The landscape of Hollywood movies is changing. Hollywood used to make blockbusters, and then if that movie was successful, it would get a sequel or two. Now, Hollywood doesn’t produce franchises, it makes ‘cinematic universes’. There’s Marvel, X-Men, DC, Lego, evidently even Transformers is ballooning into a larger universe, because why not. Now, Universal is getting into the universe building game with The Mummy, the first chapter in the “Dark Universe,” based off their horror monster properties, and if this first film is any indication, results will be mixed.
Most people are familiar with Stephen Sommers’s 1999 film The Mummy with Brendan Frasier. This reboot, directed by Alex Kurtzman, better known for his work as the writer of Star Trek, and Mission Impossible III, is unusual for a few reasons. The typical reboot formula is as follows: find a younger star, raise the stakes, and balloon the running time. Well, Tom Cruise is actually older than Brendan Fraser, the scale of the film feels smaller, and the film is 15 minutes shorter, coming in at a brisk 110 minutes. And while I often feel like these big budget films are too long, The Mummy actually feels overly abrupt, packing almost too much into too small a package.
The film begins, as most mummy films do, in ancient Egypt, where Princess Ahmanet, played by Sofia Boutella, murders her family in a ritual designed to give her eternal life and unleash Set, the god of the dead. The ritual is interrupted and Ahmanet is mummified alive and placed in a prison tomb that for centuries was erased from history until two treasure hunting soldiers, Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) and Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) call in a drone strike that uncovers the site. Working with archeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), Nick unearths Ahmanet’s tomb and soon finds himself cursed to be the vessel of Set.
If it’s not yet apparent, there’s quite a bit going on in The Mummy. Kurtzman’s film moves at such a breakneck pace, hopping from set piece to set piece, it’s difficult to develop any real sense of who anyone is. Cruise’s Nick Morton is something of a non-entity. At 54 years old, Tom Cruise makes no sense in the role. That’s not to say he does a bad job exactly, but the film might as well have Tom Cruise star as Tom Cruise; he’s not exactly disappearing into the role. Still, he imbues the film with a sense of fun and works well with Jake Johnson, an excellent if underused resource. The same can’t be said for Wallis, who performs much of the film as though she just woke up from a nap.
Kurtzman, whose only prior directorial effort was the subdued People Like Us in 2012 makes an admirable transition to the realm of big budget adventure. With a clear eye for spectacle, The Mummy benefits from some fun, pulse-pounding sequences. It’s a shame that so much of the airplane crash is revealed in the trailer, because it’s really something to see. Less compelling are the scenes featuring the actual mummy. The script, written by no fewer than six people, is interested in making sure Ahmanet is transformed back into her beautiful, Sofia Boutella form as quickly as possible. Consequently, The Mummy features very little of what we think of as a mummy.
The final two acts of the film take place in London and involve connecting a ruby to a dagger. In London, we meet an elite unit of monster fighters, who are there primarily to place the film within the larger context of the Dark Universe. The team is run by Russell Crowe playing Dr. Henry Jekyll – yes, that Dr. Jekyll. Crowe is actually an inspired choice and his oscillations between the reserved Jekyll and the manic Hyde constitute the best acting in the film. His headquarters is littered with paraphernalia from films to come – the gill man’s webbed hand, a vampire skull, things like that.
While Jekyll’s laboratory is a fun diversion, sprinkled with Easter eggs, it also highlights the fault with the Dark Universe and a larger issue with cinematic universes – they are alienating. Crowe’s role as Jekyll is treated as something of a reveal, an OoOo moment if you will. And for a lot of the audience, who know the story, it may be a treat to see Jekyll and Hyde show up and give us a peak of this larger world. For someone less familiar, Jekyll feels like an odd diversion. It’s an issue of required knowledge. As these films build on one another, they become alienating places to enter. I understand studios desire to build in guaranteed viewership, you want to see how the story all fits together – but no one has been able to recreate the magic of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and even that is starting to crumble under its own weight. If you want to see the next Marvel tentpole movie, you need to watch at least 15 movies and maybe a couple TV shows. At a certain point, why bother?
I don’t want to be too cynical about the Dark Universe too early. In some respects, these characters were the first ones to inhabit a shared universe. Think about Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, or House of Dracula or even Monster Squad. What’s not yet clear is whether these films are meant to be action franchise or horror franchise. Despite its horror roots, The Mummy follows much in the steps of the 1999 reboot and becomes a full-fledged adventure film. Not every Universal property translates as well to this larger scale. Movie monsters have always been creatures best left in the shadows, and designing a big budget universe around them feels odd. Even The Mummy could have used a few fewer punches and a few more screams.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
The Mummy reboot isn’t exactly dead on arrival, but it also doesn’t breathe new life into the franchise. It feels more like a film designed by movie executives to launch a franchise than a film lead by creatives. The result is a film that feels constructed of focus grouped moments and designated plot points that might pay off later. It’s not without its moments, and despite being miscast, Cruise is still charismatic and fun to watch. Maybe the Dark Universe will become the hit that Universal wants and The Mummy will become the first step of a more satisfying journey, but right now, when it’s standing on its own, it doesn’t quite measure up.