In this era of expanded and shared cinematic universes, I’m genuinely surprised that it’s taken the Universal Monsters franchise this long to return to the spotlight. (After all, films like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and House of Frankenstein were mashing up different franchises for more than 50 years before the Avengers were in one film together.) But now Universal Studios has finally dusted the cobwebs off of their classic monsters as part of their “Dark Universe” series of films. Kicking off that venture is The Mummy, an awkward mixture of high-octane action filmmaking and old-school creature-feature horror that’s a very uneven, moderately entertaining start to the franchise.
The film centers on Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), a black market treasure hunter who stumbles upon the tomb of the evil Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) in Iraq. While Morton explores the tomb with archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), he unknowingly reawakens Ahmanet, releasing her evil on the world again. When Morton miraculously survives a plane crash while transporting Ahmanet’s mummy to London, he awakens to learn that he is part of her plan to complete her dark ritual and plunge the world into darkness. With the help of Halsey and the mysterious Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe), Morton must find a way to permanently destroy Ahmanet and end the curse she put on him.
The Mummy clumsily walks a fine line between enjoyable popcorn flick and bloated schlock. In many ways, it’s similar to the less venerated Universal Monsters sequels (think The Mummy’s Hand or Revenge of the Creature), banking on your fondness for creepy monsters doing creepy things to make you look past the rather predictable plot. For the most part, The Mummy operates on that admittedly shallow level, providing enough grotesque action to look past the brainless dialogue that we’ve come to expect in most summer blockbuster scripts.
Despite being a genre hybrid, The Mummy leans almost entirely toward action rather than conventional horror. Universal Monster purists will likely find much to dislike with this approach, as the subdued creepiness of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi has been replaced by an over reliance on cheap jump scares and mediocre tension building. But there are moments of horror greatness just begging to be explored. Sure, there are zombies, ravens and rats aplenty, but the movie can’t seem to embrace these horror elements properly, and I can’t help but suspect that these scenes are grafted on from an earlier horror-oriented treatment for this project.
The generic plot is buoyed by a cast that’s completely game for the brainless movie. Cruise is doing his usual shtick; you’ll likely love it or hate it based on your fondness for Cruise’s past roles. Crowe’s role as Dr. Jekyll seems to be the Nick Fury of the Dark Universe. Crowe emphasizes the mysterious side of his character, and when he gets to play Mr. Hyde, it’s incredible how entertainingly hammy he is, especially since he usually plays the straight man in most of his roles.
But the knockout performance was delivered by Boutella’s Ahmanet. Boutella gives the mummy a sense of dark humanity that I haven’t seen in the character since Boris Karloff’s rendition in the 1932 original.
Unfortunately, not every character is as fun as Ahmanet, especially not Halsey or Sergeant Vail, Morton’s friend played by Jake Johnson. Halsey serves as the obligatory love interest for Morton, and to say that they have any chemistry whatsoever would be generous. Their relationship is largely insignificant, but when it becomes important at the film’s climax, it’s cringeworthy.
Johnson, on the other hand, is actually rather enjoyable as the film’s comic relief, playing the Griffin Dunne to Cruise’s David Naughton. But there’s a major lack of tonal consistency to Vail that could be ignored if he didn’t frequently provide important information for the film’s plot, serving as an important plot device. All in all, The Mummy never quite strikes that balance of horror and comedy that films like An American Werewolf in London had.
The biggest issue that the film has is its role as the launching point for Universal’s new franchise. The Mummy must bear the burden of frequent exposition dumps and allusions to plot points that will likely unfold in future films. For instance, the film has a huge backstory reveal within the first 15 minutes of the film that completely stops the pacing dead in its tracks. Furthermore, much of Dr. Jekyll’s role is simply that of puppet master; he guides character actions and provides extended plot explanations but never comes across as a character in his own right. Much of this is the cost of that cross-film cinematic universe-building, but it’s still a definite dark mark on an otherwise straightforward and fast-paced script.
Much like its titular monster, The Mummy is creepy and thrilling at times, but mostly shuffles awkwardly from scene to scene. It frequently struggles to balance its two distinct genres, and is never quite able to satisfy action junkies or horror fanatics. In many ways, it’s not a particularly well-made film, but it scratched a certain cinematic itch for me. Big-budget monster movies are rare these days, and while The Mummy largely fails to live up to its potential, it is somewhat entertaining and could springboard better movies in the future.