Is Universal’s Dark Universe dead? Kurtzman and Morgan depart
Is Universal Pictures‘ dream for a Dark Universe dead in the water? According to The Hollywood Reporter, Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan have departed their posts as masterminds behind the planned shared universe of classic monsters. Not only that, but the expensive offices set up on the studio lot for the franchise are now practically empty, and no new monster film has a release date, with only Bride of Frankenstein going through a script overhaul. This move is not surprising, as director Kurtzman’s kickoff film for Dark Universe, The Mummy, tanked at the domestic box office with a paltry $80 million and some of the worst reviews of star Tom Cruise’s 36-year career.
However, The Mummy managed to overperform internationally, where Cruise is still a bonafide superstar, leading to over $409 million worldwide for the $125 million spectacle. That lopsided worldwide performance is similar to Pacific Rim and Snow White and the Huntsman, both of which earned sequels, but Mummy may not have provided enough enthusiastic momentum to build an interconnected series of monster movies with big name talent like Cruise, Johnny Depp, and Javier Bardem attached. Shortly before The Mummy was released in June those actors posed for a much-touted publicity photo, with Bardem signed to play Frankenstein’s monster and Depp as The Invisible Man, with others like Dwayne Johnson being courted for The Wolfman and Angelina Jolie to play The Bride of Frankenstein.
Besides the aforementioned horror icons, Universal also planned to integrate Phantom of the Opera, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dracula and Creature from the Black Lagoon into Dark Universe, with the latter two hinted at via the The Mummy‘s mysterious multi-national organization known as Prodigium. Led by Russell Crowe’s Dr. Henry Jekyll, Prodigium’s mission to track, study and—when necessary—destroy evil was meant to be the lynchpin that held the Dark Universe together, but unlike Sam Jackson’s cameo as Nick Fury at the end of 2008’s Iron Man, the idea never caught on with audiences.
It was looking like Jolie was close to signing on for the new Bride of Frankenstein, with Bill Condon (Beauty and the Beast) directing from a screenplay by A-lister David Koepp (Jurassic Park), but shortly after Mummy came and went, Jolie signed with Disney to make Maleficent 2, and Condon’s pre-production work in London was halted. Word from the studio was that the film wasn’t cancelled, merely “postponed,” with the previously-set February 14, 2019 release date scrapped. It’s possible the reworking of Bride was to extricate it from Prodigium elements set up in The Mummy, and possibly to wait for Jolie’s availability.
So is there any juice left in the Dark Universe? Possibly. One option for Universal is to find a new mastermind to course correct the tone without losing the interconnectivity. Another is to focus more on lower budget individual monster movies disconnected from a larger framework.
“We’ve learned many lessons throughout the creative process on Dark Universe so far, and we are viewing these titles as filmmaker-driven vehicles, each with their own distinct vision,” says Universal president of production Peter Cramer. “We are not rushing to meet a release date and will move forward with these films when we feel they are the best versions of themselves.”
Blumhouse head honcho Jason Blum is mentioned as a possibility to lead a lower-budget approach after his phenomenal success with cost-effective horror entries like Split, Get Out and The Purge. This would involve handsome payouts to talent like Depp and Bardem who already signed pay-or-play deals for more lavish, blockbuster-sized features. We’d heard similar rumblings of his potential involvement, and asked Blum about it recently.
“We’re not currently involved in Dark Universe, but it’s intriguing,” Blum told us in October. “I never heard that they were doing a low budget, so that’s news to me. Also I’m not really interested. The reason that it works is we have a great relationship with Universal, so I think if I wanted to do it they could be very open to it, but I would only do it low budget. So far, the only conversation around those movies is sort of bigger tent-pole versions of that, which doesn’t make sense for our company.”
As for Kurtzman, he will turn his attentions fully to TV, where he serves as a producer on CBS’s recent success Star Trek: Discovery along with several other shows in development. Morgan will re-focus his attentions on Universal’s incredibly successful Fast & Furious franchise, of which he has been the writer for all entries since the third. He is currently developing a spin-off for Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham’s characters.