Written by: David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, Dylan Kussman (screenplay), Jon Spaihts (story), Alex Kurtzman & Jenny Lumet (story)
Directed by: Alex Kurtzman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, and Sofia Boutella
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Welcome to a new world of gods and monsters."
With seemingly every studio rushing to build their own “cinematic universes” these days, it’s only natural that Universal has been attempting to revive the original shared universe with their stable of iconic monsters. Forget Marvel Studios—Universal was doing this stuff before Marvel Comics even existed, so there should be an air of the master returning to show everyone how it’s done. Alas, this whole endeavor has been an ordeal several years in the making, full of box office disappointment and frantic attempts behind-the-scenes to correct course in order to get this whole thing off the ground. To the studio’s credit, it’s certainly gone all-in, particularly with a recent announcement officially launching the Dark Universe, this collection of films that can barely be said to exist.
But hey, they’ve named it and stuck an logo on top of The Mummy, the first film in this new franchise (Universal kindly asks you to forget Dracula Untold), so it’s officially a thing now. Theoretically, it’s not a bad way to start, as they’ve nabbed one of the last true movie stars on the planet in Tom Cruise and stuck him in the one Monster series that’s been popular during the last 15 years. Despite Universal's plunging headlong into this Dark Universe, there’s something understandably safe about this launching point, and the result is something just solid enough to serve as its foundation. After just one movie, I’m not about to pronounce the Dark Universe to be the most exciting development in recent years; I can, however, at least see some viability here. Sure, The Mummy feels like the predictable end result of a studio looking to engineer sheer, basic, non-offensive tent-pole competence, but that’s certainly preferable to an outright disaster.
The lore here is familiar but slightly altered. Once again, an ancient Egyptian princess succumbs to an early death; this time, though, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) is executed for her various crimes against her own family. Once in line to inherit her uncle’s throne, she’s dismayed when he sires a child with a new wife, a twist of fate that has her turning to the dark arts and the Set, the God of the Dead. After killing her family, she conspires to give Set physical form by sacrificing her lover so the god can inherit his body. High priests intervene just in time, mummify her while she’s still alive, and ship her sarcophagus off far away in an attempt to erase her existence. Centuries later, separate excavations in London and Iraq uncover separate pieces of a puzzle that resurrects Ahmanet, who is still dead set on finishing her work.
The brunt of that work involves turning Nick Morton (Cruise), a soldier-of-fortune that uncovers her tomb, into her lover/sacrificial lamb. I shit you not, someone made a movie where the general thrust involves a mummy wanting to jump Tom Cruise’s bones to help usher in the apocalypse. When you put it that way, The Mummy sounds absolutely nuts because it’s totally ripping off Lifeforce, one of the most insane big studio films ever made. Let me rein in those expectations, though: aside from a few smoldering looks between Boutella and Cruise, The Mummy doesn’t aspire to those kind of delirious heights. As much as I would like to report otherwise, let’s be real—this is a $100 million blockbuster meant to launch an entire franchise, so Mathilda May isn’t walking through that door.
But I can happily report that The Mummy is mostly a horror movie. Given Universal’s track history with this franchise and the marketing, there’s been some obvious, deserved trepidation on the part of genre fans who would rather see these monsters revived in, you know, actual monster movies instead of big, bloated action movie junk. A good stretch of the movie is the former: after a couple of action set-pieces that find Cruise battling Iraqi forces and apparently perishing in a plane crash (spoiler: he gets better), The Mummy settles into horror mode, complete with an honest-to-god mummy skulking around London and sucking the faces right off her victims, who swiftly become her zombie minions. Granted, I would like to have seen these gruesome effects be realized more practically, but I’ll allow it and the usual computer-generated assortment of rats, bats, and spiders on the basis that it beats the alternative.
Not that The Mummy completely resists that alternative, of course, since this is a summer blockbuster and Tom Cruise is contractually obligated to run from CGI disasters. Eventually, it bloats into a big action spectacle, going so far as to recreate the big sandstorm stuff from the Stephen Sommers take. These bursts are mercifully brief, though, and, in short order, the script is shuttling Cruise (and archeologist sidekick Annabelle Wallis, who deserves more) back underground, where he confronts Ahmanet’s newly resurrected zombie horde of the long-buried Knights Templar clan buried beneath London (!). Strictly speaking, it feels like more of an action movie couched within the confines of horror rather than the other way around, which is a pleasant surprise.
Of course, it’s hard to miss that bloat, particularly when it extends towards the story, which sprawls out all over the place in order to establish the scope and scale of this Dark Universe. While Cruise unearths Ahmanet in Iraq, a related discovery in London occurs under the watch of Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe), here reimagined as the enigmatic leader of Prodigium, a secret society with a military-industrial complex that’s dedicated to hunting down paranormal threats. Essentially the SHIELD of the Dark Universe, it exists as the thread that will presumably tie the various films together.
