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The Mummy – Brutal Reviews And A $177M Opening Week

Wednesday, June 7th, 2017

The 2017 Mummy is out; the reviews are brutal, and yet it still seems destined to make a fortune.

As I wrote in an article earlier this year, “The Ghost of Frankenstein: The Monster in the Digital Age,” “Universal is desperate to restore their ‘creations’ to some semblance of their former glory, but the 2017 version of The Mummy promises little in the way of originality or imagination, while piling on the special effects and action sequences in a frenzied attempt to sustain flagging audience interest.

Copying the Marvel and DC Universe method of churning out franchise films on a regular basis, Universal is plowing ahead with a similarly designed program – the so-called Dark Universe – of entries in the coming years, with Johnny Depp tentatively attached as the lead in a reboot of The Invisible Man; Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson potentially linked to a reboot of The Wolf Man; and a remake of the 2004 film Van Helsing.

Scarlett Johansson is being considered for a remake of The Creature from The Black Lagoon; with Javier Bardem, perhaps, as the monster in a remake of The Bride of Frankenstein, with Angelia Jolie considered for the role of the Bride. These are tentative casting choices at the moment, but no doubt, one ‘A’ list star or another will appear in each of these reboot attempts.

Noted Universal chairperson Donna Langley of this strategy, ‘we have to mine our resources. We don’t have any capes [in our film library; but what about Dracula?]. But what we do have is an incredible legacy and history with the monster characters. We’ve tried over the years to make monster movies — unsuccessfully, actually. So, we took a good, hard look at it, and we settled upon an idea, which is to take it out of the horror genre, put it more in the action-adventure genre and make it present day, bringing these incredibly rich and complex characters into present day and reimagine them and reintroduce them to a contemporary audience.’

I would argue that it’s not going to work; that it hasn’t worked thus far; and that it won’t work in the future. Indeed, this would seem to me to be the very worst possible strategy. The Frankenstein legend, and with it The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and Dracula are not material for a Bourne or Mission: Impossible series – they’re not action movie characters.

All this will do is degrade the material further. Horror films are not action films; they’re films that inspire genuine dread. The original Mummy, for example, depended upon pacing, atmosphere, and Karloff’s iconic performance in the title role. Only by returning to the source material, treated with utmost fidelity, can anything worthwhile be attained.”

Critic A.O Scott in The New York Times commented that the 2017 version of The Mummy “deserves a quick burial,” adding “it will be argued that this one was made not for the critics but for the fans. Which is no doubt true. Every con game is played with suckers in mind.” Harsh. And the other major critics aren’t far behind. But as Nancy Tartaglione and Anthony D’Alessandro argue in the trade journal Deadline, The Mummy could “turn out to be Tom Cruise’s biggest global opening of all-time with [a] $177M [opening weekend]” despite a lackluster US showing at the box-office, noting that “industry sources tell us that The Mummy stands to clear $125M-$135M in its overseas release in 63 territories, which when added to its domestic range puts global between $160M–$177M

On the high end, that would be a record global opening for Cruise, besting War of the Worlds which posted a traditional global opening of $167.4M (3-day domestic + 5-day foreign; Box Office Mojo’s $203.1M figure rolls in extra domestic days). After War of the Worlds, Cruise’s next best worldwide debut is Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation ($120.5M).” So, is there a link between quality and profitability? Or are we just making one cash cow after another? It saddens me that it’s come to this, but it has; everything is a franchise, and everything is a “Universe.”

As A.O. Scott concludes, “the old black-and-white Universal horror movies were a mixed bag, but they had some imagination. They could be creepy or campy, weird or lyrical. The Mummy gestures — or flails — in a number of directions but settles into the dreary 21st-century action-blockbuster template. There’s chasing and fighting, punctuated by bouts of breathless explaining and a few one-liners that an archaeologist of the future might tentatively decode as jokes. A more interesting movie might have involved a similar struggle within Ahmanet [the film’s central character], but a more interesting movie was not on anybody’s mind.”

Only by returning to the roots of Universal horror can anything worthwhile be achieved. 

Film Franchises: Closing Time, Please!

Monday, June 5th, 2017

Film franchises have got to go – here are two ready for the scrapheap.

