Movie Review: The Mummy

Tom Cruise in a seriously unpromising franchise launch.


The Mummy

The Mummy isn't a failure, exactly. In order to fail at something, one must try to do it well in the first place. It's hard to believe that anyone connected with this movie—apart from the actors, who make what they can out of what they've been given—cared about any aspect of it. The picture is both noisy and grim (some scenes look as if they were shot after the lighting crew went home). And the script, which plumbs new depths of nonsense ("But death is a doorway, and the past cannot remain buried forever"), feels like an afterthought on the way toward some higher corporate goal. One notes that this script, and the story it tells, required the creative efforts of six people, one of them Alex Kurtzman, who has in the past labored on a couple of Transformers movies as well as the worthless Cowboys & Aliens. Unfortunately, Kurtzman also directed The Mummy.

Before we get to the movie itself—and trust me, any delay should be embraced with gratitude—let's consider its true purpose, which is to launch something that Universal Pictures is calling the "Dark Universe." This is simply a business initiative to exploit the company's archive of classic horror icons—Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, and so forth – which are now just sitting in the vault not making money. Meanwhile, those clever bastards at Marvel and DC Comics have minted billions by turning loose their own back catalogues of characters into movies that continue to proliferate in the most maddeningly profitable way. Why should Universal not get in on this sort of action?

I can think of one reason right off: because mixing these unrelated characters together in some notional horror "universe" can only diminish them. This is not an argument likely to gain much boardroom traction, however. And while it's certainly possible that the "Dark Universe" could turn out to be fun—anything's possibleThe Mummy, which is an exercise in anti-fun, doesn't bode well.

The picture bears virtually no resemblance to the original Mummy, which Universal released in 1932. Fine—that movie had no real action in it, and its languorous pace would never do for a modern summer blockbuster. What the first Mummy did have, however, was atmosphere—the silly Scroll of Thoth, the Seal of the Seven Jackals, the hushed colloquies "under the stars of Egypt." What this picture has instead of atmosphere is Tom Cruise. Don't get me wrong—Tom Cruise is very often a good thing to have in a movie. But whenever he ventures into franchise land, bullets fly, things blow up, and people never stop running around. That's what happens here, in the most generic sort of action-flick way.

The picture begins with a little light confusion. First it's the year 1127, and we're watching a group of Crusaders entombing a body along with a mysterious red stone. Cut: suddenly it's Now, and we're in London, and a tunnel-boring machine has just broken through the wall of an ancient subterranean burial chamber. It's soon followed by Russell Crowe, who walks in through the muck and mess announcing "I have unearthed many ancient mysteries," and telling everyone on the scene to get out—which, for some reason, they do.

If you hadn't gotten the word about the "Dark Universe," you might be baffled by this. Crowe is playing Dr. Henry Jekyll—the Jekyll-and-Hyde Dr. Jekyll—and it's not clear what he's doing here. Is Jekyll a Universal Pictures character? Not really (although a 1913 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was one of the earliest Universal releases). Jekyll's purpose, as we only fully realize at the end, is to act as a sort of Nick Fury-style franchise traffic cop, holding the projected D.U. together with his many monster investigations. If Universal really wanted people to get excited about this structural ploy, it should have made a much better movie than this one to establish it.

Anyway, a quick bit of voiceover fills us in on the jumbled background: 5000 years ago, an Egyptian princess named Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella, of Kingsman: The Secret Service) killed her father for dynastic reasons, made a pact with Set, "the god of evil," was caught and "mummified alive" and then buried—not in Egypt, but a thousand miles away in Iraq. (I wonder if even the movie's several writers could explain why.) In short, Ahmanet was "erased from history" (shoutout to all the ladies who might be thinking of seeing Wonder Woman this weekend instead of this highly woke entertainment product).

Cut to modern-day Iraq, where bullets are flying and things are blowing up and a U.S. soldier (or something) named Nick Morton (Cruise) and his wisecracking pal Chris Vail (Jake Johnson, of New Girl) are running around stealing antiquities with only the mildest disapproval being expressed by the military. When a bomb opens a hole in the earth, Nick and Chris are ordered down into it along with an archeologist named Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), who turns out to be irritated that Nick didn't say goodbye after creeping out of her bed this morning. (That's it for sex in this movie.)

Down in the hole, Jenny identifies the sarcophagus of Ahmanet, which is stuck in a pool of mercury for some reason that the filmmakers are unwilling to share with us. Jenny joins Nick and Chris on a plane to fly this artifact back to England. En route, the aircraft starts falling apart, which allows the wasting of much money in creating a scene of weightless chaos, with characters ping-ponging around the plane's interior in ways we've seen before, and more than once. Then the plane crashes, and next thing we know, Nick is waking up in a London mortuary completely naked (in a PG-13 way), which enables us to observe that there's not a scratch on him. Jenny observes this, too. (Later she tells Nick, "I care about you.")

By this point Chris has been killed by an evil spider bite, but then come back to take on the old Griffin Dunne role in An American Werewolf in London, popping up all gray-skinned and ghastly for occasional comical asides. ("We need to talk, Nick.") The grody Ahmanet, whose eyes each contain two irises for no conceivable reason, is chained up in the laboratory of the genial Dr. Jekyll (who for some reason feels compelled to tell us he's also a lawyer). She breaks loose. She demonstrates her ability to suck the life out of humans and turn them into the walking dead. (Zombie movies represent one of several narrative tones The Mummy fails to nail down.) She invades Nick's head, prompting a series of awkward flashbacks I won't bother going into. There are swarms of rats and crows and spiders, even some underwater zombies. Also a very familiar truck chase lifted without a second thought from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

When a movie has been made with so little care for craft, it's dispiriting. The Mummy is frantic but unexciting, cluttered but also barren. The story is of practically no interest, and whenever the characters open their mouths, we dread what'll come out. "We have to destroy the stone!" Jenny shouts. "I summon the sands of Egypt!" Athmanet screams. When Cruise starts speaking ancient Egyptian (or whatever gibberish passes for same nowadays), it's a relief to have no idea what he's saying.

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