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The Mummy review: a universe of expectations hampers an otherwise fun creature feature

The Mummy review: a universe of expectations hampers an otherwise fun creature feature

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Universal Pictures

“Welcome to a new world of gods and monsters,” Russell Crowe solemnly intones midway through The Mummy, a modern action remake of Universal Pictures’ 1932 monster-movie classic. It’s a slight variant on a line from Bride Of Frankenstein, another Universal classic, and it’s consciously presented as a tagline for the studio’s new “Dark Universe” franchise. To date, Universal has planned out eight films in the series, in an attempt to forge a modern money-printing machine like the Marvel Cinematic Universe out of its legacy films. Crowe’s character, an update on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Henry Jekyll, is presented as a gateway to that universe, and a representative of Prodigium, an organization that deals directly with the problems caused by gods and monsters.

He’s also, incidentally, an actual character with a story function in The Mummy. But director Alex Kurtzman and his screenwriting team (David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dylan Kussman) don’t care as much about that as they do about the big picture. The Mummy is a relatively functional creature-feature movie, packed with oversized action sequences. But it reminds viewers at every turning point that it isn’t a story so much as a prologue, a brand-deposit setup meant to whet appetites for more Dark Universe installations. The approach may pay off in the long run, but in the short term, it feels like sitting down for a movie, and getting a feature-length trailer instead.

Tom Cruise stars as Nick Morton, an Army long-range reconnaissance scout who’s in it for the money, not the military. Along with whiny, reluctant buddy Chris Vail (The New Girl’s Jake Johnson), Nick takes advantage of his considerable operating freedom to sneak away from his assigned duties and loot priceless antiquities from ancient burial sites.

But as a wearyingly long prologue explains, an Egyptian princess named Ahmanet (Star Trek Beyond’s Sofia Boutella) once made a shady deal with the god Set, and was buried alive in Mesopotamia as punishment, far from her homeland. Nick’s latest reckless grave-robbing venture in Iraq ends with him, Chris, and weirdly undefined but bossy Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) in Ahmanet’s long-hidden tomb, where they ignore a series of warning signs and evil portents in their rush to get Ahmanet’s sarcophagus out of the country. 

Before long, the semi-revived Ahmanet is a CGI effect lurching around London, draining victims of life and turning them into comically fragile, shrieking zombies. She’s specifically attached herself to Nick, the chosen one she plans to sacrifice to incarnate her lover/master Set into the world. That means getting rid of Jenny, who’s formed an underdeveloped, implausible relationship with Nick, and it means crossing Prodigium, an organization with a vested interest in not letting revived Egyptian monster-gods roam around free. It also means a series of chases and explosions, as Ahmanet works her will on the world largely through mass vermin attacks and magical sandstorms.

Some of these ideas come from the 1999 Brendan Fraser Mummy re-imagining, which was also fond of snarling, anthropomorphized sand-clouds and waves of computer-generated creepy-crawlies. One recurring story conceit, involving a smirking corpse guiding Nick around London, is borrowed from An American Werewolf In London. There’s a little bit of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series in Ahmanet’s zombies, which aren’t particularly effective fighters, but are persistent enough to give a protagonist pause even when they’re broken down into flailing parts.

Universal Pictures

But a fair bit of the new Mummy does come from the 1932 original, with all the genders swapped. The film’s most interesting idea, also present in the 1932 version, is that Nick and Ahmanet become mentally connected as soon as she identifies him as her intended lover/victim, and he’s deeply torn between going to her and staying with Jenny and the land of the living. (Just as in the 1932 version, the living love-interest option is by far the blander, more boring one, while the dead love interest has a soulful otherworldly appeal. Plus the promise of immense power.) Turning Tom Cruise, one of the world’s most famous action stars, into a swooning victim of a much older, stronger, and more capable force — one that routinely beats the ever-living crap out of him throughout the film — is an unusual narrative choice. And it’s one of several that pushes The Mummy away from the most standard action beats of a modern action film.

