The ever-expanding and interconnecting Marvel Cinematic Universe paid off big time with The Avengers, and suddenly every studio in Hollywood wanted to mimic the Marvel model. The minds behind other Hollywood studios, however, thought the appeal of Marvel’s success lied solely in the interconnecting aspect of these cinematic universe and not in the inherent appeal for fans in seeing something on screen that they never saw before – superheroes on the screen that intertwine in the same way that they have for decades in the pages of comic books. Universal Studios, with their expansive roster of iconic movie monsters, sought to make what pretty much amounts to the Monster Avengers starting off what they’ve dubbed Dark Universe with The Mummy, which features veteran screenwriter Alex Kurtzman stepping behind the camera with Tom Cruise front and center. But The Mummy is a rocky start for the Dark Universe, a fairly generic action flick that features horror elements but fails to bring to the screen a distinct personality that will possibly coalesce into a coherent universe of monsters.
The Mummy starts like so many classic tales about mummified Egyptian royalty – in Medieval England. Then the film flashes forward to present day England where the tombs of the buried knights are discovered. The discovery is soon examined by Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), who provides a massive exposition dump about Egyptian Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), telling the tale of how she murdered and betrayed her family in a deal with Set, the God of Death, and how she was mummified alive and buried far away from Egypt. Once freed, all she needs is the lost Dagger of Set to finish her ritual and take her mantle as a living god.
In Mesopotamia, present day Iraq, Nick Morton (Cruise) is a soldier of questionable moral fortitude alongside his friend and partner Chris (Jake Johnston). The two plunder archaeological sites and sell their discoveries on the black market. After a confrontation with some insurgents is ended by a drone strike, a massive hole opens up in a small village, and Nick and Chris are soon confronted by Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), from whom Nick stole the map leading to these artifacts after a one-night stand. Examining the discovery, Nick and Chris are looking to plunder while Jenny is looking for knowledge. Hastily, Nick frees the tomb of Ahmanet from its encasing, and unwittingly awakes the spirit of the long dead mummy. On a plane ride back, strange things begin to happen and soon the plane crashes, Jenny making out alive but the rest of the passengers are dead, including Nick. But Nick is able to defeat death because the Mummy’s Curse has been placed upon his head. Now with the help of Jenny and Dr. Jekyll, they must unravel the mystery of the mummy and lift the curse on Nick’s head.
With six credited screenwriters, including Oscar-winner and frequent Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie, The Mummy fails to bring anything remotely new to the screen. This is simply a generic action picture with story beats that seem to have been culled from countless better movies, including many aspects that mirror The Avengers. Helming his first action movie, Alex Kurtzman does a fairly admirable job in framing and presenting the action of The Mummy, but the script is garbled mess of clichés, nonsensical exposition, and various teases to the series’ future installments. There are some dreadful attempts at witty one-liners in the movie, including an especially groan-inducing one at the film’s climax. The last 20 minutes of The Mummy are absolutely bewildering, with little that makes any sense even with the film’s massive amounts of expository dialogue.
Few action stars are as committed to the physicality required for their roles as Tom Cruise, and yet The Mummy makes little use of Cruise’s astounding commitment. Only in the early scene of the plane crash do we see Cruise doing anything that resembles an outlandish or even remotely interesting form action acting. Part of the problem is Tom Cruise isn’t a good choice for the morally dubious character of Nick Morton, and of course the character goes through a number of changes along the way that makes him find his inner heroism. It’s not that Cruise is incapable of bringing moral complexity to the screen, but his action films are best serve by playing to Cruise’s charismatic strengths and The Mummy continually fails in this department. From the moment he appears on screen with Jake Johnston, it’s apparent that there’s no comedic energy between the two but that doesn’t stop Kurtzman and company from trying to make it work.
The one who steals the show of The Mummy is Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll, who will basically serve as the Dark Universe’s Nick Fury. Crowe seems to be having fun in the role, and when a well-known alter ego emerges it finds a sense of fun that is mostly elusive throughout the film. As the eponymous mummy, Sofia Boutella is mysterious and alluring, though the actress is buried under makeup and is given only hints of anything resembling depth. The same is true of Annabelle Wallis’ Jenny (minus the makeup, of course), who is a competent character given nothing behind her blonde surface. Wallis tries admirably to provide the character depth that isn’t present in the script but to no avail.
Universal has already announced a whopping seven future movies in the newly established Dark Universe, which means there have to be teases for these future installments within The Mummy. Some of these teases are handled well, small and subtle without diverting the film away from its story. Other teases are pretty unimaginative and egregious.
Just because The Mummy provides a rocky start to the Dark Universe doesn’t mean that there’s not a future for this burgeoning universe. What these movies need to do going forward is find a distinct personality that stays closer to the characters’ horror origins rather than relying on countless action movie tropes. The Mummy only shares a name with a horror classic and doesn’t even tap into the horror elements beyond a surface level. I’d love to see these movies in the hand of a horror director that’s willing to make bold, bizarre decisions that aren’t simply intended to replicate the Marvel business model. These are great monsters that are iconic and they didn’t become iconic by simply mimicking the flavor of the week.