How do you get a mummy film wrong?
By making it part of a calculated attempt to get a franchise off the ground1 What Universal could have learned, however, from any of the mad scientists in their catalogue, is the danger of hubris when it comes to this not-so-new world of God’s and monsters.
Where Marvel2had decades of comic-book lore, new and old, to call on, and an abundance of goodwill from those desperate to finally see it on the big screen3, Universal are relying on nostalgia4 for a slate of films that date back, at their outset, to the 1930s.5
While Frankenstein and his ilk have become figures of camp as much as horror, more iconic for putting the frights to Abbott & Costello6 or pouting from beneath that white-streaked beehive do7, Alex Kurtzman’s film8is largely straight-faced in its approach.
The only problem is that, for a would-be rollicking action-adventure, it’s all a bit dull.9
Tom Cruise stars as Nick Morton, a reckless10, peculiarly charmless soldier-of-fortune type11, who, when The Mummy opens, has been scurrying around Iraq12stealing anything that isn’t laid down; totally immune to the pleas of his long-suffering sidekick Sgt. Vail (Jake Johnson)13 or, you know, common decency.14
Nick is clearly intended as a semi-lovable rogue, but the film’s script15 declines to give him much of a character. He’s not particularly smart[ or funny16 or even competent. Even looking like Tom Cruise does,17it’s faintly inexplicable that he managed to talk the female love interest – archaeologist Jennifer Halsey (Annabelle Wallis)18 – into bed with him in order to rob her in the first place.19
What the resurrected Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) sees in him20, besides him having been the one to set her free,21 is anyone’s guess. But set her free he has and so, for the sake of plot contrivance, she must pursue him and make him hers in order to unleash the ultimate evil upon the world.22Luckily for us, he’s a “good man”23and one apparently well-equipped to punching the dusty, surprisingly hydrodynamic undead.
Also on the side of ostensible good are the secret organization Prodigium,24 led by the genial Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe). Jekyll has, of course, his own dark side – one that has to be kept in check by a regimen of complex injections25 lest he transform into a maniacal, gold-eyed Ray Winstone type.26 It’s his portentous narration that opens the film, introducing the titular mummy in uninspiring flashback; not least in that it largely misses the point of the character, which lies in tragic nobility rather than evil.
This may have something to do with that – as others have said before me – this is less a The Mummy film than it is a The Tom Cruise film.27 While in an earlier draft of the script he and the monster reportedly had roughly equal screen-time28, here’s she reduced to an implacable pursuer – shambling after him down a dark alleyway, one leg dragging pitifully,29 or else, later, hurling him huge distances30, while still, herself, tastefully, shrouded in shredded bandages.31
And all of this would seem to stem from Cruise’s involvement: when you’re making a film starring, perhaps, the most famous man on the planet, the economies of scale involved are always going to place an emphasis on action32; especially when your star reportedly insists on micromanaging the whole operation. This comes at the cost of atmosphere and suspense – over which the original Universal films, done on the cheap, had a mastery.
The Mummy (2017) is just a lot of hot air; refusing to draw on its predecessors, and squandering what it does deign to use33 but devoid of original ideas of its own. Too dry and musty to even provide lift – too slight, too self-serious, not scary, and no fun34 – even if this weren’t already an act of cinematic grave-robbing, it would be time to consign this franchise to the celluloid cemetery.35
- Namely the so-called Dark Universe.
- Now the most successful movie franchise of all time, with at least two billion more in the bank than their closest competitor; namely the Harry Potter franchise.
- And even they seemed to realize they needed at least one decent pelt under their belt before declaring open season.
- Or at least an appreciation.
- A phenomenon for which we can reportedly blame Babe: Pig In The City.
- Or else tussling with a long-haired, leather-coated Hugh Jackman in misbegotten monster mash Van Helsing.
- As in the case of Bride Of Frankenstein, of which, in a weird circularity of fate, Gods And Monsters‘ Bill Condon is in line to direct the remake.
- Best known as a writer of blockbusters – Transformers, Star Trek; a real mixed bag quality-wise – it’s only his second directorial effort after a little-known drama called People Like Us back in 2012, which starred Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks. Given the circumstances here it feels almost like he was set up to fail – an acceptable sacrifice to head up a doomed venture.
- Which Stephen Somner’s version, for all its ILM cheesiness, was certainly not.
- See “adventurous”
- He’s a recon officer over whom the army, particularly his superior Colonel Greenaway (Courtney B. Vance), seem to exert worringly little authority.
- Or what once was Mesopotamia as the film makes a point of reminding us – repeatedly bringing attention of the body of an ancient Egyptian princess being transported over a thousand miles across the face of the Middle East for reasons never quite explained.
- Who spends most of the film as an American Werewolf In London-style apparition before being resurrected for its denouement; possibly as Nick’s undead slave.
- Early on Nick grinningly slashes his “friend’s” water-bag to force him to join him on what very nearly turns out to be a suicide mission. Oh how we laughed – not.
- Written by the legendary David Koepp, the almost as legendary Chris McQuarrie (if only for his work on The Usual Suspects), and Dylan Kussman; best known as an actor in the likes of Jack Reacher. All are, notably, prior Cruise collaborators/acolytes.
- Nor for that matter is Tom Cruise, whose sole means of getting a laugh seems to be looking startled.
- His solar plexus is particularly impressive for a 54-year-old – must be all that running.
- Whom my mate Alex reckons is the Dark Universe’s gender-swapped Van Helsing – which would be a more interesting proposition if she didn’t seem to mostly exist to give Morton affirmation.
- He claims he doesn’t lie; something the film has already explicitly shown him doing – the big liar.
- A physically fit, very charismatic middle-aged man – whatever the film’s script might say, not a “young man”
- Again, by recklessness rather than design.
- One film in and the Dark Universe is already at “ultimate evil” stakes without having managed to establish one compelling character, despite their being at least one present who already has a rich cinematic and literary history.
- Jennifer at least is sure of it.
- Which sounds less like the name of a secret organisation dedicated to fighting evil and more like something you’d prescribe to treat erectile dysfunction.
- Which he seems to need to administer every twenty minutes – or whenever the plot requires. Doesn’t the Dark Universe have insulin pump technology?
- Jekyll’s desk is notably devoid of any phones which might be thrown, accidentally or otherwise, during a rampage.
- A more appropriate title would be Tom Cruise Runs Away From The Mummy.
- And indeed in the original Boris Karloff received top billing.
- In one of the few scenes that feels like it comes from an authentic mummy film
- It does impact on the stakes somewhat when your lead man is essentially immortal – and the exact nature of the threat to the world so ill-defined.
- And what’s up with that split pupil effect? It may vaguely allude to the idea of “evil as pathogen” that Jekyll refers to, but as a visual it’s more ’90s sci-fi than classic horror.
- In Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Cruise was strapped to the side of a plane during takeoff. In The Mummy, he’s inside one as its crashing. It seems like an unfortunate allegory under the circumstances.
- For instance, gone are the flesh-crawling scarabs of The Mummy (1999), but the film has nothing to replace them with – apart from a brief infestation of camel spiders. Ahmanet, meanwhile, is capable of draining the life from anyone who crosses her path, regenerating herself while turning them into a thrall, which lacks the poetic justice of Lord Imhotep doing so only to those who desecrated his canopic jars. The one thing is does explicitly borrow from the previous film – a recognizable object makes a cameo – it proceeds to literally beat someone round the head with.
- And without even a decent plague to call its own, for shame.
- And that’s despite setting up the sequel so transparently the film might as well conclude with a Bond-style cue card that reads “Tom Cruise will return in The Mummy 2: Mummy Mia!