Sofia Boutella in The Mummy (Photo: Universal)
* (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Alex Kurtzman
STARS Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe
A plastic product made by mercenaries, pimps and profiteers rather than filmmakers who give a damn, The Mummy is the first official entry in what Universal is billing as Dark Universe, the studio’s attempt to duplicate the interconnected worlds showcased in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe. Of course, this isn’t the first time this century that the conglomerate has tried to milk profits from the exhausted udders of its classic horror line from the 1930s and 1940s: Previously, audiences had to suffer through 2004’s Van Helsing, 2010’s The Wolfman and 2014’s Dracula Untold. The last-named was supposed to be the opening film in this new world order, but it bombed so badly that the studio drove a stake through its publicity and opted to try again. With The Mummy, there’s no turning back — the film opens with the newly minted Dark Universe logo, and future films starring the likes of Johnny Depp (The Invisible Man) and Javier Bardem (the Frankenstein monster) have already been announced. But given the desultory picture on view here, here’s a tentpole project that has its work cut out for it. Thankfully, the only way is up.
The titular monster in this case is Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), an Egyptian evildoer whose pact with the god Set leads to her being buried alive. Cut to the present day, where her tomb is discovered by wacky adventurers Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) and Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) and furrowed-brow archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis). While transporting the coffin to London, where Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) is eager to examine its contents, our heroes allow Ahmanet to awaken and escape, whereupon she plays suck-face with hapless extras and drains them of their life force (speaking of which, at this point the movie briefly turns into Tobe Hooper’s ‘80s cult oddity Lifeforce, best remembered as that film starring Patrick Stewart and a beautiful space vampire who wanders around London butt-nekkid). It’s up to Nick to save the day, although he’s clearly overworked: He’s been picked by Ahmanet to serve as her Chosen One, and he’s forced to play Hyde-and-seek with an increasingly irate Jekyll.
Universal already mined the Mummy terrain with 1999’s The Mummy, the hugely successful Brendan Fraser flick that resulted in several sequels of diminishing returns. That daft film swiped more pages from Indiana Jones than Boris Karloff, but at least it was reasonably entertaining. The same can’t be said of this new version, which is so scattershot that it never retains any forward momentum from one scene to the next. The comic relief, with a plot device lifted directly from An American Werewolf in London, is downright painful, and since the shuffling zombies look like they were imported from the music video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” it’s clear that here’s a monster movie that will be providing nothing in the way of thrills or chills. The CGI technicians are, as expected, kept busy busy busy, but the effects remain impersonal and ineffectual.
Through movies both good and bad, Cruise has always made his presence and star power known, but that’s shockingly not the case here. For the first time, the actor is entirely colorless and disposable – aside from a paycheck so loaded with zeroes that it was probably heavy to lift, there’s no reason for him to be here. Nick Morton is more a token hero than an actual character, so bereft of personality that we really don’t care when horrible things happen to him. And following last year’s lamentable Jack Reacher sequel, it also shows that Cruise might finally be fully succumbing to his ego — he’s no longer playing mere mortals but instead supermen and gods revered by all.
Along with Cruise, nobody else makes much of an impression – that includes Crowe, who can sometimes be the best thing in a bad movie (e.g. Man of Steel). In fact, it’s Crowe’s character – make that characters – that should prove particularly vexing to anyone who claims to care at all about what Universal is doing to its beloved legacy. Jekyll’s role in this picture is ridiculous — he’s an eccentric doctor who wants to locate, isolate and destroy the evil in the world — and further thoughts that the studio would provide him with a Hyde origin story in his own movie down the road are immediately dispelled when the filmmakers impatiently cram in a couple of transformation scenes. For the record, Hyde isn’t the frightening madman, the terrible creature, the tortured id audiences know and love and fear. Instead, Hyde is basically Russell Crowe in a bronze tanning spray, carrying on like an irascible drunk uncle who’s had too much spiked punch during the family Christmas party. Then again, a perpetual state of inebriation might be the only way to get through something as grueling and ghastly as The Mummy.