The Universal Monsters are near and dear to my heart, as they are to many horror fans and cinephiles in general. Universal has long desired to create a shared universe for their beloved monsters to operate in and has tried with varying degrees of success to do so. Thus far, no project has made it past one film. 2010 saw Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman, an often overlooked Benicio Del Toro vehicle that found a lukewarm reception and sent the Universal executives back to the drawing board. 2014 witnessed Gary Shore’s even more poorly received Dracula Untold and 2017 sees Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy which seems to be drawing even more derision than any before it.
Is The Mummy the godawful, terrible, no-good-very-bad thing that it’s been held up and lampooned for being? I would argue that it isn’t but that doesn’t mean it’s good. To state the obvious, The Mummy was certainly not intended to change the world. It is a summer popcorn flick and since it seems very happy being one, it should be judged as such. The real question, therefore, becomes whether it does a good job being a summer popcorn movie in the great tradition of big, loud, blockbusters. Well, yes and no.
The film follows Tom Cruise’s Nick Morton, a former US military officer who accidentally uncovers the tomb of a forgotten Egyptian princess named Ahmanet and inadvertently finds himself cursed. What follows is a mostly enjoyable action film sprinkled with enough spooky set pieces and jump scares to find itself accurately described as an action-horror film and enough humor to find itself directly compared to the 1999 reboot of the 1932 Boris Karloff vehicle for better or worse.
The film tries, with varying degrees of success, to be a pulse-pounding action film, a large-scale horror film, and a comedy. It succeeds in descending order. The action is large, loud, and exciting. The fights scenes are somewhat uneven but enjoyable in that big summer movie way. Big action set pieces fill the screen and offer chills and thrills as they intertwine with the big, monstrous fun the film shoots to ooze. The weak spots are most apparent during the straight horror segments and most notably when Cruise’s perfectly coiffed head is interacting with those horror elements.
When Cruise is offscreen, the horror feels real and palpable. The threat feels real, the danger paramount, and the world in jeopardy. However, despite intending to operate on a world-ending macro-scale, when Cruise enters the frame nearly none of the horror has any impact because Cruise’s character always feels safe. They tell us, repeatedly, that he’s cursed but that curse seems to boil down to “none of this shit presents a tangible threat to you at all”.
Without stakes, without risk, horror does not work. I’m of the opinion that action stars make poor horror stars, especially action stars that are notorious for having creative control and demanding that their characters look cool and untouchable. Cool and untouchable does not a great horror protagonist make.
Conversely, The Mummy / Princess Ahmanet is wonderful through and through. With an eye-catching design and a dynamic intensity Sofia Boutella dominates the screen and unleashes all sorts of action-horror mayhem for Cruise and company to run through while screaming.
Kurtzman’s direction is at its best when moving kinetically through his big action sequences but that direction is not strong enough to support the overwrought story of curses and unspeakable evil. Worse still, the film itself feels the need to reiterate every major plot point at least 5 times, going so far as to show the same sequences over, and over, and over again. If you find yourself at a theater with a bar order a drink every time they show Ahmanet’s backstory from the beginning of the film and you’ll end up dead by the end and your family will owe the theater a hefty tab.
Universal got a little ahead of themselves and announced that this film was the first phase of the Dark Universe, their answer to the Cinematic Universe craze that sees every studio under the sun attempting to cobble together various associated characters and try to get some of that sweet, sweet Marvel money. Universal is not the first, nor will it be the last, to misunderstand what exactly makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe so popular.
Unfortunately, they seem to have forgotten their history. A very strong argument could be made that the Universal Monsters were the very first cinematic universe with 1943’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman having brought two of their flagship monstrosities together to general success and acclaim. What made that iteration of what they’d now like us to call the Dark Universe work so well is that both of the titular monsters developed organically in their own stories before being thrust together for a mostly organic ensemble film.
The Mummy, uh, does not do that. Like many of the weaker Marvel films and the much derided DC Extended Universe, the film is as concerned with establishing the proposed cinematic universe as it is telling a story anyone should care about. The connective tissue of the universe looks to be based around Russell Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll (his Mr. Hyde as well, of course). What they’re laying down lies somewhere at the intersection of Hellboy and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
A secret community of archaeologists, historians, and scientists have been laboring in the shadows to protect mankind from the evil that lurks in even darker shadows. There are flash teases of a vampire’s skull, Gillman’s arm, and a myriad of other cinematic nightmares. The segments of the film that are strictly designed to set up The Dark Universe are actually among the strongest, with Crowe’s dual performance allowing him to do the things he does best in spectacular fashion, but they still feel like they’re shoehorned in. It feels like two half-formed movies that both could have been great being spliced together in a lab somewhere, or more realistically, a board room. The Dark Universe doesn’t feel organic… probably because it isn’t.
Whether the film is successful enough to warrant Universal pushing forward with the Dark Universe is anyone’s guess but I’m cautiously optimistic that they may be able to figure it out by the time they get to The Bride of Frankenstein. Judged on its own merits what you’re left with is a madcap summer action movie that’s beholden to a Cinematic Universe that doesn’t really exist yet. Full of over the top gleeful horror mayhem but dragged down by repeating itself ad nauseum, The Mummy is kind of an uneven mess but it’s an uneven mess that I had a lot of fun during. You can do a lot worse than a big, loud, monster movie on a hot summer day in my book.