With The Mummy, the Dark Universe gets a so-so start
Intellectual property is king right now in Hollywood. Every studio is looking to raid its back catalog (or the back catalog of someone else it can cut a deal with) in the hopes of dusting off some old, mothballed properties it has the rights to and turn them into 21st-century annuities. Disney has been lucky with Marvel and its deep bench of superheroes, and Warner Bros., after some pretty rough creative hiccups, has hit paydirt with DC — especially in the wake of Wonder Woman. For better or worse, this is what drives the business now. The past is the future.
Universal has been around since 1912. So, needless to say, its vaults hold plenty of old celluloid treasures ripe for plundering. But here’s the thing: It’s not enough to just remake one film anymore. You have to imagine a “cinematic universe” — a sprawling, many-tentacled franchise that can keep dividing and splintering off into infinity. So the studio has gone back to its glorious black-and-white monster movies from the ‘30s and ’40s. They’re the kinds of movies that even if you don’t know them, you know them (which is music to marketing execs’ ears): Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and yes, The Mummy. Better yet, they’re properties that can be mixed and matched and pit against one another ad infinitum. There’s no limit to how many sequels and prequels and sidequels you can make with these things. Universal has even come up with a fancy, ominous name for this big tent of ghastlies and ghouls: The Dark Universe.
This isn’t the first time the studio has landed on this grandiose idea, of course. You may remember a little movie from 2004 called Van Helsing — a monster dream-team trial balloon that didn’t quite fly because…well, because it wasn’t a very good movie, for starters. But there’s too much money potentially being left on the table if it doesn’t try again. So try again, it is with its latest franchise-building experiment, The Mummy. Directed by Alex Kurtzman, no neophyte to franchise-maintenance what with his screenwriting stints in the Mission: Impossible, Transformers, and Star Trek sagas, The Mummy stars the tireless and mind-bogglingly ageless Tom Cruise as Nick Morton — a “liberator of precious antiquities” affiliated in some under-explained way with the U.S military. He’s a glorified thief, basically—smooth talking, adventurous, and catnip to the ladies. He’s Indiana Jones without the bullwhip and the PhD.
The film opens with two sequences in the long ago past. First, in England in 1127, with a group of Crusaders returning to London after their holy war exploits in Egypt and enacting some sort of arcane burial ritual. And second, in ancient Egypt, where the power-hungry daughter of the pharaoh, Sofia Boutella’s Princess Ahmanet, plots and murders her way to the throne before being stopped and buried alive in a sarcophagus as punishment. What do these two events have in common, you ask? It’s a good thing Russell Crowe is on hand (as Dr. Henry Jekyll — a name that should sound familiar to the gothically inclined) to deliver a lengthy voiceover to tell us. It turns out that Ahmanet is laying in wait in her sealed coffin, waiting for her chance to rise up and cause all sorts of undead supernatural mayhem. She’s been waiting for millennia to find her chosen one, her mate, to join her in her immortal quest of wrathful omnipotence to be unleashed on the world.
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Enter Cruise’s Morton and his wisecracking partner in crime, Chris Vail (New Girl’s Jake Johnson), in modern-day Iraq, where they manage to comically elude insurgent gunfire and stumble upon Princess Ahmanet’s buried sarcophagus. They have no idea what it is or what their find means. They just hope there’s a fat payday in it for them. But an archaeologist (and former fling of Morton’s), Annabelle Wallis’ Jenny Halsey, slowly pieces together what their discovery is all about with a little help from her nefarious boss, Crowe’s Jekyll. It all sounds more complicated than it really is. Because what it is, is basically an action-adventure video game that puts Cruise and Wallis through any number of blockbuster trials (plane crashes, giant spiders, rat-filled hallucinations, underwater mummy pursuits), in their race to stop the resurrected Princess Ahmanet and her desiccated, undead minions before it’s too late. We’re a long way from Boris Karloff territory here.
The chemistry between Cruise and Wallis is fine, if a little medium-cool. There’s the usual mix of sparks and tossed-off punchlines while they’re on the run from CGI mummies that would look at home in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. Boutella, who was under layers of face makeup as Jaylah in Star Trek Beyond, is once again covered in cosmetics here as Princess Ahmanet — a genuinely creepy and deadly baddie. But the story feels as stitched together as Frankenstein’s monster: a little bit of An American Werewolf in London here, a little Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade there, a pinch of Army of Darkness, and some Jekyll and Hyde as frosting. It all feels a little derivative and unnecessary and like it was written by committee (which a quick scan of its lengthy script credits confirms). Cruise turns out to be the film’s secret weapon. He may not be totally comfortable selling some of the film’s jokier moments, but at 54, he’s a seasoned pro at selling narrative silliness with a straight face, a clenched jaw, and a superhuman sense of commitment. I’m not sure that this aimless, lukewarm, but occasionally rollicking take on The Mummy is how the studio dreamed that its Dark Universe would kick off. But it’s just good enough to keep you curious about what comes next. B–