Alex Kurtzman’s “The Mummy” – A Movie About a Mummy and Some Other Stuff

Poster for "The Mummy" (2017)

Ladies and gentlemen, your Dark Universe. The Invisible Man (Johnny Depp), Frankenstein’s monster (Javier Bardem), Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe), and saving the best for first, The Mummy (Sofia Boutella). Don’t be perplexed, dear reader, by the fact that every single other monster is played by an A-List dude. Don’t spend too much time pondering Dr. Jekyll, this film’s Nick Furian monster-hunting super-spy, who runs Prodigium, this film’s S.H.I.E.L.D.. Don’t gaze long at the poster, which exclusively features the name of Tom Cruise above the title, despite his role as a soldier of fortune whose only distinguishing characteristic is a punny surname that means “Deadguy”. And think not upon the trailer which literally shows him dying in an almost vertical plane crash and resurrecting in a single piece. Whatever conclusion you may be drawing about Cruise’s prospects of replacing Boutella as a Mummy-themed Avenger by the end of the film is almost certainly not worth the time it took to type it out. Because The Mummy is not just a bad, boring film, devoid of original thought or a moment of suspense. It’s a film by committee, made in front of a corkboard replete with flash cards of ideas from other, better films. The Mummy is a thief, a liar, and a cannibal.

I shouldn’t rag too hard on Crowe, because he is given the thankless job of setting up a framing device for Universal Studios’ hamfisted attempt to create a megafranchise based on their stable of mostly public-domain, but strictly trademark-controlled movie monsters. And despite his dubious motivations, wildly ambiguous plan (see if you can figure out whether being stabbed with a ruby-hilted dagger is a good or bad thing during the last act, the answer may surprise you) and dialogue composed exclusively of self-important trailer narration, Crowe’s performance certainly provided the film’s only moments of levity. His Dr. Henry Jekyll is an amusing pastiche of Willy Wonka and Albus Dumbledore (with a good deal less narrative focus or skill), and his Edward Hyde is a cockney horrorshow. Crowe at least seems to be having some fun, which is a rare thing in this film. Granted, the creature design of Mr. Hyde makes me genuinely worry that Universal’s only look and feel for these monsters will be “shambling, lightly CGI’d corpse”. If you want poorly zombified actors, this film’s got em, and the quality (for a scant $125 million) is easily put to shame by premium cable these days. Hopefully we’ll get a half-decent Wolf Man or Creature from the Black Lagoon out of this Universe before it collapses.

The Mummy herself, on the other hand, with her ashen skin punctuated with black and blue hieroglyphic tattoos, and her strange double-pupiled eyeballs (the second pupil apparently represents eeeeeevil), is at least interesting to look at, even if her plan doesn’t make much sense. Revisiting Stephen Sommers‘ 1999 version of The Mummy last night, I was struck by just how much energy was put into the design and look of Ancient Egypt. Significant modeling (or late-90s CGI) was put into crafting Ancient Thebes, and that Mummy’s evil plan at least started with a mildly sympathetic motivation – forbidden romance between High Priest Imhotep and Pharaoh’s wife, punishable by death or worse. 2017’s Mummy, Princess Ahmanet, not only lives in a staggeringly low-rent version of Egyptian antiquity, consisting almost entirely of translucent curtains, off-screen stabbings, and standing on undeveloped sand dunes looking at distant pyramids, but her plan is incredibly basic and unsympathetic. She was heiress to the throne of Egypt, but then her Pharaoh father had a baby brother who jumped to the head of the line, so she made a pact with Set, the god of death, to allow her to rule the world in exchange for murdering everyone. This plan has some serious problems. Notably, it is incredibly vague what Set adds to this plan, since Ahmanet seemed quite capable of slaughtering her family without divine intervention, and this didn’t elevate her to the throne. Subsequent to this, she was immediately caught, killed, spirited away to Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq and Syria), and buried in a cursed tomb. In the end, all Set adds to her plan is a proxy – she needs a mortal to embody his spirit, and that mortal will obviously be played by Tom Cruise. But it’s unclear what her role will be after the death god’s avatar takes over.

