By Jack Dignan
As is the case with every big franchise recently, Universal's reboot of The Mummy is but the first chapter in a larger universe. “Welcome to a new world of gods and monsters,” says Russell Crowe at one point. It's our first step into the Dark Universe, a series of interconnected movies based around the company's lineup of classic monsters. While no-doubt inspired by the recent success of Marvel and DC, many forget that the original films, released throughout the 30s, 40s and beyond, were technically the films that started this trend. They did it first. And now, Universal are back. It's time for a new generation of monsters, but they're going to need to impress in order to hold their ground against some of cinema's finest classics.
The Mummy's place in cinema needs almost no introduction. Whether you know it from Boris Karloff's iconic masterpiece, Brendan Fraser's campy 90s reboot, or the character's hundreds of other on-screen appearances, you already get the general gist of what it's all about. This fresh new take introduces us to a new protagonist, Nick Morton (Tom Cruise). He, along with friend Chris Vail (Jake Johnson), scavenge for treasures overseas that they can later sell on the black market. They think of themselves first, uncaring towards preserving what historical value their treasures may hold, but when searching through the Middle East, Nick and Chris uncover a treasure unlike any they've found before. It's an Ancient Egyptian tomb, curiously found hundreds of kilometers outside of Egypt. Inside this tomb, unbeknownst to either of them, rests an evil waiting to return.
With the assistance of archeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), the 5000-year-old sarcophagus resting inside the tomb is taken to London for scientific research. Here, it's uncovered that the tomb is of an Egyptian princess named Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who was erased from the history books after divulging with the gods in a lust for power. She was killed by her followers and buried alive, and through Nick's actions, this ancient evil is reborn. Ahmanet has been set free, and she wishes to finish what her mutinous followers forbad her from doing. For the sake of immortality, Ahmanet must bring the god of death down onto the Earth into human form, and she’s chosen Nick as the vessel for such an act. If he’s unable to stop her, he will be possessed by an evil Egyptian god, going on to wreck havoc on the world, as all evil movie gods must do.
No matter your feelings on the man's personal life, Tom Cruise, as an actor, always strives for authenticity. He cares for his audience, willing to go the extra mile for the sake of entertainment, whether it's climbing up the outside of the world's tallest building or hanging onto the side of a plane mid-flight. His films are entertaining. Even the bad ones, and unfortunately there's a small handful, rarely bore due to his natural charisma and boyish charm. The man knows how to entertain. The Mummy sees him taking on somewhat of a different role. There's still plenty of action, one-liners and an inhuman amount of running (fitting for a monster movie), but he's not reprising the typical Tom Cruise character. Nick is a man who’s absolutely clueless and scared shitless. He's daring, adventurous and willing to do whatever he can to survive, but he's arrogant and headstrong. His own life comes first. Especially as the film unfolds, and Russell Crowe's ambiguously sided Dr. Jekyll comes into the mix, it becomes clear that Nick is way out of his league, making for a surprising subversion from your typical Cruise movie.
This comes with plenty of downsides, as well as a number of inconsistencies, both with Nick and other supporting characters, especially Annabelle Wallis and the frustratingly annoying Jake Johnson (who I usually like in movies). Nick is a likeable look into the vast world being build here, a world that I personally am interested to see more of, but he rarely feels like an active force in the story. During the first two acts, Nick's actions only influence the plot on the odd occasion, and most of time it's some exterior force that ultimately chooses his actions for him. Cruise's character is necessary, merely because the plot, and the evil Ahmanet, demands it. He's chosen for something. Without him, there would technically be no plot, but all Nick does throughout is watch as a third party comes and goes, saving the day during the inconvenient moments for our hero. The third act sees this change for the better, taking an unexpected route that'll make or break the movie for its audience. Personally, it worked for me. It was a surprise, but it's never as satisfying as it should be, and the ultimate ending sets up a sequel while also pull a cheap cop out and contradicting part of its own mythology.
The opening sequences, unlike the later moments which I will discus momentarily, have focus. There’s an uneasy atmosphere, full of creepy crawlies of all shapes and sizes. Having the film set in present day London creates a lot of restrictions with its storytelling abilities. You can’t have as many big Egyptian set pieces as previous installments did, and there’s way more cars than there are evil entities. It does something different, yes, and when it’s focusing predominantly on the whole undead mummy storyline, it works as well as it can. Sofia Boutella is wickedly evil as the titular villain. The idea behind her character works. She’s given the groundwork for a compelling villain, both in design and movement. Boutella provides a twisted, uncomfortable walk, enough to put any moviegoer on the edge, but she needs a better movie to work with. It’s a slight, super-minor spoiler, but as seen in the trailer, Boutella’s character spends a big slice of the film held captive, never able to shine or bring on the scares. If given a better-written script, she could’ve been fantastic. Instead, her potential is wasted.
Even if it's more of an action film than it probably should be, watching Tom Cruise run, scream and fight is always a delight. Set in a number of global locations, ranging from vast desert landscapes to death defying underwater stunts to a breathtaking zero g airplane crash, there's never a dull moment. Director Alex Kurtzman fails to bring style into mix, so a lot of it is captured with noticeable simplicity, but there's a constant sense of fun and adventure to be had. A fight between Crowe and Cruise, one they've been really teasing during publicity, is wild and unpredictable, even if it's ultimately unnecessary to the plot at hand. But that can be said about Russell Crowe's entire appearance in this movie. His character is fun, possibly even one of the more interesting aspects of the film. His character arc parallels that of Cruise's character, only on a much darker scale, but if you take him out of the mix, the overall plot could potentially flow better. An entire chunk of time is dedicated to explaining Crowe's company, full of plot exposition that expands the universe's mythology, but is almost entirely inconsequential.
Dr. Jekyll, and the brief appearance of Mr. Hyde, will no doubt play a bigger part in the universe going forward. The Mummy is full to the brim with Dark Universe set up and Easter Eggs, and it's both the best and worst part of the movie. Its biggest problem lies in the fact that this isn't really a Mummy movie. Technically, yes, it is, but it's more so Dark Universe: Chapter 1 than anything else. One of the biggest reasons that the original monster movies worked so well were because you could watch each of them as their own thing, unrelated to the other films in the franchise. Even The Bride of Frankenstein, my personal favourite, makes for a compelling watch without the existence of the first Frankenstein movie. Before crossing over with other characters, the filmmakers first and foremost tried to make a movie that could stand on its own. They didn’t need a thousand sequels. This is a concept The Mummy fails to grasp, putting aside its own story for the sake of setting up others.
All great film franchises have to start somewhere. Unfortunately, the Dark Universe is yet to find its footing, delivering a tonally unaware Tom Cruise-a-thon that’s never boring, but fails to deliver in scares, humour and action. Its got its head in the right state of mind, and certain scenes here and there can be a lot of fun (i.e. the zero-g plane crash and a lot of character beats), but it’s a mere scratch at the surface of what this film could’ve been. If nothing else, The Mummy is successful in its attempts at kick starting a universe. It’s not great, but they have my attention. And my money.
2 1/2 Stars
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