No one wanted to write this whole Dark Universe idea off more than me.
When the Universal Studios globe spun around to introduce the Dark Universe logo, I let out an involuntary giggle. Here we were; it was actually happening. Universal was spinning their classic monster stable into a Marvel-esque shared franchise. The Mummy had a huge uphill battle to climb, and it fails by pretty much every metric. Its first act is narrative gibberish; Tom Cruise way overplays every scene; the mythology it lays out is too complicated by half. And yet, like the mummy herself, by the end the film manages to pull itself together into something that kinda works. Is The Mummy a good film? Hell no. Is it an entertaining ride? Absolutely!
The film opens with a tangled web of exposition that almost sinks the entire enterprise. In quick succession, we witness the Knights Templar burying the film’s MacGuffin (a ruby with the power to summon gods) in London, the same burial excavated in the present day by construction workers, and the backstory of Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), whose blind jealousy over losing the throne of Egypt to her newborn brother leads her to staging a coup that gets her buried alive for her trouble.
Then we catch up with Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), a US military officer moonlighting as a treasure hunter with his plucky sidekick (Jake Johnson). After clearing a small Iraqi village of ISIS insurgents*, Nick stumbles across Ahmanet’s tomb**. Ignoring archaeologist Jennifer Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) and her litany of warnings, Nick raises Ahmanet’s sarcophagus from a pool of mercury. Can you guess what happens next? If you guessed Ahmanet awakens from her five-thousand year slumber and selects Nick as her human sacrifice to summon Set, the Egyptian God of Death, and take over the world, then congratulations! You must have seen the movie! Thank you for reading anyway.
If only the film were that simple.
After they find Ahmanet and transport her back to London, The Mummy gets to the tricky business of setting up its Dark Universe. We meet Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), who spends much of his screen time explaining that the world is full of monsters and it’s his job to keep them at bay. He leads an organization of monster hunters called Prodigium, whose laboratory features nods to classic monsters, from a giant squid in a tank to vampire skulls to the severed hand of the gillman from Creature From the Black Lagoon for some reason. Jekyll basically runs the BPRD from Hellboy, and with a couple of minor tweaks we could have had Hellboy 3 right here, dammit.
Believe it or not, this middle portion of the film is much more carefully constructed than what came before it. It’s clear which agenda director Alex Kurtzman is more invested in servicing, because the actual mummy stuff barely even registers until right near the end. Universal didn’t spend $125 million to remake The Mummy. They spent $125 million setting the table for a 21st century monster bash. Who cares if Dracula Untold didn’t set the world on fire? Let’s start over and keep trying until it catches on. Regardless of where this series goes (if it goes at all), you get the sense that someone at the studio has a massive hard-on for monsters and they’re gonna deliver it to us by hook or by crook.
The Mummy handles its cinematic heritage in hopelessly clumsy fashion. It bears more in common with the 1959 Hammer version than either the 1932 original or 1999 remake (though it does feature a pair of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nods to Mummy ‘99). There’s a scene in which the recently awakened Ahmanet takes out a pair of cops underneath a bridge. Under cover of pitch black night in murky waters, this scene nails that classic Hammer look, a style the film could stand to evoke more. For the most part, this Mummy sticks closer to an aesthetic that screams “clogged gutter” than “classic horror”. It’s shades of brown all the way down.
As the film barrels toward its inevitable conclusion, all the random elements strewn about at the beginning start tying back together. Jake Johnson’s purpose in the film becomes apparent, and the running gag of Nick being a heartless thief starts paying off. Suddenly The Mummy becomes a whole lot of fun as Tom Cruise is chased through the streets of London by a gaggle of zombies and a wall of flying glass shards. (If you’re here to see Cruise sprinting for his life, you’ll get your money’s worth.)
Both the best and worst things this film has going for it are its two stars.
Sofia Boutella is downright spooky as Ahmanet, her every movement oozing controlled menace. She makes for a sinister villain when the film remembers to use her, which is frankly not often enough. Then there’s Tom Cruise, tragically miscast as the everyman hero. When Crowe’s Jekyll explains to Nick his cursed predicament, Cruise responds by overacting simple replies of confusion and disbelief. While Crowe and Wallis are just playing the scene as written, Cruise’s befuddled stammering feels hilariously over-rehearsed. In fact, most of his scenes play out like Cruise has never seen a horror movie before.
Just like last month’s dead-on-arrival King Arthur, I’m left hoping for more but I’m definitely not holding my breath for it. Was this entire enterprise doomed from the start? Probably, but whatever they were smoking when they came up with kooky shit like “an army of undead Knights Templar swimming after Tom Cruise in a submerged subway tunnel”, I hope they keep smoking it. Considering how this film wraps up and where we leave Cruise’s character, this series has the potential to be a trash classic for the ages. If you’re in the mood for big budget nonsense, you might find plenty in The Mummy worth enjoying. If you like action spectacles that actually make sense? Ehhhhh, maybe skip this one.
*Is this the first Hollywood film to depict ISIS as harmless adventure fodder?
**For what it’s worth, they do at least explain what an Egyptian tomb is doing in Iraq.Liked This? Share It!