Still from "The Mummy" (2017) with Sofia Boutella

Back in the present day, we get a depressingly forced action opener featuring soldiers Nick Morton (Cruise) and Chris Vail (Jake Johnson). Of these two, I’ll simply say that I never bought them as friends or adventurers, despite some strong work by Johnson later in the film (when he’s done dropping audience-friendly gems like, Iraq is a whole different country that’s a thousand miles from Egypt). But there’s really no better way to sap all tension from an action sequence than to give your heroes the ability to call in an instant airstrike, and announce that ability several minutes before it actually happens. But no matter. The Hellfire missile drops, the unspecified insurgents flee, the cursed tomb is unearthed, and their surly superior (Courtney B. Vance) arrives to tell them that the Mayor’s going to have his ass for this, but also assure them that they will face no consequences whatsoever, and a woman named Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) shows up, seemingly by magic, to explore the tomb for a moment or two. Jenny and Nick, you see, had a one-night stand in Baghdad, he stole her map, she impugns his sexual prowess, and that’s the entire basis of what this film laughably calls a romance between these two. They lack any chemistry or even a plausible motivation to care about each other’s survival. And this is a major problem for the film, because the third act – and Nick’s dire decision of whether or not to vaguely embrace evil – entirely relies on buying these two as romantic partners. The Mummy so thoroughly botched its romance that it actually makes me look back even more fondly on Wonder Woman, which shares a number of adventure and romantic plot beats in common with this film, but executed them with a great deal more skill.

I like Tom Cruise. I like him even when he’s playing cocky or unlikable characters, which is more often than not these days. But this character is an utter failure. His “infection by evil” carries no real weight or tension, because The Mummy‘s inept storytelling telegraphs the ending repeatedly from the opening voiceover. The result is a mirthless slog that I struggled to even make it through without repeatedly checking my watch. And I really have to hand it to this film. It takes a lot of work to not only make me not care if any of the characters live or die, but to also make it objectively not matter.
This has easily outclassed The Amazing Spider-Man 2 as the saddest (hopefully abortive) attempt to start a megafranchise to date.

FilmWonk rating: 2 out of 10

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10 thoughts on “Alex Kurtzman’s “The Mummy” – A Movie About a Mummy and Some Other Stuff

    • Oh yeah. ASM2 wounded me deeply. It’s funny, the Sony Pictures hack was pretty horrifying at the time, but it may have had the unintended side effect of forcing Sony Pictures to complete its deal with Disney/Marvel to merge their cinematic universes and bring Spider-Man into the MCU. Of course we can’t know if it was really a factor, but it seemed like the most common public reaction (among internet nerds) was, “Yes, make this happen please.”

      Of course, we’ll find out in a couple of weeks whether it was a good idea financially for Sony, but it definitely didn’t seem like they had any idea what to do with the character anymore.

      • The public reaction was exactly like that. Although I think there’s too much hype around all of it… but it’s just the trend, so there’s nothing to do. I think in next 20 years we’ll see a lot of background comics characters coming to the big screen. All the comics we had with all their joined universe wilk come “alive”. Well, I just hope there’ll be some space left for original screenplays too.

  1. As for the 1999 Mummy, it’s a tricky question, because I first saw it when I was a teenager, and you’re kinda predisposed to like things at that age. But The Mummy is one of a handful of films I’ve watched since (Independence Day is another) where I can recognize its flaws as a film critic, but I still find it quite enjoyable. Brendan Fraser is an utterly charming lead, and even at the time, I didn’t care how hard they were borrowing from Indiana Jones, because they nailed the formula so well.

    I’m not sure The Mummy Returns would fare as well though. That’s another one I loved at the time, but it is rather goofy as I think back on it.

    • You’re right – the 1999 Mummy was a good bad movie, just like the Independence Day (and some other stuff Emmerich did, but not all of it). It’s all flawed, but in a charming way. I was 12 when I saw it 🙂 I also bet the new Mummy had much less humour compared to the 1999 version. And what do you think about the upcoming Dark Universe?

      • I’m not optimistic, and it kinda seems to be putting the cart before the horse to talk about it before they’ve had a bonafide critical and commercial hit. They need to make good movies first, and worry about connecting them up second. The MCU came about after Iron Man was a massive hit, and the MCU setup kinda bogged down Iron Man 2 and made it the worst of the series. The Mummy (2017) has that same problem, but with almost nothing else to offer besides that setup.

        That said, I do hope we get a half-decent “Creature from the Black Lagoon” film before this is over 🙂 I’ve seen all three of that series, and rather enjoyed them.

        Ever see James Whale’s 1931 “Frankenstein”, with Boris Karloff and Colin Clive? It’s quite good – I still need to see Bride (1935), which was also well-rated (and sadly, Clive’s last film before he drank himself to death). And of course, I also need to see the 1932 Mummy w/Karloff.

      • It’s true. Marvel were lucky indeed. I have a feeling that their movies have now become part of everyday culture, like probably were the comics long time ago when these kind of movies were rare?

        As for the classic horror movies, I have just received some of them – Dracula, Frankenstein and Nosferatu and plan to see them soon 🙂

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