Director: Alex Kurtzman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Russell Crowe
June 9, 2017
Shared universes are an area of interest in Hollywood right now, and while superheroes are leading the charge, it was inevitable that monsters would not be far behind. After all, Universal started mashing its horror pantheon together back in 1943 when it produced Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, with follow-ups adding Dracula and the Invisible Man to the mix. Before then, H. P. Lovecraft and his collaborators shared a common set of eldritch creations amongst their works. And after that, innumerable sitcoms, novelty songs, and gothic melodramas have based themselves on the idea that all the ghouls of our collective imagination—from the supernatural Dracula to the technofantastic Frankenstein—exist just around the corner from one another. When it comes to crossover potential, monsters rival superheroes.
Naturally, Universal has got in on the action with a monster mash for the twenty-first century. The Mummy, as well as being the latest in a long line of films derived from the 1932 Boris Karloff vehicle of the same name, kick-starts a shared universe—a Dark Universe, as the branding has it—with rebooted versions of filmland’s most famous monsters.
The first act of The Mummy, like the cartoonish 1999 version starring Brendan Fraser, takes its inspiration from the humorous treasure-hunts of Indiana Jones. Nick Morton and Chris Vail (Tom Cruise and Jake Johnson, respectively) are U.S. troops in Iraq who have decided to earn a bit of money on the side by making off with ancient artifacts—after all, those things would only get blown up by insurgents anyway.
After some light-hearted hijinks involving airstrikes, this Abbott and Costello Meet ISIS routine leads to the pair inadvertently stumbling on a major archaeological find: an ancient Egyptian tomb, located on a different continent to Egypt. Nick’s ex-girlfriend, archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), is conveniently familiar with the occupant of this tomb. Named Ahmanet, she was the daughter of an unspecified Pharaoh, mummified alive and buried in Mesopotamia for the crime of killing her family and summoning the evil god Set.
By this point, the film’s single biggest misjudgment is already apparent. Director Alex Kurtzman and the three screenwriters appear to have been working on the assumption that our hero Nick Morton would have the roguish charm of the comparable protagonists played by Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser. But Tom Cruise just doesn’t have the comedy chops to pull off this role.
When he cracks a joke, it is forced and unconvincing. When he shares raunchy banter with Jenny it is embarrassing, rather than funny, like overhearing two complete strangers discussing their sex life. It all seems phony somehow, like an Asylum mockbuster of the Fraser Mummy films rather than the breath of fresh air that a reboot should be.
The band take Ahmanet’s sarcophagus with them on the plane back home, and this is when the undead princess demonstrates that she still has some dark powers tucked away. First, she turns Nick’s buddy Chris into her zombified servant, necessitating him to be repeatedly shot by Nick. The plane then crashes in England, with Jenny the only survivor. Until Nick suddenly rises from the dead, like a solidly heterosexual Jack Harkness, in a London mortuary. Meanwhile, freed from her coffin, Ahmanet begins exploring her new territory.
And it has to be said, whatever the film’s failings, it has one shining light: Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella, aided by copious make-up and CGI) is quite possibly the best movie mummy since Boris Karloff in 1932. We have seen similar villainesses in other films lately—Enchantress in Suicide Squad and Rita in Power Rangers—but Ahmanet still stands out.
She starts as a desiccated husk, and—like Imhotep in the 1999 film—rejuvenates herself by sucking the life-force out of those around her, turning them into mummies. However, she one-ups her predecessor by reviving her victims as mummified servants; together, they prowl an English churchyard. This imagery is the strongest in the film. It alternately evokes J-horror, German expressionism, and English Gothic with Boutella mixing beauty with the macabre.
But yet, even with such fetching horror iconography at its disposal, The Mummy still tries to force itself to work as a campy comedy. Hence, we are treated to the cringe-worthy spectacle of Tom Cruise giggling ticklishly while the mummy tries to sacrifice him.
Not long afterwards, the film throws itself into its main raison d’être: establishing a shared universe, and deploying an arsenal of Chekhov’s guns for later films to put into action. Hero, heroine, and villainess all end up in a secret laboratory run by—of all people—Dr. Jekyll. The good doctor, it turns out, has been running a SHIELD-like secret agency that tracks down and apprehends various monsters, with Ahmanet being their latest prize.
Jekyll, of course, is no stranger to monsters. Unless he carries out regular injections, he will turn into Mr. Hyde. Both are played by Russell Crowe, who shifts from well-spoken Cambridge gent to Cockney geezer during transformation. Tad classist, that.
Ahmanet escapes, and both Jekyll and his organisation are shuffled out of the narrative to focus on a MacGuffin hunt, as the mummy tries to get her hands on a magic gem so that she can turn Tom Cruise into an avatar of Set. She ends up with an army of undead crusaders; this usage of European as well as Egyptian mummies is a possible attempt to dilute the Orientalist aspects of the mummy subgenre, but then again, it could just as easily be an homage to the Blind Dead films from Spain.
The Mummy gives the impression of being the result of various ideas—some for this film, some for potential spin-offs—being thrown into a blender. Even for a reboot it is remarkably derivative, borrowing freely from other films: an entire subplot from An American Werewolf in London turns up as Nick is haunted by the wisecracking spectre of his friend Chris.
Little of it coheres, even in terms of such basic matters as casting and plotting. As well as being miscast as the funny-guy hero, Cruise has no chemistry with his love interest, who exists merely as a sop to formula. The climactic confrontation with Ahmanet has no tension. The open-ended conclusion, with Nick altered by his experiences and setting off for further exploits, has none of its intended intrigue. Indeed, the final scene has two characters discussing Nick’s future in voiceover, as though acknowledging that the audience members will not care enough to use their own imaginations for this job.
If there is any way to redeem The Mummy, it is to approach the film as a feature-length pilot for a TV series. Yeah, it spends too much of its time re-enacting things that had been done better in other movies. Yeah, it has a lot of setting-up at the expense of paying-off. Yeah, almost all of the casting is questionable. But who knows? Perhaps the next episode will be better.
If you want to be reminded of how Universal became one of the big names in horror, though, then you’d be best off sticking with the classic films.