Universal’s answer to Warner Brothers’ MonsterVerse—which aims to update critters like Godzilla and King Kong to appeal to modern taste—is the umbrella franchise Dark Universe, devoted to refashioning the studio’s classic horror flicks for today’s audiences. This represents the initial offering in the series, directed by Alex Kurtzman (who oversees the entire project). It is not an auspicious start.
“The Mummy” has been haunting theatres for eighty-five years now, ever since the seminal, hauntingly dreamlike Karl Freund-Boris Karloff creep-fest of 1932. That spawned a number of indifferent sequels (including, inevitably, “Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy” in 1955) before Hammer revived the series, in its stylishly gory fashion, in 1959 with house stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Again the sequels paled, however, and the franchise lay dormant until it was unearthed by Universal in 1999 with Stephen Sommers’ splashy, Indiana Jones-inspired series starring Brendan Fraser. That limped along for three installments (and a bunch of dreadful direct-to-video spinoffs) before biting the dust.
Now Kurtzman takes up the torch, refashioning the property (in collaboration with screenwriters David Koepff, Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman) as an action-packed summer vehicle for Tom Cruise. It shares virtually nothing with Freund’s atmospheric masterpiece (or Terence Fisher’s Hammer entry) save the title, but resembles Sommers’ 1999 picture to some extent in being a big, blustery, jokey special-effects-laden extravaganza that delivers few thrills and even fewer chills.
Cruise is Nick Morton, a cheeky rogue serving as an advance scout with the US army in Iraq. Along with his aide Sergeant Vail (Jake Johnson) he not only reports on insurgent troop movements to their superior Colonel Greenway (Courtney B. Vance), but searches for antiquities to steal and sell. That sort of plundering is okay, though, because the insurgents would destroy the precious objects and…well, Cruise flashes his charming smile a lot.
The duo’s latest quest brings them under insurgent assault—the movie’s first big action sequence—and the airstrike that saves them also uncovers a huge underground tomb, whose Egyptian character seems wildly out-of-place near Mosul. It turns out to be the resting-place of evil Egyptian princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who—as we are shown in a prologue—murdered her father, his second wife and their son but was captured before she could mate with her “chosen one,” with whom she intended to rule forever after merging him with the immortal god Seth. She was such a nasty piece of work that the Egyptians mummified her alive and then buried her as far away from the Nile as possible.
Now, however, Nick and Vail, along with spunky British archaeologist Jenny Wells (Annabelle Wallis) and an army contingent, retrieve Ahmanet’s sarcophagus and try to fly it back to safety. Unfortunately a supernatural sandstorm and a flock of menacing birds or bats (the CGI frankly isn’t good enough to distinguish) bring the plane down, and Nick dies in the crash. Not to worry, though: being Tom Cruise, he comes back to life, revived by Ahmanet, who has been released from her tomb and rejuvenates herself gradually by sucking out the life force from anybody she happens upon. She has selected Nick as her new “chosen one,” and he comes under her sway—on and off, at least. Cruise, in other words, increasingly comes to be controlled by someone other than L. Ron Hubbard.
At this point the movie becomes one long chase in which Ahmanet tries to get her hands on Nick while he and Jenny try to evade—and destroy—her. For some reason Vail, though dead, reappears periodically to help his friend, like the deceased pal in “An American Werewolf in London.” There is also a recently-discovered catacomb beneath London, where a bunch of twelfth-century crusader knights lie entombed (that blasted prologue dates the burials to 1127, though it also mentions the Second Crusade, which didn’t begin until 1147), and they will be revivified to serve Ahmanet, though why they should do so is never explained. Relocating the action to England, however, allows for some extravagant special effects depicting the demolition of portions of the metropolis (moments that are a mite unseemly in view of recent terrorist attacks), but also permits the introduction of another classic character, Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), who still suffers from his old malady but is nonetheless head of the agency for which Wells works, a secretive outfit that apparently has the mandate to deal with supernatural e-v-i-l wherever it rears its ugly head, and so has taken charge of the Ahmanet situation.
None of this makes a lick of sense, of course—and thus far we’ve ignored the stuff about a ruby that apparently confers Seth’s immortality when joined with the sacrificial sword in which it must be implanted, and the princess intends to use on Nick—but even the most rudimentary logic will not be obligatory for those for viewers content with cascades of mindless action and some grisly shock effects, which are, after all, the movie’s main selling points. Certainly Cruise looks fit and does all the required running and fighting with practiced aplomb, and he can still flash the famous grin that’s enchanted audiences ever since “Risky Business.” (And in truth it’s good to see him in something more lighthearted than the Jack Reacher movies.) But watching him get bounced around repeatedly by Boutella, whose leering, slinking presence is a single-note bore, gets tiresome after awhile, and Wallis doesn’t add much to the mix beyond a prim British propriety. Johnson’s periodic zombie-ish reappearances aren’t particularly amusing, either. Crowe, however, throws caution to the winds and embraces the cartoonish aspects of the Jekyll character, giving a zany turn that only emphasizes how ludicrous the presence of the not-so-good doctor is in this context.
“The Mummy” exemplifies the sort of second-tier special effects work commonplace nowadays: if you’ve seen previous Universal monster flicks that were not a part of the “Dark Universe” franchise—things like “The Wolfman” or “Dracula: The Untold Story”—you’ll know what to expect. Ben Seresin’s cinematography can’t do much with the many dark, gloomy sequences in which the effects dominate, and he seems relieved when given the chance to feast on Jekyll’s office, which production designers Jon Hutman and Dominic Watkins and set decorators Jille Azis, Daniel Birt and Liz Griffiths have lavished their skill upon.
One assumes that the people involved in this project—particularly Kurtzman—harbor a degree of affection for the older properties they are rejuvenating. That isn’t evident from this inaugural entry in their universe, though; it simply exhibits a willingness to dumb down the material to pander to the lowest expectations of today’s mass market. The result is monstrous, but in all the wrong ways.
At least it’s better than “Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.” Or maybe not: this “Mummy” should never have been unwrapped.