you've got a chauffeur?  What kind of car have you got?
C:  I no got a car, I just got a chauffeur.  
G:  Well, maybe I'm crazy, but when you have a chauffeur, aren't you supposed to have a car?
C:  I had one, but y'see, it cost too much money to keep a chauffeur and a car, so I sold the car.
G:  Shows you how little I know, I would have kept the car and sold the chauffeur.
C:  That's-a no good, I got to have a chauffeur to take me to work in the morning.
G:  But if you've got no car, how can he take you to work?
C:  He don't have to take me to work, I no got a job.

This past June 9-12 weekend, readers of box-office news on Sunday saw two interconnected headlines blast their bold unexpected shock across the banners of industry papers:
One was that, surprise, Warner/DC's lone pattern-breaking "good" movie, Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman, had passed the same unexpected word-of-mouth audience test that Disney/Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 had passed last month, and taken $55M in a second #1 box office weekend.  The reader may theorize for himself why a jaw-dropped industry considered that a "surprise".
The second headline, to emphasize the first, was the presumable look on Universal's face, when Tom Cruise, blockbuster CGI effects, a full year of pre-release hype, a summer June opening and an audience-identified cultural property to be big-budget rebooted, left the studio stuck at the gate without transportation.  The latest 2017 reboot of The Mummy, meant to be Universal's new "House brand" to compete with all those apes-and-capes at Warner, Fox and Disney, took in a mournful $32M in its opening weekend (compared to Dreamworks' epic "Captain Underpants" taking in a third-place $15M in its second weekend).  

Well, c'est la guerre en la cine'.  It was rather a bigger problem for Universal, however, in that the selling point of the movie--even more than its A-list star or its monster--was that there were going to be MORE movies immediately in the pipeline after it.  A house brand that would reawaken the 30's Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi monsters of the studio's proud heritage, and reboot them into a new world where all the characters happened to know each other, and presumably, would start to fight each other, in some future group film a few titles down the line.
What, you didn't know that?  It's okay, the studio wanted to make sure we knew about their newly named "Dark Universe"*, and told us about it.  In the final-release trailer, no less:

(* - "Wait, wouldn't 'MonsterVerse' have been more Universal-y?"  Yes, but Warner had already copyrighted the name, for their plans for Kong of Skull Island to fight Godzilla, and have Pacific Rim's Jaegers break up the scuffle.)

The "Too long, didn't watch" version:  Tom Cruise is a special-ops soldier in the Middle East.  (And not Vietnam, like in Kong:Skull Island) He digs up the ruins of Ms. Four-Eyes, survives a plane crash, and is told by Dr. Henry Jekyll--yes--as played by Russell Crowe, that his role/encounter has corrupted him with Engrams Monster Cooties, and he is now one of the unkillable few whose destiny is to Bust Monsters.  And we know the good Doctor likes classic monsters, because he quotes Dr. Praetorius's "Gods and monsters" line from the '35 Bride of Frankenstein!  Crowe, we discover, is part of this said league of extraordinary avenger-friends of justice, "Prodigium", and we are intended to soon discover that a certain Professor Van Helsing once belonged to this organization too.  But first, we've got to deal with, and protect a CGI-destroyed London from, a supernatural-powered female Mummy and her minions, which Cruise is now indestructible enough to fight, no matter how much you bang and toss him around like a rag doll.  Which is likely what Cruise's own Scientology also causes him to believe about himself offscreen, so, no biggie.
And why is Ahmanet female?--Oh, c'mon, why was the T-X Terminator female in "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines", figure it out!  And the first person to point out that the reason Ahmanet is a female mummy is that "she's not a daddy Mummy!" gets hit.