As Owen Gleiberman writes in Variety, “A character who rules over a multi-billion-dollar global movie franchise always deserves a grand entrance. But Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Alien: Covenant raise the question: How grand can your entrance really be when you’ve never gone away? In Dead Men Tell No Tales, Jack Sparrow, the sloshed freebooter [. . .] shows up as a dissipated mess, rousing himself to consciousness as he lies inside a great big metal bank overflowing with gold coins [ . . . ] But even as the series winks at the idea that Jack has seen better days, it leaves us with a non-winking reality: He sure has.

In Alien: Covenant, the Alien’s first appearance gives you a similar what’s-old-is-new-but-not-really feeling. We’re on a leafy planet, in rugged terrain that looks perfect for a camping trip; the novelty is that the Alien is going to explode into view not on a sterile spaceship, or inside a slimy obsidian cave with walls like a T. rex’s rib cage, but in the great outdoors. We’ve already seen microbes float into a crew member’s ear like pollen, which leaves you wondering what happened to the facehugger (as it happens, the facehugger is still around, which makes the film seem like it’s playing by two sets of rules, which it is, but never mind). Then the moment of truth arrives. There is much coughing and writhing, there is blood-vomiting, there’s a mood that strains to come off like shock and awe. But when the alien fetus bursts out, the audience feels a bit like an obstetrician presiding over his 10,000th birth. Yep, that’s what it looks like. Next!

It’s worth noting that in the original franchise era, the 1980s, when the word ‘franchise’ was an inside-baseball syllogism that was only just starting to be used by people like Michael Ovitz and Jeffrey Katzenberg, almost all Hollywood sequels were bad — Halloween II, Jaws 3-D, Poltergeist II: The Other Side, Amityville II: The Possession, Grease 2, The Sting II, Conan the Destroyer, Staying Alive, The Jewel of the Nile, Meatballs Part II, The Karate Kid Part II, Revenge of the Nerds II, Beverly Hills Cop II, Crocodile Dundee II, Ghostbusters II, Arthur 2: On the Rocks, Fletch Lives, Big Top Pee-wee, Caddyshack II, The Gods Must be Crazy II, The Fly II, Back to the Future Part II, and on and on.

There was a cynicism, not just among film critics but among the audiences who went to see these movies, that a sequel might turn out to be cheesy fun, but that it was almost always going to be an inherently second-rate bill of goods, because it was based, transparently, on commerce: taking the original movie and squeezing its appeal dry. The very word “sequel” had a déclassé aura.

That era, of course, is long gone. Franchises are the basic commercial architecture on which the movie business now rests, so the whole culture — audiences, critics, the industry — has a vested interest in viewing this situation without cynicism. Besides, in our era, there have been enough artful and transporting sequels, from The Dark Knight to the Bourne films to the Before Sunrise films to Toy Story 3 to Mad Max: Fury Road, that one’s hope can always burn bright.

Yet that doesn’t mean that the old rules don’t apply. One of the reasons the word “franchise” passed from industry talk to a colloquial term is that it sounds strong and powerful. You’re not just seeing a movie, you’re glimpsing a part of something larger. You’re not just watching it, you’re joining it. But it can be healthy to return to the mindset of the ’80s and remind yourself that a sequel is often just a sequel: a movie that has no organic reason for being, even if it pretends otherwise [emphasis added].”

This raises a number of very interesting points. In the 80s, as Gleiberman usefully points out, we were assailed with a veritable tidal wave of terrible sequels, prequels, and knock-offs from original and interesting films, and they were, indeed, all absolutely terrible. There was something a bit more than “déclassé” about these films – they were strictly down-market affairs, made on the cheap, designed to wring a few more dollars out of an existing hit. Today, studios routinely through hundreds of millions of dollars at the same thing – remakes, sequels – and try to convince us that we’re getting something new and worthwhile.

But are the “franchise” films today really any different? They trod the same well-worn path as their predecessors, where nothing is at risk, and no original ideas are countenanced – answering the unspoken audience request “give us something like what we just saw, only slightly different.” And so the wave of Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man films continues on unabated, along with another in the endless series of Bond films, and the moment that something truly new and original arrives on the scene, and is a hit, it too becomes fodder for the remake mill. When Get Out came out earlier this summer, it was something sharp, different, and original – but will there be a Get Out II? I hope not.