Here, it’s both a glimpse into that larger world and a huge exposition dump that stops the proceedings dead in their tracks as Crowe delivers cryptic, ominous monologues about evil intruding into the world. What this stuff mostly reminded me of was the early days of the MCU, particularly Iron Man 2, where the larger universe stuff was wedged in. Sure, it’s neat to scan Dr. Jekyll’s headquarters for Easter Eggs (that Gillman fin though!), but it also tends to distract from the matter at hand. Much like the rest of The Mummy, it’s a double-edged sword. For everything there is to like there, something nags at your conscience, whispering in your ear with the insistence that it could be better.
And perhaps it will be eventually. The Mummy feels like a rough draft that’s only been scrubbed of anything that might distinguish it too much. It boasts a terrific, infectious Cruise performance but not one unlike others you’ve seen him give. He’s in charming rogue mode here, a thief and a grifter with a heart-of-gold who learns there’s more to life than treasure, and you can see his arc play out from the moment he’s introduced. As always, he’s fully invested—Cruise is seemingly incapable of taking a movie off, so here is jumping and jostling around the frame, and he’s not above allowing himself to be completely owned a time or two for our amusement. Joining Cruise for most of the movie is Jake Johnson, a skittish sidekick whose death also doesn’t prevent him from appearing as a ghoul, just like Griffin Dunne in American Werewolf in London. They have a fine rapport that lends the film a necessary levity, and the film’s coda suggests a future where these two will soldier forth like supernatural swashbucklers in this Dark Universe. I could live with that.
Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll is similarly serviceable, though I was left wondering if it wouldn’t have made more sense if he were Van Helsing instead. His Jekyll/Hyde dynamic mostly exists to fuel a scene of fisticuffs between he and Cruise anyway, so it seems like a missed opportunity to introduce this particular monster in his own movie rather than jamming him in here. One can also probably imagine a more elaborate way to achieve the transformation, as it mostly amounts to giving Crowe’s face a digital makeover with freakish eyes and veins. I appreciate that it’s muted (especially compared to Van Helsing’s grating take), but it’s too unimaginative considering the filmmaking resources available here. On paper, a Universal Monsters universe lorded over by Russell Crowe sounds fucking awesome, yet the actual practice inspires less enthusiasm, at least so far.
When all of these outlandish, cool concepts blend together, they somehow only form a hazy sense of adequacy. Boutella’s Ahmanet represents a nice inversion of the typical gender dynamic since she’s the one looking for a resurrected lover in modern times, and the character design is quite unlike the typical interpretations: where most previous mummies have existed on the extreme ends of the continuum of “shambling, rotting corpse” and “completely-looking normal human,” she wavers somewhere in between. She’s something inhuman, and Boutella plays her as knowingly, delightfully evil, which stands in stark contrast to the typical tragic, romantic portrayals of The Mummy. Ahmanet seems less interested in love than she is physicality and world domination, a depiction that highlights the sort of regressive sexual politics on display here since she could easily be described as Sexy Mummy Costume: The Movie.
Of course, even that could be delightful if there were just a modicum of more oomph put into it. Just about everything here hovers around baseline, boilerplate blockbuster levels. Director Alex Kurtzman’s approach feels timid, almost as if he were afraid to really indulge the full potential of what should be a truly wild, rollicking story. Instead, it comes off as a safe rendition of a familiar story, with most of its bigger, rousing moments having been lifted from the generic Hollywood tentpole pre-viz template. I don’t know that The Mummy was directed so much as it was just carefully shepherded to the screen, not unlike a child being delicately dropped off at school for the first time by its overprotective parents. Universal has invested a lot into this, and that’s felt less in what is on screen and more in how it’s presented there—this is a film that isn’t out to take many chances because it never could with so much riding on its success.
This is not to say it’s a dud that once again puts this Dark Universe dead on arrival, especially since the box office will determine that anyway. As a longtime Universal Monster fan, I was satisfied that it provided that basic glimmer of hope that this endeavor is at least starting on solid ground. If nothing else, it feels like a down payment on Bill Condon’s Bride of Frankenstein, the next film queued up in this universe about 18 months from now. Maybe that’s a flippant way of looking at The Mummy, and I don’t want to be too dismissive of it: after all, it is quite breezy (all hail whoever decided this thing doesn’t need to be 2 hours long), occasionally fun, and features Tom Cruise battling a mummy in a movie that vaguely rips off Lifeforce and American Werewolf in London, with a dash of The Blind Dead tossed in for good measure. Please never let me live to see the day where I can’t see the fun in that.
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