Now, maybe I'm misremembering the 1932 Boris Karloff movie, a tad:
In that one, archeologists dig up the ancient Egyptian mummy of Imhotep, who secretly turns out to be not quite as stiff as they thought--And are soon met by the sinister and suspiciously wrinkled "Egyptologist" Ardath Bey, who takes an unhealthy interest in our heroine, believing her to be a reincarnated Egyptian queen.  No prize for guessing why.
(Yeah, all that stuff with Kharis, the lumbering guy in bandages?  Didn't happen until Universal's reboot of their monster brands for more quick, commercial B-movies in the 40's and 50's.)

But, y'see, this one isn't Karloff.  It's FRANCHISES.  Universal Studios had one thing in their attic trunk that Warner and Disney didn't--Okay, if you don't count the little yellow pill-creatures, or Vin Diesel & Dwayne Johnson.
So it doesn't matter if you don't get the original movie right--a problem that was already a bit noticeable with franchise-ready reboots of King Kong or The Magnificent Seven--so long as you Remember the Name.  And then you can make up whatever crap you want, so long as you don't change THE NAME.
And what if the audience does remember the historic studio property name a little better, and doesn't quite take to the new changes, or, in the worst scenario, considers the studio a raving lunatic for making those changes?  Um...poopie.  But hey, at least be glad they remembered.

Thing is, this isn't the first time it's happened, either.  Universal now considering the M-word as a license for wild chases and CGI insect/sandstorm effects was meant to follow in the footsteps of their "franchise" created by the goofy 1999 movie with Brendan Fraser.  And how did we happen to get that variation on Karloff?  As usual, it's a long story.  Oddly, as has also so often happened in American history, it turns out to be Forrest Gump's fault:
In 1994, twenty-three years before CGI effects could bring Peter Cushing back from the grave, Hollywood was astounded at how well computer effects and voice impersonation could create the illusion of Tom Hanks shaking hands with JFK in black-and-white 60's news footage.  And, as usual--and as they also did after Cushing and "Rogue One"--once Hollywood had a new toy that would let computers replace expensive actors, the industry started talking about "Virtually-resurrected" celebrities, bringing back dead stars to surprise us with new roles.
Plans to bring George Burns back in a new comedy never quite came to fruition, and John Wayne came back to plug soft drinks in angrily debated commercials, but Universal, the House of Frankenstein, had bigger ambitions:  What about bringing back the very Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr., for a rematch of Frankenstein vs. the Wolf Man?  (Uh, technically, it was Bela Lugosi who fought Lon Chaney in the 1943 "Meets" movie, and Glenn Strange who met Abbott & Costello after that, but y'know, we can fix that and do it bigger this time, because we've got computers, 'n stuff.)

And, armed with their new whalebone harpoon, the studio now had its Ahab Complex of destiny:  Every "Legacy" horror movie of their beloved 30's creations that Universal released since 1994 bore the ulterior motives of trying to "test the waters" for whether the audience was ready to have Frankenstein and Dracula back in their theaters again, and justifying those expense accounts for the slightly dead Karloff and Chaney.
The '99 Mummy was a hit?  Yay, we can do it!
The '98 Gus Van Sant shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock's Psycho was a flop?  Boo, we'd better not.
The '01 Mummy Returns was a hit again?  Yay, we can do it!
The '04 Van Helsing, with Hugh Jackman fighting every monster you could name, tanked epically?  Boo, we'd better not.
And so on.  And so on.  Even the '10 Benecio Del Toro remake of The Wolf Man was meant to hint about whether we'd want the Creature From the Black Lagoon to resurface soon.  As it ultimately turned out, the answer was no--When asked how they felt about resurrected Universal Legacy monsters, the audience, rushing out to buy the 30's originals on restored Blu-ray, routinely replied that they had to pee.  Boo, the studio had better not.

