Three thousand years ago Ahmanet, princess of Egypt, due to inherit the power of the Pharaoh, discovered that power is not given, it must be taken. Threatened with losing her birthright she made a pact with Set, Egyptian god of death, to ensure her reign and pledged to bring the god of death into mortal form and rule the world with him until the high priests intervened, imprisoning her alive in a sarcophagus and bound deep beneath the Earth.
There she lay for three millennia before being uncovered by fools: following a stolen treasure map soldier and looter of antiquities Nick Morton (Edge of Tomorrow’s Tom Cruise) and sidekick Chris Vail (Jurassic World’s Jake Johnson) are in Iraq, what was once ancient Mesopotamia, when unexpected levels of armed resistance require an airstrike which reveals the subterranean tomb of Ahmanet.
Making hasty excuses to their superiors for their unauthorised presence a hundred kilometres from where they are supposed to be doing military reconnaissance they are joined by archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle‘s Annabelle Wallis). Unable to secure the site before insurgent reinforcements arrive and filled with the promise of riches Morton breaks the chains binding the sarcophagus and Ahmenet is raised to the surface, freed from the prison of eternal sleep: “Welcome to a new world, of gods and monsters,” indeed.
Thus begins a quest to save the world from awoken evil which involves a secret society of monster fighters led by Doctor Henry Jekyll, a secret base beneath London’s Natural History Museum and the battle for the soul of a man as he is torn between the weak conscience of a thief and Ahmanet’s control over him through the curse he brought about by opening her tomb. All of which sounds like the ingredients for a great monster movie which this sadly is not, the key ideas and story elements solid but the execution falling far short of its potential.
The most damning problem is that beneath the wrappings The Mummy is overwhelmingly a Tom Cruise movie and therefore interchangeable with most other Tom Cruise movies and any other (more interesting) aspect gets pushed aside, particularly the female lead (more than twenty years his junior) who is entirely passive, a love interest to be rescued and divulge exposition while Cruise awaits his cue to run to the next Mission: Impossible style action scene.
With the exception of Michael Mann’s Collateral, now thirteen years gone, Cruise seems reticent to portray himself anything other than the formulaic Tom Cruise and any attempt to convey the character of Nick Morton comes from the other characters him telling and by extension the audience that he is a soldier/thief of brave/dubious/good intentions as though to verbally affirm what Cruise’s acting should demonstrate. Aiming for lovable rogue he comes across as far from loveable, a cynically contrived automaton who competes with Ahmanet for lack of soul yet whose ego dominates the film.
As Ahmanet, Star Trek Beyond’s Sofia Boutella should have been centre stage as with Boris Karloff’s Imhotep in Universal’s 1932 original. As shortchanged as her character’s birthright, considering what little she is given Boutella is superb, with barely a word conveying a more complex backstory and richness of emotion than Cruise’s protagonist. Stealing every scene not because of makeup or special effects, despite being depicted as murderer intent on world domination she captivates the audience even when shown as a chained monster, conveying a vulnerability and a sense of loss which informs her rage.
Universal’s earlier abortive attempts to rebuild their monster franchise with the intellectually devoid Van Helsing, the disappointing performance of The Wolfman and Dracula Untold, misconceived from conception, has led the studio to start from scratch before finally commiting to their “Dark Universe,” a series of linked movies whose banner opens The Mummy which will be followed with Bill Condon’s The Bride of Frankenstein in 2019, familiar ground for the man who directed James Whale biopic Gods and Monsters.
The series will be linked by Man of Steel star Russell Crowe’s Doctor Jekyll, head of the monster fighting organisation Prodigium who tells Morton “From the latin Monstrum Vel Prodigium, a warning of monsters.” Like the Talamasca or the Watcher’s Council, their mission is to track, contain and eliminate evil and they are the most intriguing idea in the movie, the audience treated to a glimpse of that potential in a more monstrous Spirit Collection than the National Museum generally shows to the public with vampire skulls and other beastly body parts preserved.
Indicating the Prodigium has been doing this a while and teasing the other potential Dark Universe projects, as the leader of an organisation fighting against the darkness Jekyll comes across as a morally dubious, slightly wretched man. While Crowe seems to be channelling Ray Winstone’s “Uber Cockney” and is clearly having fun with the character, his casting confirms Universal gambling on star power rather than storytelling to build the franchise.
With Cruise and Crowe taking prominent screen time the other members of the small cast are underused. Notionally fulfilling the role of comedy sidekick, Vail appears to Morton as a cursed member of the undead similar to An American Werewolf in London’s Jack but without the leavening gallows humour, the parallel unexploited almost as if it were unintentional, yet Johnson carries the role well and with more presence and charm than Cruise; accordingly, he is swiftly ushered offscreen.
Considering she serves double duty as dubious love interest and expositionary archaeologist, Wallis carries the full weight of the curse of the script, Halsey serving astonishingly little purpose other than to have her introduction as a strong, independent and sexually liberated woman become little more than a post from which to hang the flag of Morton’s rampaging heterosexuality, a point which must always be established in a Tom Cruise film.
Further sexism is demonstrated in the method by which Boutella’s Ahmanet drains the life from victims and creates minions, kissing them to death because in the minds of men that’s what women do; while this may have worked in the context of space vampires thirty years ago in Tobe Hooper’s LifeForce such a device feels tacky in modern cinema and emphasises the low ambition of The Mummy.
Setting most of the film in the England, particularly London, it is a strong visual change from Universal’s last Mummy sequence though the rare shots of Egypt are simply beautiful, and Brian Tyler’s strong score adds a classically dramatic feel to events even if the over-reliance on digital effects undermines any hope of supernatural atmosphere with unnecessary explosions in Iraq and a veritable army of the undead marching the streets of the capital with only the eerie emptiness of Ahmanet’s tomb reminding of the origins of the tale.
Never less than magnificent to behold The Mummy is not a terrible movie but neither is it especially good, opening in shadows and mystery in flooded tombs riddling subterranean London, but intent on the blockbuster franchise end game director Alex Kurtzman and writers David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman fail to lay adequate foundations for their pyramid, and with Johnny Depp set to play the Invisible Man it seems Universal will continue betting on stars over scripts, a shameful and shortsighted waste of potential.
Neither scary enough to be a horror or with enough charisma to be an adventure film it is therefore left floundering in an enforced mediocrity which is not a patch on the 1999 Stephen Sommers predecessor to which there is a brief nod during a fight in Prodigium; while this could be simply a nice little Easter egg it could also imply the Dark Universe encompasses those earlier films, and however unlikely future cameo appearances by fan favourites Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz might be it would do wonders to improve its already tarnished appeal.
The Mummy is currently on general release and also screening in 3D and IMAX