For a stretch of The Mummy, Tom Cruise’s Nick Morton asks over and over, “That’s really your plan?” like he just can’t believe it. And that’s essentially my reaction to Universal’s latest attempt to kick off their “Dark Universe” where they reboot all their classic monster movie properties with modern action spectacle trappings. 2014’s Dracula Untold was a failed first endeavor, and I can’t help but wonder if this uninspiring re-launch will meet a similar fate.
I’m not going to say this is an ill-advised venture, especially because I actually love the idea of a connected universe of big, fun adventure movies full of those iconic cinematic creatures. Not everything needs to be a sprawling, Marvel-esque world, but what the hell, it’s going to happen anyway, and I’ve heard way worse ideas. Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy, however, is not a great start. It’s like the Brendan Fraser re-do, only with less adventure, grandeur, and smarts. (Yeah, I know.)
An unnecessarily convoluted plot boils down to Tom Cruise—as previously mentioned, his character goes by the moniker Nick Morton, but really plays Tom Cruise—unleashes an angry ancient mummy, Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), and must rectify his mistake so she doesn’t wreak all manner of havoc and chaos upon the world. He attempts to accomplish this chiefly by sprinting away from various threats in true Tom Cruise fashion and looking completely dumfounded. Along for the ride are a generic damsel-in-distress love interest (Annabelle Wallis) and a wacky sidekick (Jake Johnson), who spends most of the movie as a ghost only Nick can see.
The script from David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dylan Kussman (as well as three additional individuals with “screen story by” credits) does everything possible to make Nick unlikable. He’s a philanderer, a petty thief, and the whole basis of the character is that he steals antiquities and sells them on the black market. Cruise clearly has a good time playing a bit of an ass, but that’s all he really is: a tepid jerk who’s really not that bad and a watered-down, PG-13 version of a person who would do these things in real life.
There’s no way around it, The Mummy is dumb. For a moment in the middle, it appears to know just how dumb it actually is and that it’s going to steer into the skid. That could have been a blast. Cruise is affable enough, though his star doesn’t shine as bright as usual; Johnson does his shtick, which I enjoy, especially as he doesn’t often overstay his welcome from scene to scene; and some of the action isn’t bad. There’s a kickass underwater scene, and Tom Cruise fist fighting a cadre of headless undead corpses is as entertaining as it sounds. (Some of the action, however, does not measure up.)
The characters are nothing. Especially the women, who have little to work with. Wallis exists so Nick can pull her out of one perilous situation after another. When Boutella has free reign to chew on the scenery and unleash her powers as the over-the-top creature, she’s actually pretty fun to watch. Unfortunately, she spends most of the movie chained up or otherwise restrained to the point where the whole thing feels like an allegory for society’s hatred and subjugation of strong, smart, powerful women. (And like the movie thinks that’s supposed to be a good thing? Maybe I’m just making that up, but Kurtzman is a well-known 9/11 truther, so I can’t put anything past him.)
There’s no emotional investment in any element of the film, but this still could have been a big, goofy summer adventure. Instead, however, it’s soooo boring. The Mummy starts with leaden exposition and voice over from Russell Crowe’s Dr. Henry Jekyll (yep) then moves immediately into more exposition, and frequently takes breaks for even more plodding explanations. In fact, every time Crowe shows up on screen, the momentum dies as he yammers on endlessly, expounding on faux-deep ideas about the nature of evil and similar tedious nonsense. Even Jekyll’s action scene sucks.
Worse still, this heavy-handed approach to world-building where they detail every last thing is unnecessary. As Nick first enters Prodigium—the central base for what is sure to house a cadre of future monster fighters in the Dark Universe—he sees a vampire skull, a preserved hand that looks suspiciously like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and more nods to classic monsters we’re slated to see on-screen soon.
That strategy actually works pretty well to create the sense that there’s a much larger world with much more going on than meets the eye. But spelling it all out in minute detail no only kills the pace, it shows an inherent distrust in the audience to make those connections on our own. I don’t expect a ton of subtlety and nuance in a big budget studio tentpole with six writers, but it feels like they’re saying we’re too dumb to understand what’s going on.
Mindless is one thing, but stupid and regressive are something else entirely. We get glimpses of what The Mummy could have been, but what we ultimately see is bland at best, and tedious and distasteful at worst. Universal pinned big hopes and dreams to this, but I don’t see any world where Wonder Woman doesn’t crush it into oblivion at the box office this weekend, and rightly so. The studio has grand plans, but if The Mummy crashes and burns, it’ll be back to the drawing board, where they’ve already been multiple times trying to launch this world. [Grade: C-]