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The Mummy: Dark Universe’s unceremoniously sepulchral appetizer

Due to its tedious plotting and replicated tropes from genre classics, The Mummy is an anemic and watered-down patchwork like the mummy herself.

Years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Universal Pictures enjoyed four decades (from the 20s) of successful horror stand-alones, sequels, and crossovers starring iconic monsters. Now, in the vain hope to catch up with Marvel Studios’ business model, Universal executives unearthed something bankable from their ossified characters then form the Dark Universe. Heroes I get it, but monsters? Are they expected to shake hands, eat shawarmas, and cooperate like a functional group to fight off greater evils? What greater evils anyway?

Nonetheless, Universal cast household names like Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp for major characters right before the first installment, The Mummy starring Tom Cruise, came out. When Universal logo turned into the Dark Universe, I tried to give it the benefit of the doubt, then two hours later, I left the theater confused about whether I should feel anything about this untoned tangle of mummy bandages.

The Mummy follows Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), a conceited military man moonlighting as a black market trader, but not before the movie, out of obligation, hints at the worldbuilding and backstories for the mummy Ahmaneth (Sofia Boutella). She was an Egyptian princess condemned to eternal confinement for murdering her father and half-brother, and staging the ritual to bring Set, the god of death—except he isn’t the god of death—into our world.

Sofia Boutella as the Mummy

The dagger and gem essential for her routine were separated, and the latter somehow ended up in a tomb of Crusade knights, which lies under modern day London and is excavated by a mysterious man (albeit not so mysterious to people who followed the marketing campaign). In an operation, our Nick, together with his partner Chris Vail (Jake Johnson), discovers Ahmanet’s tomb by stealing a letter from his one-night stand, archaeologist Jenny (Annabelle Wallis). Against her protest, he breaks open the tomb’s seal. Ahmanet is now ready to reward Nick, in a perverse and quasi-romantic manner, for rescuing her. This narrative drive is similar to previous Mummy movies, but there’s a spin on the relationship as she chooses Nick as her sexual partner.

Director/writer Alex Kurtzman, whose only directorial credit is the 2012 drama People Like Us, presented us cookie-cutter characters, who take audiences out of the moments rather than making us emotionally invested. Whereas the unremarkable script underutilized Cruise, he neither instinctively actualized his character’s douchebag behaviors nor became self-involved enough to be convincing. As a coward who only wants to bail, this shallow soldier suits Ahmaneth’s intent (an “empty” vessel for Set) while neglecting Cruise’s strength. As Nick, the superstar can’t  demonstrate the committed, durable quality of an actor who headbutts his characters’ problems with mind, heart, and physically intense prowess (I suddenly want to rewatch Cruise running in Mission: Impossible 3).

Tom Cruise and Annabelle Wallis

Jenny, rarely competent, is supposedly Nick’s emotional anchor, but in a lifeless performance by Wallis, their chemistry-free relationship only weakens the last act. Now and again, clunky dialogues pretend to hold a heart at the core, but Kurtzman led the movie meandering into tepid trappings before it betrays itself with artificial humor. Besides shamelessly replicated tropes from genre classics (like American Werewolf in London), the story backslides into mistakes made by mediocre tentpoles and becomes a watered-down patchwork.

Despite being sidelined, the hieroglyph-tattooed Boutella is tempting as a mummy on the prowl with her physical splendor and trenchant expressions when subdued. This effort is futile anyway because her backstory repeats as though there are layers to her personality and purpose. The team of six writers must’ve mistaken complication with complexity, so The Mummy left an action-adventure impression. The rest involves too few horror ingredients—Ahmaneth sucking the life out of cops or her goons’ epileptic movements, which remind the audience of Train to Busan‘s zombies and The Grudge‘s ghost. Altogether, cheap thrills between shades of dark blue can’t make up for the absolute absence of atmospheric dread.

Adding on top of this tonal juggling, The Mummy clumsily mashed ambitious ideas into slipshod set pieces—for example, Kurtzman’s failed re-creation of the bus scene from The Mummy Returns. Rough Iraqi deserts in the opening sequence could become an effective backdrop, and collapsed buildings might have allowed Cruise to get gritty, but Kurtzman never stressed on this potentiality. Instead, the story hastily retreats to the safe urban landscape. When the army personnel transports Ahmaneth back to England, the rolling sequence on the airplane is mildly tense but gives no significant narrative elements. Due to Kurtzman’s inexperience, scenes lacks serious visual artistry, which irks its audience with tons of tedious production design and no suspenseful showstoppers.

Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll

Lastly, the mandatory universe building came in the form of Prodigium, the uniting factor between major characters. Quoting from Bride of Frankenstein (“Welcome to a new world of gods and monsters!”), Dr. Jekyll—an apathetic Russel Crowe in his three-piece as the leader of this monster-hunting organization—plays the role of The Avengers’ Nick Fury. But unlike his eye-patched counterpart, Jekyll takes up too much screen time, most of which belong to heavy-handed, expository monologues. The philosophical tone of Jekyll/Hyde tale doesn’t entice the audience in the current industry—we already had Hulk. Nor does the character belong next to horror features, but Hyde is still shoehorned in an insipid scene just for the sake of character introduction. This reminds audiences of Kurtzman’s latest attempt to set up Spider-Man‘s cinematic universe in Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 before it backfired into the whole franchise’s continuation.

Kurtzman digs out of the tomb a story so derivative that it must be thrown back into that dusty sarcophagus right away. Though The Mummy is not extremely horrible, its tedious and half-hearted plotting drowns viewers in the lengthy runtime, which is anemic like the mummy herself. This failure isn’t the official nail on the coffin, but The Bride of Frankenstein will have to prove a lot if Universal wants to keep this plan moving.