Universe building has been the buzzword of late in Hollywood. Most all of the studios have came down with a case of “Marvelitis”, and the effects are widespread. The most obvious reaction was Warner Bros. rapidly assembling their own superhero universe with characters from DC Comics (the fallout of which is currently being debated and hashed out after Justice League); alongside that, though, the studio has been working out extensions of their established Harry Potter “Wizarding World” lore with Fantastic Beasts and, less obviously, their “Monsterverse” through Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island, and their upcoming sequels. Paramount Pictures, apparently not taking any time to evaluate perception of their franchise, is pursuing even more Transformers films and subsequent spinoffs. 20th Century Fox looks to be furthering their X-Men and mutant-related films as long as they can, at least until Disney possibly changes things with an acquisition. Sony will be doing as much as they can with Spider-Man, whenever he isn’t visiting Disney on the weekends. So, seemingly, most all of the biggies are all about the universes; what about, ahem, Universal? I mean, it’s right there in the name. Well, they looked way back at what they had, and they quickly moved forward with a plan that might put Warner Bros.‘ speed to shame: take their cadre of classic movie monsters, tie them together (somehow), and let the people hand over their money. We need a name…hmm…OK, Dark Universe. Sounds like a plan, right?
Well, lots of people make lots of plans, but it doesn’t mean that they are good ones. I grew up watching and appreciating the iconography of the “Universal Monsters”. Legendary names like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney (Sr. & Jr.), and Claude Rains still excite moviegoers and have come to visually define characters that long predated their portrayals; funny enough, the many, many monster films made by Universal signify one of cinema’s oldest and most prolific film universes before there was a term to define it. The well of characters and possibilities run deep here, so if any studio could attempt such a thing, Universal had a good shot.
I’m sad to say that the entry film, The Mummy, just doesn’t work. I don’t know where the idea to start with The Mummy as the kickoff for the narrative came along in the process of planning all of this, but here we are. Most likely, executives looked to branch off of the success of Brendan Fraser-led films, but there isn’t much connection to be made beyond a name. I also don’t know the ordering of another point: was Tom Cruise cast before even that decision was made? Now, his name is one that moviegoers are very well familiar with, but as of recent years, his star has cooled somewhat (Mission: Impossible films, aside). Love him or hate him, either way, but conventional Hollywood logic (flawed or not) says his name puts people in seats. Now, I accompany this review with a picture, not of the Mummy in this film, played effectively by Sofia Boutella, but of Tom Cruise, front and center, because that is this film. I will be more spoilery in this review than others, because while this film is meant to kick off a new interconnected franchise, those plans are now reportedly abandoned. There may be things shared that spoil this film, but as you’ll see, there may not be much here for you to have liked. Plus, knowing now that everything that happens here will likely lead nowhere, it all doesn’t amount to much (how you doing over there, Dracula: Untold?).
As the film gets going, it has some things that look like they’ll work. The premise of why Tom Cruise‘s character, Nick Morton, is involved at all is interesting: he and his buddy, Sgt. Vail (Jake Johnson), are military operatives, scoping the Middle East for priceless antiquities, amidst the insurgent forces of terrorists destroying thousands of years of history and, thereby, covering their tracks. I’ve seen far worse narrative hooks than that; the problem is that the point loses all of its importance fairly early on. Unbeknownst to them, a very important dagger and accompanying jewel is being pursued by a secret paranormal defense group called Prodigium, led by Russell Crowe’s character, Dr. Henry Jekyll. Yes, I’m serious…that Jekyll. The reason for their interest in these relics is in stopping the reawakened Princess Ahmanet from ancient Egypt. Morton, having called in an airstrike that broke open her tomb, is drawn into the plot to help stop her from destroying the world.
Did I mention that Cruise dies but is reborn? No? Well, he does, and he’s imbued with the power of Set, the Egyptian god, and it acts as a plot device to let him be an untouchable action hero. Also, in essence, it ultimately makes him the Mummy by film’s end, but without the monstrous look that one would equate with one. Did I mention that his character also never exhibits any heroic traits, whatsoever? At multiple occasions, he is shown to be completely self-serving and abandoning of others in moments when he could help. He isn’t some gritty anti-hero (another flavor of the moment); he’s just insufferable. So, we have a bulletproof jerk at the center of a movie called The Mummy, not the legendary monster that is in the title. To her credit, Boutella is proving to be very capable in her roles, as of late; I liked her work in Kingsman: The Secret Service & Star Trek Beyond. Here, though, she has to try and emote through bombastic CGI setpieces, and the impression made is greatly diminished. Fans of Tom Cruise know that he is always pushing for bigger and crazier stunts to be a part of, and this film has some impressive action sequences. The problem is that we don’t care about the main character or really any of the characters involved, making it all very hollow.
Older films aside, Universal got The Mummy right before, as I mentioned with Brendan Fraser as a lead. That film and its sequels were never outright dark or even horror films, but they were enjoyable, mainly because we liked the characters we followed. Also, those films felt like they were, first-and-foremost, action films with a lighthearted center. They weren’t beholden to world-building, only the narrative of the events going on within each film. That says a lot about the missteps here; this Mummy has jokes and action, but they are amidst a tone that is never consistent. This Mummy tries to be much darker and sexual than those films ever were, but played against the elements it seems to riff off of “what worked” in past films, it leaves the entire thing feeling muddled and underwhelming. That says nothing of the crammed-in elements of Jekyll and Hyde; no offense to the always capable Russell Crowe, but none of that character works because it feels at odds with this film. To reference his Marvel counterpart, he’s intended to be the Nick Fury of it all, and it just isn’t there, and the character ends up as a very large distraction. Beyond that character, though, throughout the film, I found myself fighting to keep my attention on it all. Parts of the film are good ideas, and even some more derivative elements are at least well executed. Still, in the end, nothing works together.
From a content perspective, I mentioned that there is more sexual content here than those older Mummy movies. I think it all is darker and scarier with its imagery than those were as well. The Mummy, in flashbacks, possibly shows nudity in the ritual of how she came to be consumed by evil. Those who take issue with occult ideas and paganism will likely not like some of the creepy imagery and things on display here. There really isn’t a positive arc to relate here with our hero, since he isn’t much of one throughout and doesn’t have a meaningful change in the end. As a result, there isn’t really anything inspirational to lift from it all.
All in all, there just isn’t much here to like, and it’s a shame. The title would have been better suited to be “Tom Cruise: The Iraqi Plunderer“; calling this The Mummy and focusing instead on a dud of a character like Nick Morton just isn’t the way to begin it all. By film’s end, we see that this entire universe to come was to hinge on him in many ways, instead of the movie monster we came for. While Tom Cruise is charismatic enough to handle that as an actor, his character is written at odds with that. It seems that it has all unraveled before it could properly begin, which is a real shame. Watch it for a few entertaining scenes, but that’s about it. It doesn’t look like it all will amount to much.