But most of those choices — including a curtailed “Glad that worked out!” ending and the extensive focus on Prodigium — point toward Universal’s efforts to make The Mummy a “welcome to a world” prelude rather than a stand-alone adventure. Nick, Chris, and Jenny are all frustratingly thin characters, and Kurtzman’s story doesn’t seem to care about any of the details around them. (Past the opening firefight, for instance, the script entirely forgets that Nick is in the military, and might have responsibilities and resources of his own.) Nick theoretically has a redemption story, as a smug, self-serving thief who falls in love and discovers his own capacity for self-sacrifice, but it’s a matter of a few scattered lines and a couple of pinched looks from Cruise. “Somewhere in there, fighting to get out, is a good man,” Jenny tells Nick at one point. The utterly blank look she gets back isn’t the reaction of a man struggling with complex inner demons, it’s the response of an actor thinking, “Wait, is this guy supposed to be an anti-hero? Did we have a scene establishing that?”

Ahmanet herself gets better treatment from the film. She’s motivated by lust for power, but like Boris Karloff in the 1932 Mummy, she still comes with a creepy appeal, a combination of the usual allure of the unrestrained villain, and the draw of being the strongest personality in the story. Boutella makes her part victim and part beast, and gives her a sexual tension with Cruise that’s considerably more compelling than his nonexistent chemistry with Wallis. That approach alone signals that Universal may still understand the basic draw of its monsters, or virtually any monsters — the way they channel the human id, the way they act unrestrained, their freedom of expression and movement. Ahmanet gets much more of a backstory and a personality than anyone else onscreen, but she also gives Boutella a chance to play with complexities of drive and intention that no one else in the film has. This is, first and foremost, a movie about a monster, not the man trying to deal with her.

Kurtzman largely keeps The Mummy’s action scenes clear and tightly paced, with a couple of standouts in a face-off against Jekyll’s alter-ego Hyde, and a desperate underwater sequence near the film’s climax. He also injects some light energy in the form of deadpan humor, accomplished via careful editing timing as much as anything in the performances. When he cuts from a scene of violent chaos to Nick and Jenny in shock afterward, sitting and pondering what their lives have come to, it’s a surprisingly funny moment. When she argues that he’s a good man because he gave her the only parachute during a plane crash, he tells her, “I thought there was another one” with such pained, intense sincerity that it comes across as hilarious. Judging from the opening tomb-robbing action and some early banter, Kurtzman and company seem to want to position Nick as an Indiana Jones figure, a tough man with a vulnerable streak and a knack for straight-faced knockabout wit. Instead, he comes across as heavier and duller, frequently stymied by events around him. But they find a little humor in that haplessness, too. It’s not the broader goofery of the 1999 Mummy, but it’s a relief from mountains of exposition and thudding lines like “Evil will never rest. It will call to him.”

Universal Pictures

Given that The Mummy only barely works as a movie on its own account, the question becomes whether it works as a franchise-starter. And the answer is that while its franchise elements are foregrounded, they still aren’t terribly compelling. Crowe doesn’t get any more development than the other characters — the screenwriters clearly feel that Jekyll is a known quantity, his history already established in Stevenson’s book, so there’s no point in fleshing him out further. Prodigium is a story hook waiting for a background, a clear organizing principle for the planned creature features to come. When Nick gets dragged through one of the group’s bases, and the camera pauses to linger on a fanged skull, it might as well have “The Dark Universe’s Dracula, coming soon” printed on it in neon colors. And the movie doesn’t have a finale so much as a voiceover promise that the story will continue down the road.

Taken as a pilot episode for a series, The Mummy is a reasonably fleet introduction to some basic story principles and some ongoing characters. And at least it suggests the film series to come is intended to be aware of its roots, and aware of an audience that demonstrably enjoys witty dialogue and intense action. But nothing about this movie suggests a fresh or unique approach to franchise storytelling or contemporary monster movies. As an introduction, it’s functional. As a template for future films, it’s a warning that Dark Universe filmmakers are going to need to think about the stories they’re telling as much as the stories they’re planning.