The Mummy is back on the big screen, but doesn't give us too many compelling reasons for the return.
These days, everything is a movie franchise, even old movie franchises. With the release of The Mummy, Universal Studios begins their “Dark Universe” franchise. It seems that Universal would like the “Dark Universe” franchise to become a tentpole franchise similar to what Marvel has done for Disney. Each installment will bring a classic Universal movie monster back to the big screen, updating them for modern audiences. First up is the Mummy, which has been the face of a Universal Studios-authorized franchise no less than 3 times before. So what makes this one different than those previous Mummy movies?
For one, it has Tom Cruise in it. He plays the Arthur Byron/Peter Cushing/Brendan Fraiser role. That is, the main protagonist who is responsible for the discovery and (direct or indirect) unleashing of the Mummy. In the role, Cruise isn’t exactly venturing into unknown territory. His purpose in the film is to play the same role as the other male protagonists, and in this way the film feels less like a Tom Cruise movie and more like Tom Cruise is getting a paycheck to play a role in a movie. It’s a conglomeration of other Tom Cruise characters we’ve seen before, held together with fleeting characterization. Benefits include that quintessential shot of Tom Cruise running really fast, his proficiency in stunt work, and the name recognition he affords Universal’s franchise-opener. Despite this, another actor probably could have done something more interesting with the role.
Cruise plays Nick Morton, a grave robber who stumbles upon the cursed tomb of Ahmanet. Ahmanet is an ancient Egyptian princess who made a pact with the dark God named Set to become his queen as he ruled Egypt. Part of the pact is that she must help the God of death enter a mortal body, but she is stopped in the process of performing that ritual. Released from her prison tomb by Morton, Ahmanet seeks him to use as the mortal receptacle of Set. To do so, she needs a powerful ceremonial dagger, which had been taken from Egypt to London by Knights of the Crusade. Morton has to find a way to stop her, before she converts him and unleashes the power of death upon the world.
While this Mummy is female instead of male, the film follows in the footsteps of its predecessors. For instance, Ahmanet’s efforts to utilize Morton as a body in which to recall her lover is not unlike the intentions of the previous Mummys to capture the leading ladies to resurrect their past loves. Russell Crowe plays the famous Dr. Jekyll, mostly to just hand people drinks, but also to bring another famous monster into the fold. In this way, The Mummy channels the famous Hammer films, using name recognition of famous characters to pique interest.
Jekyll’s appearance in this film is more than just homage to the past, though. He’s also a heavy-handed tool for Universal’s franchise building which gets in the way of telling a compelling story. Jekyll is introduced as leader of a powerful secret society called Prodigium which works to contain evil. This entity will certainly become another Avengers/Justice League. This wrinkle in the story is a perfect illustration of how wrong Universal is in its approach to building this new franchise. For one, Prodigium sounds a lot like the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence from the Hellboy films. Rehashing old ideas is not a good way to attract new fans. Second, piling on the famous monsters is certainly eye-catching, but it doesn’t mean much if there’s no substance or solid reason for the double feature. Avengers works because we’ve had other films through which to learn about the characters. Suicide Squad didn’t work so well because there wasn’t enough time to introduce all of its characters properly. The inclusion of Jekyll in The Mummy makes Dark Universe seem like it is jumping the gun on trying to put together it's super squad. It also clouds the focus of The Mummy, which should be on THE MUMMY.
Part of the blame falls to Alan Kurtzman who is director. His only screen credit in a similar role is for the drama film People Like Us. He has a long history of co-writing and producing successful action flicks in the past, but his inexperience behind the camera shows. For one, the film never really finds what it was searching for. Fun action romp, frightening horror-thriller, serious modern action flick? I’m still not sure what this version of The Mummy was trying to accomplish. A more experienced director could have guided the film in a specific direction, but the scope of the production seemed to have overwhelmed Kurtzman. Witness the boring set pieces and uneven pacing. Witness how the tone flip flops from comedic, to frightening, to serious - often in the same scene. The last half of the film is also visually too dark, making it difficult to see exactly what is supposed to be happening.
Not only is it perplexing that Universal would hand over the crucial first step of their expensive new franchise to someone with little experience, its perplexing that they try to pull it off with a near-complete lack of original material. Besides the airplane crash scene that you’ve already seen in the trailers, nothing in The Mummy feels exciting or fresh. There’s a subplot that is an obvious rip-off of An American Werewolf in London, and Cruise’s character feels like a generic combination of every adventurer that has ever graced the big screen. If they were serious about rebooting the Mummy, why not make a straight horror film?
There’s also the issue with the script, which has Tom Cruise spouting cringe-worthy sex jokes that probably wouldn’t have worked even with an actor 20 years younger. The film is so focused on exposition for the franchise that it forgets to provide any exposition for the story it is trying to tell. Precious few details are provided in regards to the background of its characters and, thanks to zero character development, not many more are offered later on either. At the beginning of the film, Cruise and his female co-star, this time played by Annabelle Wallis, hate each other. As the plot progresses, they are shown together doing little more than running for their lives, and somehow at the end we are supposed to believe they are in love.
With the superhero franchises, you have characters that audiences already loved before they were seen onscreen. Although the Mummy has been around for awhile, it’s not necessarily the type of character that elicits the same response. What made the previous Mummy films worth watching was actually not necessarily the Mummy itself. Thrilling, frightening, and above all, fun stories made the Mummy a classic movie character. With this new film, Universal seems to have forgotten this. Updated visuals and more destructive action sequences are quick hooks. There needed to be something of more substance, creativity, and intrigue behind that facade besides universe-building. While previous Mummy movies were all about exploring the Mummy’s tomb, this one blatantly exploits it.