Wait, are you telling me I re-watched Dracula Untold for nothing? I have a vague recollection of Universal attempting to reboot its ample stable of monster characters into a shared universe three years ago with the Luke Evans-starring effort that made Dracula a kind of good guy and something of a superhero in the process. But the current plans for this new, all-star Dark Universe (it even has its own logo!) do not include any of the elements from that film, but instead are being shot out of a cannon with Tom Cruise in this unbelievably silly reworking of The Mummy, from director Alex Kurtzman, the writer of many a Star Trek and Transformers movie, as well as Cowboys & Aliens and a creator of the series “Fringe.” To put things in perspective, Kurtzman seems to be a guiding hand in the Dark Universe and is listed as a producer in upcoming productions of The Invisible Man, Van Helsing, and Bride of Frankenstein, which he also had a hand in writing, and likely many others.
I only include this preamble to explain that, right out of the gate, The Mummy isn’t allowed to be its own movie. It’s the film that launches many others, and as a result, a lot is riding on its success, both financially and as a starting-off point. As a result, it feels like a movie made by committee (there are three credited screenwriters—David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman—who were clearly brought in one after the other to continue making adjustments, if not actual improvements).
The weirdly similar tone between this film and 1999’s The Mummy, starring Brendan Fraser, was the first thing to strike me as odd. From the opening sequences that establish both the legend of Egyptian Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella of Star Trek Beyond, Kingsman, and the upcoming Atomic Blonde) entombed before her natural death, and treasure hunter Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) finding her crypt in Iraq thousands of years later, there’s a strange insistence that Morton be funny as well as adventurous. And if you’re looking for anything remotely scary in this version of The Mummy, you have come to the wrong franchise launch pad, my friend.
Cruise is unsuccessfully helped to be funny by his sidekick Chris Vail (Jake Johnson, Jurassic World, “New Girl”), and the two seem to work in conjunction with the U.S. military (represented by Courtney B. Vance’s Col. Greenway) by scouting out areas of conflict and attempting to identify and save any valuable antiquities before insurgents destroy them. But Morton and Vail have a tendency to “borrow” smaller antiquities that he can find. When the pair accidentally blow a hole in the ground during a skirmish, they open up a hidden tomb where Ahmanet’s sarcophagus is hidden, and before they even have a chance to head down into the hole, Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis, currently in the new, terrible King Arthur movie, as well as the British series “Peaky Blinders”), whose employer is something of a secret, but her purpose is to extract the sarcophagus and take it somewhere safe.
Even this early in the film, it’s clear that this is more of a Tom Cruise affair than a monster movie. The overblown action sequences have Morton getting shot at, explosions going off around him, and buildings literally sliding out from under him, all the while he’s making funny faces and cracking wise. And while some of it may be thrilling, it all feels like a fairly conventional action movie—particularly subpar for something Cruise is involved in, considering the lengths he goes to in the Mission: Impossible films to top himself. It’s also strange seeing Cruise work in such an effects-heavy environment, fighting off skeletons and mummified remains that clearly aren’t real. Instead, these moments feel like more missed opportunities to make a monster movie even a little bit scary.
I should mention at this point that Morton dies pretty early in the movie. Or more specifically, he dies in a plane crash as the plane is transporting the mummy princess, but he somehow comes back to life and continues to share a special connection to Ahmanet, because he can help her achieve a level of godhood that was denied to her in ancient Egypt. Also Vail dies, but this is a world in which death is fluid at best, so Vail keeps popping back up to advise and warn his friend whenever possible (the device is so clearly borrowed from An American Werewolf in London, it’s a bit embarrassing). Still, the whole back-from-the-dead thing sets up some interesting possibilities, very few of which are even capitalized upon.
Instead, the army of writers send Cruise into a new world filled with exposition (again, for the sake of the Dark Universe)—a place called Prodigium, an organization run by Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) and tasked with finding, containing, examining and eventually destroying “evil.” Acting a bit too much like Marvel’s Nick Fury, Jekyll (hmm, that name sounds familiar) explains that in the shadows of the world exists a world of gods and monsters, and apparently he views all monsters as evil, a theory to which I don’t particularly subscribe, especially in the realm of the Universal monsters, many of whom are misunderstood or driven to bad deeds by us regular folk. If Jekyll and his team are going to treat Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, or the Creature from the Black Lagoon as if they’re purely evil, I’m not going to get along with the Dark Universe at all.
At a certain point, we grow weary of Jekyll as a character, especially when two things become clear: 1) he’s going to become Mr. Hyde at some point, even if it interrupts the flow of the movie (which it does), and 2) the chemical method by which Jekyll keeps Hyde at bay is so unnecessarily complicated that I think even I could devise a method that would be more efficient and less like loading a musket in the 17th century. I’m fine with Jekyll setting things up to a certain degree, but a little of him goes a long way. There are points during The Mummy where it feels like director Kurtzman has simply lost control. Cruise is doing his action/comedy thing; Boutella is doing whatever spooky/sexy mummies do; and Crowe is talking and loading his medicine musket, but none of it feels like it happening in the same film.
Perhaps not surprisingly, The Mummy plays out more like a superhero film than a monster movie. Powers are assigned, death is temporary, and the film concludes with a special effects extravaganza that is especially impressive. Even Morton’s fate is a little nebulous; he’s still alive but he’s become something beyond human that is never quite made clear. I’m sure it will be if more of these films are made (enough high-profile actors and directors are already lined up that it seems likely, even if this movie underperforms). I’m certainly curious to see where the Dark Universe will go and, more importantly, what adjustments will be made based on people’s reaction to The Mummy. But treating these monster properties with some respect might be a worthy first step.