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The Mummy (2017)

Does anybody else remember Dracula Untold? I do. Not the film itself, of course — it was so drab, grey, and deliberately uninspired that there really wasn’t anything worth remembering. But I do distinctly recall that Dracula Untold was supposed to be the beginning of a massive Universal Monsters superfranchise before it failed to get the numbers it needed. Luckily, that movie was so unmemorable and did so little world-building that it could be swept under the rug very easily.

So it was that Universal took the Mummy film in development at the time and rejiggered it to be the true beginning of the Universal Monsters superfranchise. And this time, they went all-out. They hired such A-list stars as Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe for the inaugural outing, while tapping Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man and Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s Monster for future installments. Word has it that Universal is going after Angelina Jolie and Dwayne Johnson to respectively play Frankenstein’s Bride and The Wolfman.

And for the cherry on top, Universal commissioned a new pre-credits bumper scored by none other than Danny Elfman himself, marking all films under the newly christened “Dark Universe.”

So regardless of how The Mummy (2017) does, we’re getting more. There’s no sweeping this under the rug. There’s too much work, money, and publicity poured into this venture to pull out now. The bad news is, Universal will likely have to throw a lot of good money after bad, course-correcting this wet fart into something worth all the effort of making and sitting through. The good news is that course-correcting should be surprisingly easy, as the film is a totally forgettable bore that leaves nothing accomplished, and all the copious screen time given to world-building is nothing but so much hot air that doesn’t really tell us anything at all.

Let’s start with what works: The film wants for nothing. The production design is impeccable from start to finish, with jaw-dropping sets and impressive costume design. It’s a gorgeous-looking film… or it would be, if it wasn’t for the multitude of crappy day-for-night shots and cut-rate CGI.

As for the Mummy herself, Sofia Boutella is an outstanding new talent, and casting her to play a more seductive monster was a brilliant reinvention of the character. Plus, Ahmanet is a young woman who was promised a kingdom until her father had a son, so she made a deal with the devil to kill her family and take power for herself. That’s a legitimately compelling backstory, such that we can understand where this monster comes from in a way that doesn’t diminish how evil she is. Additionally, this mummy can drain the fluids and flesh of other people to restore her own strength (as with Imhotep of the ’99 reboot), and her victims become mummies that she can command as henchmen. It’s a neat touch. Really, if it wasn’t for the useless and ridiculous “two pupils in each eye” thing, this would be a genuinely great interpretation of the monster.

(Side note: Keep an eye out for a very prominent Easter egg that pays homage to the ’99 reboot.)

Then we have our hero. Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) is a soldier in Iraq who routinely goes off-mission to steal priceless antiquities, rescuing them from destruction to sell on the black market. Unfortunately, when he unearths the sarcophagus keeping our supernatural villain imprisoned, he learns that the warnings surrounding her weren’t just for show. He’s now cursed, subject to hallucinations and hypnotic commands from the very evil he’s trying to fight.

Again, it’s a great setup. The war-torn Middle East, where relics as old as humanity itself are under constant threat of getting destroyed as collateral damage, makes for an ingenious backdrop to set a Mummy film against. Additionally, ancient curses are such a ubiquitous part of the lore that putting our protagonist under such a curse for disturbing the villain makes all kinds of sense. So how does it go wrong?

Well, to start with, Tom Cruise barely seems like he’s trying. The filmmakers are clearly going for a rough-and-tumble adventurous scoundrel, like Nathan Drake or Brendan Fraser’s old character. Instead, Cruise sleepwalks through yet another rerun of Ethan Hunt. What makes it even worse is that a male hero who’s inherently likeable and charming no matter how much shit he pulls should fit squarely into Cruise’s wheelhouse. Instead, Cruise is consistently undercut by a script that makes his character into a totally irredeemable asshole. The filmmakers were clearly depending on Cruise’s charm to salvage the character, but it simply wasn’t enough.

Then we have the female lead (the one who isn’t undead, I mean). Again, this character had potential. Annabelle Wallis is a perfectly capable performer, and she seems like a fine choice to play a credible archaeologist.

(Side note: Say what you will about Cruise, but it’s an outstanding trend that so many of his movies have powerful female leads. Just look at Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow, Rebecca Ferguson in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, Rosamund Pike and Cobie Smulders in the Jack Reacher films, etc.)

