Literally from the movie’s opening, Universal’s The Mummy starts off on the wrong wrapped foot. To be sure, it has plenty of promise and several intriguing ideas: for starters, there’s no monster who remains in a morally grey area (in typical Universal Monster fashion). The protagonist, Nick Morton, played by Tom Cruise, also makes for a more human hero than the usual altruistic, always-saving-the-day kind of character, even if the rest of the cast mostly walk a familiar line between right and wrong. Imhotep – the male mummy of Karloff and Brendan Fraser’s days – has been replaced by Ahmanet, a vengeful Egyptian princess erased from history, whose introduction and design are visually striking and chilling, appropriate for the birth of a monster in the modern age. Distinctive set designs, engaging action, suitable ambiance, and quality creature effects make for a perfectly watchable film, but unfortunately, an atrociously muddled script and lack of direction can’t make the most of these elements. The result is a lifeless monster romp that fails to inspire and is far from a worthy start to the newly-minted Dark Universe, the shared universe of the new Universal Monsters.
When Nick Morton and colleague Chris Vail (Jake Johnson), both U.S. soldiers and soldiers of fortune, go searching for ancient artifacts of value in modern Iraq, they accidentally uncover the cursed tomb of an ancient Egyptian princess absent from the annals of history. Only with the help of archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) and a mysterious organization headed by an equally shady doctor (Russell Crowe) do they begin to understand that the mummy they unearthed isn’t merely a piece of history, but evil itself incarnated. That sounds like an adequate narrative for a mummy movie, but that’s also just the terse version of the story, without the weak scenario building brought about through lazy exposition and a relentless effort to lay the foundation of a cinematic universe. In reality, there’s a sandstorm of ideas and plot points in The Mummy: mummies, gods of death, templars, secret organizations, a plethora of hidden tombs, an inspection of what makes a man a man, and a look at what makes him a monster. Had the filmmakers narrowed their focus to just the best of the ideas, had this been an honest attempt to reimagine a classic horror movie for today’s audiences, the result could have been better. Instead, the focus is as scattered as the sands of Egypt (or London in this case). The Mummy is simply trying to do too much, and not doing any of it all that well.
Things might be more excusable if it was only the half-baked plot that got a little messy, but the characters feel equally as underdeveloped, and not because of the performances. While Cruise’s Nick has some substance, charisma, and doesn’t just feel like Tom Cruise in another action movie, the film gives his character no time to grow and evolve. He begins as a scoundrel, not unlike a certain Han Solo, but whereas Solo is given enough screen time to prove that he has a heart of gold by the end of Star Wars, Nick Morton never exceeds audience’s first impressions of him – he’s a self-interested, lying thief who lacks the smarmy charm to make audiences like or even care for him. Worse yet is Jake Johnson’s Chris Vail, who is nothing more than a silly sidekick archetype. Devoid of funny lines in an all around unfunny movie, the character comes off as annoying and borderline unnecessary. Despite a decent performance on Annabelle Wallis’ part, Jenny Halsey feels like just a plot device, there to translate hieroglyphics for Tom Cruise and to be the damsel in distress, which is distressing in and of itself as the film pushes to be current with its powerful female antagonist, but even more so because it fails to utilize the damsel to develop any sort of tension – which, may I remind you, is how you develop scares.
That brings us to the titular character herself: Ahmanet. Sofia Boutella does admirably in the role, as from her introduction, she sells the character as sinister, cold, and calculating. When Ahmanet returns from the dead as a decrepit mummy, the design and unnatural movements of the character are suitably unsettling and horrific. It’s just unfortunate that Cruise and the rest of the cast don’t truly encounter the character all that much. The Mummy is too distracted with weaving unnecessary story threads to allow the movie’s central threat to actually threaten its primary characters. Half of the time Nick encounters the Mummy in a trance-like state, which isn’t used to create eerie, surreal moments but instead works more to undermine any potential tension in an annoying “it was just a dream again” sort of way. The character is also about as undeveloped as she is underutilized. While this is certainly a more sinister backstory for the Mummy, the character lacks the humanity that made all previous Universal Monsters and past their iterations so unique. Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, and the original Mummy –they’re all relatable, sympathetic characters whose situation is as horrific as they are. Imhotep, for example, was a priest persecuted for falling in love with the princess, a love forbidden by law. Ahmanet’s plight, on the other hand, doesn’t exactly explain the lengths she’s willing to go to in her quest to destroy the world.
The ambiance is perhaps the only thing that gives The Mummy any semblance to the source material, but even that falls short. Some settings are truly reminiscent of the classics, like the ruins of an ancient abbey, a dark and damp British street, or some ancient flooded tunnels; any classic Universal horror would feel right at home here. The abbey in particular – and the surrounding forest where the Mummy first comes to life – genuinely reminds me of some of the original movies, but like so much of the rest of the film, they aren’t utilized to their fullest, most horrific effect. Perhaps it’s because early encounters with the Mummy involve clearly killable characters (I’m surprised they weren’t wearing red shirts), and as the further the film moves from its horror roots, the more lost it becomes. Other locales are there simply as set pieces for action sequences, which often look pretty impressive and offer some thrills, but when you don’t care about the characters, the scenes feel hollow. Most disappointingly (and all too frequently) the chills just aren’t there in scenes and settings where they should be a gimme. When Nick and Chris uncover Ahmanet’s tomb, there’s no sense of wonder or apprehension; instead of building atmosphere, the film distracts itself with stupid details like a magically unending supply of mercury. As the characters delve deeper and deeper into the tomb, there’s a notable lack of foreboding, no sense of unease at all. Perhaps this is because the characters seem to show no misgivings about what is clearly an evil tomb, or perhaps it’s because the film satisfies itself with muted colors, calling that tone. Whatever the reason, it’s not for a lack of trying. All the pieces seem to be there – it just lacks that spark of life.
Our universe may have began with a bang, but Universal Studios Dark Universe begins with a dud. Perhaps there’s a lesson here: the pyramids weren’t built in a day, and a universe can’t be built in one movie. Still, I think that if the intention was there to truly revitalize a cherished monster for the love of the creature, its franchise, the genre, and its brilliant history – if the film had set about to reawaken that fascination and fixation with the darkness that we all seem to carry deep in our hearts where monsters lurk within us all – then we would have gotten a very different movie. Instead, we got a movie that feels rushed, muddled, and uncertain of what it truly wants or needs to be, uncertain of the proper proportions of wit and charm, horror and adventure, stand alone and franchise. As a result, The Mummy can’t hold a torch to its peers. So, “welcome to a new world of gods and monsters.” Is the Dark Universe doomed? No, not yet. Hopefully it’s just in its awkward infancy stages. Hopefully, to quote The Bride of Frankenstein once more, our beloved monsters never have to plea with their creators that “we belong dead.”