It’s already been a pretty difficult summer for franchise revitalization: The list of massive flops grows week by week (RIP King Arthur, Baywatch, Alien, Smurfs…), and despite the one crowning achievement of it all (Wonder Woman, which gave the struggling DCEU life last week and blew up the box office), it definitely looks like it’s going to claim more victims before the end of the summer.
Not content to sit idly by and watch other studios lose money on their worn out properties, Universal’s stepping up to the plate and looking to bunt. Aside from having two of the funniest advertisements of any movies in the past year, there’s been a significant lack of excitement from any quarter about the new movie The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise and directed by long-time hack screenwriter Alex Kurtzman, here separated from his 9/11 Truther writing partner Bob Orci.
It might be the biggest case yet of putting the franchise cart before the horse, given that Universal’s already put out several press releases about how this is the start of their “Dark Universe” imprint, for which they have a fucking title logo and a Danny Elfman-composed theme already prepared for it, regardless if this movie completely and totally flops at the domestic box office. That might be moot anyways if The Mummy is any good, but I’m here to tell you that, yep, you guessed right, it’s hot garbage that squanders the significant talents of its leads in service of a deeply boring and generic plot.
Two treasure-hunting army officers and an archeologist stumble upon a giant Egyptian tomb, buried beneath an Iraqi town, where a sarcophagus sits under a pool of mercury and a bunch of other indicators that say “For The Love Of Ra Please Don’t Fucking Touch This Shit” in hieroglyphics. The head of the duo, Nick (Tom Cruise), can’t read none of that E-gyp-tian and unearths the casket, where he is promptly greeted with visions of a beautiful princess who tells him that he will be the vessel for an Egyptian death god. Sure enough, our three pals have unearthed the tomb of the princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), a long-dead, power-hungry royal, who was endowed with powers after striking a bargain with the God of Death, Set. She causes their plane to crash over England, where the magical dagger that she’ll use to kill Nick is broken into two pieces, scattered about the island. So, she manipulates Nick and company to get them, and you’ve got wonder if Nick’ll ever break the spell she has on him! Meanwhile, a mysterious organization called Prodigium is on the hunt for the items as well, which they’ll use to start the Avengers Init- oh, wrong franchise.
First off, let’s talk about the titular character. Though she’s got an excellent physicality to her character’s movements — she’s an intimidating presence throughout much of the movie, and the torment she puts Cruise through is occasionally gleeful and funny as hell — and is gamely up for the task of being the embodiment of evil, Sofia Boutella’s take on the mummy is weirdly reduced to a stalkery-ex type, and while that’s always been a feature of Mummy movies in some way, one wonders if it couldn’t have been done just a bit more artfully. In the cases of the original Universal and Hammer films, at least, Imhotep was trying to revive a long-dead lover and had a personal connection to the plot-driving macguffin. Now, Boutella’s just a cultist, seeking to drive in a giant god of death in order to… something? Rule the world? Live forever?
The movie’s just a little bit coy on this, and it’s weird as hell that she spends the whole damn movie tempting Cruise by only really highlighting the benefits of his transformation into Set. So it’s just a little reductionist for this all-powerful character who can literally suck the souls out of people’s bodies and turn them into withering zombie creatures to spend the movie doggedly running around trying to get a man to be the vessel for a dominant masculine god. Perhaps not the best start for a movie that really wanted to bill itself as separate from the rest.
Of course, one way to pull your movie out of the herd is to cast Tom Cruise in it, especially as the main character, and Cruise, as usual, gives it his all. It’s like the man has never heard of the concept of an easy paycheck, and his commitment to doing his own stunts and elevating whatever material he’s in is on full display here. His character, a disgraced Recon officer who’s really just a treasure hunter, is what fails him here, as he’s both a really shitty guy and one hell of a dumb motherfucker. Seriously, he’s the kind of man-of-action dumbass who deserves all the shit that comes his way, and nowhere is this better on display during a conflict in the middle of the film with Russell Crowe, here playing Dr. Henry Jekyll, who has to take a serum in order to prevent his transformations into Mr. Hyde. Cruise witnesses this, and sees part of the intense changes that Crowe undergoes when he’s without the serum. So, as soon as shit starts getting heated, what does our boy do? He takes Crowe’s magic potion and tells him to start talking. Soon enough, Crowe is beating the hell out of him, and it’s hard to take seriously or want Cruise to escape the rib re-arrangement that Mr. Hyde eventually gives him.