The problem is, she contributes nothing to the plot. She gets kidnapped, and she’s a font of bad exposition, and that’s about it. Such a waste.

Exposition is a huge problem with this picture, which is spectacularly unforgivable. We’ve got the psychic connection between our hero and our villain. Our hero is haunted by the spirit of his comic relief sidekick (Chris Vail, played by Jake Johnson, who sadly doesn’t get killed off nearly soon enough). We’ve got gorgeous props and set pieces with inscriptions to be translated. There are so many amazing and enthralling devices for exposition, and they are all totally squandered. What we get instead are massive expository monologues, conveying all the necessary information in the most blunt and boring way possible, often repeating what was already made perfectly clear before.

Which brings us at last to the Prodigium. This is the secret organization led by Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) for the purpose of unifying the Dark Universe films. Instead, the Prodigium takes up what feels like half the screen time, spinning its wheels as Crowe talks a lot while explaining nothing. All we really get is a bunch of self-defeating nonsense about how there is good and there is evil, and evil must be defeated through whatever hypocritical means are necessary, and there’s nothing more specific about precisely what constitutes “evil”. That’s seriously all we get.

For comparison’s sake, let’s look at some other cinematic superfranchises.

  • Marvel: SHIELD is there to get the Avengers together, and then the Avengers get to face off against Thanos in an adaptation of the epic Infinity Gauntlet storyline.
  • DC: Batman pulls together the Justice League so they can eventually face off against a looming invasion from Darkseid.
  • Monsterverse: Godzilla takes on King Kong before facing Mothra, Rodan, and motherfucking King Ghidorah.

With Dark Universe, what do we have? What are we so badly waiting for that we would sit through so many disparate movies and franchises? There’s no mention of a team-up down the line, no looming catastrophe, not even a mention of Van Helsing. All we get is a whole lot of meaningless talk about “evil”, a few clumsy Easter eggs, and a resolution so half-assed that it opens more questions than it resolves. Seriously, if this vague and boring Prodigium is the best hook you’ve got, you can fuck right off.

It sucks because there are so many times when I can so clearly see what the filmmakers were going for. When the movie actually focuses on the titular mummy, that ideal blend of action and horror is just barely within reach. Alas, because the characters are so thin, the plot is so predictable, and the timing is utterly fucked, every single joke and scare falls flat.

As for the action, it’s outright pathetic. That airplane crash is the one getting all the promotion, and rightly so, because it’s the only one that was put together with any kind of creativity or effort. Yet it also breaks the film, as Nick’s curse allows him to walk away without a scratch. After that, I’m supposed to believe that anything could seriously harm him? To repeat, fuck right off.

A lot of these complaints come back to hiring Alex Kurtzman as the director. This is the same guy who helped to bring us the live-action Transformers films, the Star Trek reboot, Cowboys and Aliens… basically, he and former partner Roberto Orci specialize in CGI blockbusters generic enough to court all four quadrants without offending anyone. I’d say that the decision to hire him would be exactly the sort of thing that could only seem like a good idea to a corporate executive, but even that doesn’t check out — if you’re trying to get a shared cinematic universe off the ground, why the fuck would you hire one of the writer/producers who already tried and failed to do precisely that with The Amazing Spider-Man 2?!

The Mummy (2017) is a self-made failure. The characters are either thinly developed or hopelessly unsympathetic. Aside from the fabulous production design, the visuals are shit. The plot is predictable, bogged down in exposition, and pitifully constructed. The filmmakers spend a lot of screen time into building a world, but put so little effort into it that the “Dark Universe” has all the depth and complexity of a cardboard facade. The filmmakers barely even try at giving us a reason to wait for the next Mummy film, much less all the other Dark Universe films.

But what really hurts most of all is that the premise is legitimately good. The titular mummy herself is easily the best thing about this movie. Such a damn shame that the setups were clumsily executed and the film never even tries at giving us a worthy payoff. As with Dracula Untold, I just wish the Universal execs would get out of their own goddamn way and let talented filmmakers draw us into this world instead of trying to force it down our throats.

As I said before, we’re probably getting more Dark Universe films whether this one succeeds at the box office or not. Until one comes along to redeem this whole enterprise, don’t even bother.

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