But that was just for license sales and bragging rights.  Now, in 21st-century 10's Hollywood, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man have a NEW battle to fight for the studios:  Crossover franchise universes.
Now, if you're not Marvel Studios working for Disney, or DC Comics working for Warner, you  may not quite know what they are, but that you have to make one if you want to stay in the game.  The other guys, after all, made it look easy--Just make a half-dozen solo movies for each pop-culturally recognized character, and spend time in the script where they explain their origins and search out to meet each other, so they can all have a common grudge to fight in the group film.  Of course, if Mary Shelley had never met Bram Stoker or Robert Louis Stevenson, and couldn't imagine a scenario where Henry Jekyll helps Prof. Van Helsing stop Dr. Frankenstein's Creature, that's what screenwriters are paid for.
And Universal certainly had their road map in mind.  Next up, a remake of The Bride of Frankenstein, with Javier Bardem as the groom, which would have put Prodigium aside in the story for the moment to focus on an "allegory of awakening" for the demographically female-identifiable Bride, as she fights to establish her identity against the controlling Doctor.  "Oh, sort of like that 80's movie with Jennifer Beals and Sting, you mean?"  Well, yes.  Publicity did rather hint that they'd seen that movie on HBO, too, and were using it as a template.
And then?  A new reboot of Van Helsing--"Wait, y'mean the one that tanked?"  Well, yes.  The one that tanked back then, because it wasn't part of the bigger story.  Only he's not working for the Vatican anymore, now he's working for the ancient order that later became--okay, you get the idea now?
Oh, and their 2014 Maleficent-envying "Dracula Untold" that was "supposed" to be part of a new franchise strategy?  Well, er, that sort of doesn't count anymore.  That one got out a bit early, before the real plans were in place.  Don't worry, they had it in mind to fit him in again somewhere.

It was a brilliant plan.  Everything was in place.  The movies were even granted their "existence" by a slate of release dates up through 2019-20, which would certainly give them enough time to actually make the movies by then. Was anything missing?  Why, yes, as a matter of fact.  
Turn your ear to those theater seats, and hear that booming neigh of "Ohh, Willl-burrr, remember us?  We're the AUDIENCE!"  And without them, your five-year franchise-universe strategy isn't going anywhere.
"But it made $175 million worldwide!"  Then go to China, where you can be loved.  Because over here, Universal, in the good old U.S. and A, you just had the year's biggest flopola since King Arthur grew up on the dirty streets of Camelot with his Round Table Posse, or Captain Jack Sparrow metaphorically had the Giant Fork of Neptune stuck into him...Or were you too busy looking at Shanghai numbers to notice?  And we've still got two more months of the summer to go.

If Universal built it, why didn't they come?  Tom Cruise might be a reason, and we can't honestly say he wasn't.  He's certainly taking the majority of the blame at the moment, because execs always find it easier to blame actors for why a movie doesn't find love.  Actors, after all, are easier to fire than studio execs.  And then, of course, it might be all those nasty-wasty critics, at that meanie-ol'-poopiehead RottenTomatoes, who all hated to see regular dumb-people have fun, and decided to be mean and gang up on it with a 16% score...It's Orwellian group-think!
A better question to ask is, why didn't the audience LIKE the idea of being told that they had to see this $15 movie-night-out solely for the purpose of seeing six more of them later on?--And being told TO THEIR FACE that they would do so solely because of that.  After all, didn't they all go see Marvel's Avengers, and come back for all those Harry Potter stories?  Aren't the kids into that "binge-TV" thing, where they like unfinished chapters and chapters of a story all at once?
Here's one answer to learn from the experience that you might be seeking, Universal.  It's a lesson that Warner's already learning with a certain big ape whom they want to fight a big lizard three years from now:  Don't try to tell the audience what they "know".  We've been doing it for a lot longer than you have.  And we don't have to keep you in business if we don't want to.
Treat us like gullible idiots who, in your imaginations, act exactly like numbers on a spreadsheet, and you'll find out exactly how much we DO know.  Think that you've made six films before the first one opens, and you're going to forget just exactly how hard it is for that first one to open on Friday night.

And that's good advice on the propelling of franchises you can take, straight from the horse's mouth.