But, then again, this is a movie stuffed to the gills with dumb assholes: Our archeologist character (and Cruise’s white love interest, here to save him from the clutches of evil Egyptian women), played by Annabelle Wallis, demands that Crowe and Prodigium stop their plans to neutralize the mummy by embalming her with liquid mercury and freezing her (haha) so that she can tell them about all the history that she witnessed. Yes, that’s right: She wants to have a swell little chat with an insanely powerful being who would want nothing more than to suck the lifeforce right from her fucking mouth (and that’s another weirdly problematic thing about this movie). Jake Johnson, here working as Cruise’s “funny” partner in crime, likes to fire off his automatic weapon at spiders in a closed-quarters space, and that could be excused if he was allowed to be charming or actually land a joke, but it’s hard to play shortstop when you’ve got the movie equivalent of Derek Jeter on the diamond. Crowe, as well, isn’t immune to being dumb as all hell, though he’s a total hoot in the role: Why on Earth would you put a damn mummy in chains in the middle of your secret base and not cover its mouth?
To put it plainly, a lot of the fault here can be laid at the foot of the six (!) credited writers and story contributors, which include names like Jenny Lumet (Rachel Getting Married) and Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), but much of it can be attributed to the director. Kurtzman’s just not up to the task of helming such a big film, and his directing style comes across as a weird fusion of all the directors he’s written for. A shoot-em-up in an Iraqi village between Cruise, Johnson, and a whole lot of what are implied to be ISIS fighters feels directly lifted from one of Michael Bay’s recent efforts, but with none of the punch or flair that make them specifically unique (and I’ll say this again: I’m good with 3D, but this shaky-cam bullshit that’s defined the genre in recent months will eventually make me throw up). The SHIE– I mean, Prodigium stuff, feels lifted from the JJ Abrams wheelhouse in terms of its style and the particulars of how the organization operates, but I suppose we can be thankful that there’s no lense flair here.
There’s not much to distinguish this movie from a crowded blockbuster field, especially with its flat and bland color palette and weirdly mediocre effects work. Even the mild horror flavoring can’t give it an identity, especially when it’s throwing so many bullshit elements together in order to find an interesting take on something (most egregiously, it rips off one of the best running gags from An American Werewolf in London but with significantly less panache and humor). The best scares are lifted straight from your favorite zombie movies, the best humor lifted from whatever rogue-type character you like in your fiction, the mechanics lifted from the worst Marvel movies.
The other huge issue with the film has come straight from the Universal bosses: The incredible weight of the franchise building it’s required to do to sustain the “Dark Universe” causes it to collapse on top of itself. That’s a significant problem for the rest of these films and one that the studios, in their own greed, ignored in order to compete with Marvel. In the first Iron Man, three-quarters of the fun universe-building bits come as both humor and in-jokes for the zombies in the audience and it didn’t fuck with the plot until later on the series; the worst of this in the MCU being, of course, Iron Man 2, which was less of a raising of the stakes for Tony Stark and company than it was an act of franchise sustainment. At least that movie had the significant goodwill generated by its predecessor to persist on, and there were still fun moments peppered throughout. That safety net just doesn’t exist for The Mummy, and every diversion Kurtzman takes to establish something that will carry over onto, say, The Invisible Man, hurts the foundation for all of this in a way that seems nearly impossible to repair. Each time Prodigium, the secret society of monster hunters/researchers/whatever-the-hell-they-do, consumes screentime with hints and glimpses at future films, it’s hard not to just wish you were already watching Creature from the Black Lagoon or whatever, which will hopefully be in better hands than this is.
There’s so many better options out there, too. If you’re really in the mood for horror this weekend, go see It Comes At Night, which is a deeply challenging and tense-as-hell film, and I’ll expand up on that in my review of it on Friday. If you’re looking for action, go see Wonder Woman if you haven’t already, and if you have, well, Logan and John Wick 2 are available for rental.
If you’re a Mummy die-hard, watch the Brendan Fraser one again and luxuriate in how good you had it 18 years ago. Just don’t waist your time with this unless you’re certain you’re going to laugh at this:
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.