With The Mummy, Universal’s attempt to relaunch their classic monsters as part of a ‘Dark Universe’ inspired by the success of Marvel Studios and the DCEU is off to a thoroughly entertaining start. Although critical consensus suggests that the Dark Universe is already cursed (the film currently holds a 16% score on Rotten Tomatoes and hasn’t performed to expectation), The Mummy is the type genre-mashing, ambitious mess that will appeal to a certain type of viewer. As far as action blockbusters go, it provides the same thrills and expansion for more movies that most do. As a Universal Monster movie, it couldn’t be further removed from the classics, yet it does still try to appease the horror crowd. Not everything gels cohesively, but there is too much to appreciate here for the film not to enjoy life outside of a sarcophagus.
Of course, the Dark Universe isn’t Universal’s first go-round of cross-pollinating their monsters. In 1943, Frankenstein met the Wolf Man, which was followed up by crossover sequels House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). In Van Helsing (2004), Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and Mr. Hyde all came out to play (even if the film’s reception called for them to stay in the shadows). We’re only introduced to a couple of iconic characters in The Mummy (and I won’t spoil who they are), but any more than that would have been overkill at this stage anyway.
The Mummy opens in 1127 A.D. with a group of English Templars burying a ruby stone deep underground with one of their deceased comrades. The film then skips forward to present-day London where we find a group of archaeologists ransacking the city’s catacombs to find the secrets buried within the tombs. We are then told the back story of Ahmanet, an ancient Egyptian princess who made an agreement with Set in exchange for power – only to be killed, mummified and carried off to far-off lands after trying to summon her God into a human vessel. Fast-forward again, this time to modern day Iraq, and we’re introduced to soldier pals and adventurous thieves, Nick Norton (Tom Cruise) and Chris Vail (Jake Johnson), who unwittingly awaken an ancient evil while treasure hunting in an Iraqi village. You guessed it – the evil just happens to be the princess, and she’s got her eye on Norton as her new chosen one for Set.
Within the first 15 minutes of The Mummy, we are treated to a wild shoot out, an air raid and some satirical commentary about America’s invasion of Iraq to rob the country of its resources. It’s somewhat reminiscent of David O’Russell’s Three Kings (1999): an action-comedy about a group of soldiers on a crusade to steal gold from an Iraqi village. The nods to other movies are frequent throughout the rest of the film – and we get a range. from An American Werewolf in London (1981) to the Indiana Jones and Mission: Impossible series’ – but the smorgasbord of influences is all part of the fun. That said, if you’re looking for something fresh and original, they might become frustrating after awhile.
Originally introduced in 1932, The Mummy franchise has undergone multiple incarnations throughout the years which have enabled it to evolve from a low-key atmospheric horror-romance into a grand scale, apocalyptic action-adventure. Alex Kurtzman’s iteration has more in common with the ‘90s quasi-Indiana Jones reboot than it does with the series’ roots, but he does make genuine attempts to introduce the horror elements the franchise was built on. It’s not scary by any means, but scenes featuring Gothic locations and desolate English countryside where the dead rise from their graves showcases a surface appreciation of classic horror – even the film fails to grasp what makes horror truly terrifying, it does understand the elements which make it aesthetically pleasing. The Mummy is a gorgeous movie to look at, and as far as action horror fare goes, this is one of the better ones in recent memory which attempts to achieve both. However, like the majority of films of this ilk, it predominantly focuses on adhering to crowd-pleasing beats that will appeal to general cinema-goers now accustomed to and enamored by The Avengers; though it does sustain plenty of macabre crossover elements for those whose idea of entertainment is more ghoulish in nature.
The Dark Universe is absolutely hoping to replicate the success of superhero franchises, but to compare it to Marvel or even DC would be doing it a disservice. While The Mummy employs a similar set-up to a superhero origin story in a bid to capitalize on this current trend in mainstream cinema, Universal hasn’t forgotten that monster movies require monsters and it unleashes swarms of them. As for the action sequences, Kurtzman allows them to breathe and we actually get to see what’s happening: unlike many Hollywood blockbusters in recent years which have favored quick cuts, The Mummy contains some satisfying set-pieces and genuine thrills. What it lacks in chilling scares it more than makes up for in visceral thrills.
Boris Karloff’s Imhotep set the bar highly for future mummies to follow and he remains the gold standard of Universal’s evil Egyptian royalty. That said, Sofia Boutella as Princess Ahmanet is the perfect iteration for the year 2017: like Karloff before her, she is able to evoke sympathy despite her predilection for evildoing. All she wants is power and she’s willing to murder babies in order to attain it, but there’s pleasure to be had in seeing her stick it to the patriarchy in a bid to reclaim what was rightfully hers in the first place. Unfortunately, the film eventually undoes any notions of strong female empowerment by ultimately becoming the Tom Cruise show, who is out to save the world and the damsel in distress. Annabelle Wallis’ character, who is by his side for the majority of proceedings, is relegated to the role of said damsel; but she scores major points for her feistiness and bringing the exposition which details much of the mythology. On top of that, her chemistry with Cruise is engaging and as a pairing, for all their generic traits, they are perfectly likable and easy heroes to root for.
As far as Cruise vehicles go, this is one of the better ones – and one which allows him to showcase his action-star prowess and charming wit. The actor has been criticized for his real-life beliefs and controversies, but very few doubt his ability as a magnetic screen presence. If you like Tom Cruise movies, then you’ll probably enjoy The Mummy. His character isn’t your traditional clear cut hero either – he’s a dick. And for awhile, the only reason he’s trying to save the day is because he’s directly caught in the line of fire. But as the story progresses we witness a transformation worthy of spearheading a franchise, and the ending sets up some intrigue for future installments should they actually happen after this lambasting.
The film’s biggest failing is the script, which is completely bogged down by exposition. For some, this will be to the film’s detriment, although there is some comedic value to be found in seeing Russell Crowe chew up the scenery and tell us a bunch of stuff we already knew. No one is going to accuse The Mummy of being smart, the over-abundance of explanation is somewhat charming. At other times it just feels like they’re throwing ideas at a wall and hoping they stick (there’s a scene where Cruise gets covered in bugs seemingly thrown in just to give audience members the heebie-jeebies). Again, these are issues that will hamper the film for many viewers, but there’s an audience for this type of silliness and I’m one of them.
Make no mistake about it: The Mummy has its flaws and plenty of them. By trying to be a cocktail of so many different things, the film becomes as disjointed and disfigured as the Universal Monsters themselves. Most people won’t find it to be as scary or endearing like our favorite icons, but others might be fascinated and entertained by its freakish attempts to cater to a myriad of genres. It’s a B-movie with a blockbuster budget, boosted by impressive technical efficiency, fun characters, and thrilling action. The Mummy isn’t in line with the spirit of the classics, but it casts a much welcome shadow over contemporary blockbusters; adhering to their tropes, while adding some spooky eye candy for good measure.
I can’t wholeheartedly recommend The Mummy because I know many of you will hate it – enter at your own risk. On the other hand, it’s a fascinating freak show which sets up what will hopefully be a fun cinematic universe, allowing a fresh re-imagining of the Universal Monsters to exert their ghastliness on contemporary Hollywood. I’m rooting for it to succeed, because there’s potential for true greatness there. Until then it’s off to a promising start, and in years to come, when most people have saw it via Netflix or Saturday night television, the general consensus will probably be favorable. Time has been kind to Van Helsing (and rightfully so) after all, so anything is possible.