It’s said that all genres go through four distinct phases – origin, classical, baroque and finally parody – and then they have to be scraped up off the floor, injected with some new blood – so to speak – and brought back to life, just like the Frankenstein monster, to give some artificial existence to a concept that should have expired long ago. The first Alien came out in the summer of 1979, and was at once original, surprising, and innovative – introducing not only the famous “chest burster” scene and the “face hugger” creatures, but also the concept that the future would be rundown and falling apart, as the commercial towing vehicle Nostromo is.

Then, too, the company that all of the crew members of the Nostromo work for thinks nothing of sacrificing their lives to obtain a specimen of a structurally perfect, indestructible killing machine, by misdirecting them to a Hellish planet, knowing that it means certain death, and even secreting a humanoid robot on board to make sure everything goes according to plan. And it has – again, and again, and again, and again. Enough! It’s time to put the plug in all these franchises, and – just a suggestion – go back to making films that are based on books, rather than comic books; on ideas, rather than leftovers; made with passion, rather than in pursuit of a buck.

Of course, I’m dreaming – but what the heck – I can dream, can’t I?

Another New Frame by Frame Video – Batman v Superman

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

Ben Affleck and Zack Snyder on the set of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Curt Bright and I have really been pumping these Frame by Frame videos out – three in the last week alone! This time around, it’s the new Batman v Superman movie, directed by Zack Snyder, on which I have real reservations. As I note in the video commentary, this seems like reaching for the end of the franchise waaaaaay too soon – the comparison I make is Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), which spelled the beginning of the end for the classic Universal monster series, and led to the “monster rally” films House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), before the entire franchise collapsed in parody with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948.

Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman has much the same basic plot arc as Superman v Batman, but with Snyder’s film, it proved necessary to turn Superman into something of a villain, seemingly out of control, thus forcing Batman to travel to Gotham City to challenge Superman, who is suddenly seem as a threat to humanity, rather than a savior, his more traditional role.

As Snyder told Katie Roberts when he undertook the project, “after Man of Steel finished and we started talking about what would be in the next movie, I started subtly mentioning that it would be cool if he faced Batman… You’re in a story meeting talking about, like, who should [Superman] fight if he fought this giant alien threat Zod who was basically his equal physically, from his planet, fighting on our turf… You know, who to fight next?… But I’m not gonna say at all that when I took the job to do Man of Steel that I did it in a subversive way to get to Batman. I really believe that only after contemplating who could face [Superman] did Batman come into the picture.”

Which is all very well, but what’s the next act? And with Wonder Woman thrown in as an extra added attraction, along with DC superheroes Aquaman and Cyborg, all in their first live action big-screen iterations, it would seem to me that this is becoming more and more like a series ender, rather than a franchise extender. If you’re setting up this conflict, even if everything turns out all right in the end, which of course it will, you’ve nevertheless created a mash-up which could easily lead to parody, rather than an extension of the DC Universe.

Really, all of this is rather inconsequential in the long run, at least for me, but for fans, I think this is starting down the road to a series of films with endless cataclysmic fights, explosions, and violence, rather than character development, in which the members of the DC universe are shuffled on screen for some marquee time, and then moved off into the shadows, waiting for the next franchise entry. But we’ll find out soon enough whether or not it works. And meantime, when is the Wonder Woman film going to come out – were going to have to wait until 2017 for that – long overdue!

Coming in March 2016 to a theater near you: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – First Trailer

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Liam Hensworth, director Francis Lawrence, and Jennifer Lawrence on the set of Catching Fire (2013).

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second installment in the Hunger Games trilogy, opens this coming November, and for once, I am more interested in the sequel than in the original. The reason: Donald Sutherland is more front and center, and he was the best thing about the first film; as you will see in the trailer, he’s joined by the always excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the effortless manner in which these two superb actors play off each other is a delight to behold. Jennifer Lawrence is back, and just on the evidence presented here, seems much more assured in her role as Katniss Everdeen; Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson also return, so the cast is exceptionally strong. But the real difference here is that Francis Lawrence, an expert action director with a real edge of brutality in his visuals, is at the helm, and I think that the results will be much more interesting than the rather bland and uninvolving original, indifferently directed by Gary Ross. In any event, here’s the first trailer; judge for yourself.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the first trailer for the film.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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