The goal for many studios used to be the franchise, a series of films under the umbrella of a recognizable name with which to sell that franchise. Now, thanks in large part to the success Marvel is having, that concept of the franchise has morphed into a “cinematic universe” with any number of “franchises” coming together in a shared series of narratives to create something much larger. Some of these cinematic universes come together naturally over time, but some are forced together in order for the studio at hand to bank on an entire slate of motion picture releases. The latter tends to come off as just that, forced, and this is the area in which Universal and their idea for a “Dark Universe” seems to be residing. Their idea is to bring their classic movie monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monsters, Invisible Man, et al.) into the modern age to create an epic series of films beginning with the catalyst for their cinematic universe, The Mummy.
Aided by the presence of a bona fide, A-list star (that being Tom Cruise), The Mummy falls for every trick in the cinematic universe playbook. Despite the film’s capability for blockbuster fun, it ultimately amounts to a luxurious, state-of-the-art, beautifully constructed cart that is just being tossed around and beat to shit by the idiotic horses pulling it along. It’s a mess of a picture, one that screams “too many cooks,” but even with all that is going against it, The Mummy succeeds in a number of areas, chiefly its ability to entertain. You may not be ready for the proposed Dark Universe. You may not have even asked for it, but Universal’s idea for kickstarting a world for their movie monsters is ripe with potential, its kitchen sink attitude offering up both good and bad elements that may or may not ultimately give us something with a much larger scale.
In this modern-day retelling of The Mummy story (first seen in 1932 with Karl Freund’s The Mummy), we’re introduced to Nick Morton (Cruise), a fortune hunter who’s latest escapades have led him to Iraq. There, along with his partner-in-crime Sgt. Chris Vail (Jake Johnson), and a genuine archeologist, Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), they discover an ancient, hidden tomb, the resting place of Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella). Ahmanet’s attempt to bring the Egyptian god, Set, to the mortal world ended in disaster and the princess being buried alive thousands of years before. Naturally, the treasure hunters unearth the tomb bringing the cursed princess back to life in the modern world, and all hell proceeds to be raised with her.
As the team attempts to find and put an end to Ahmanet’s dark deeds, they uncover much more in the way of nefarious dealings in our modern-day world. The supernatural connection Nick has with the ancient princess creates a link that could be used to help capture her, but there is also a secretive order attempting to find the cursed creature as well. Led by Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), this organization is aware of the mysterious and dangerous creatures that work in the dark parts of the world, and Ahmanet may be the most dangerous creature they’ve yet faced.
The issues with The Mummy’s screenplay reveal themselves very early on in the movie. The “too many cooks” issue – I won’t list all of the screenwriters who worked on this movie, but you can see them on IMDb – give us not one but two introductions into this newfangled, cinematic universe. Much of the film’s opening is spent on exposition that establishes the ins and outs of this new world with Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll providing an abundance of voiceover narration to catch us up. If you’re ever confused by the convoluted plot, though, fear not. The film frequently drops into flashbacks for peak explanation, oftentimes going back to review a piece of information you’ve been given only a few minutes before.
Nonetheless, the screenplay bounces between set pieces in lieu of simplicity or clarity. A few occasions arise that see certain characters flipping their intentions or motivations completely around for the sake of story progression. At one point Wallis’ archeologist, who may or may not know more about this dark underworld than she initially lets on, is trying to convince Cruise’s naïve soldier of the supernatural forces at work. It’s only a few minutes later that she’s trying to convince him of the exact opposite, and, while story beats help fill these holes in logic to a certain extent, it’s all so vaguely expressed that you’d be forgiven for thinking the movie is at odds with itself.
The one element the film is not at odds with is in the way it drops and executes its action. Directed by Alex Kurtzman, himself more a screenwriter than director (his feature directorial debut was People Like Us in 2012), The Mummy utilizes the very best modern, cinematic technology has to offer, even if those action set pieces come off somewhat derivative. The first hour of The Mummy plays like a nonstop romp, each sequence moving at a brisk pace to the next, extravagant sequence loaded down with special effects and lighthearted violence. The film’s first act is anchored by a plane sequence that is nothing if not breathtaking, and it isn’t difficult to realize why Kurtzman was given the directing job in the first place.
The film’s back half delves more into world building and setup for the Dark Universe that is to come, but very little time goes by where there isn’t something exhilarating or jaw-dropping being unleashed. Cruise’s ability to poke fun at himself and play the weakling up against overpowering forces is also a welcome presence and, convoluted or not, the overall experience the movie is conveying is one of absolute entertainment. It’s also just so easy to get bogged down in how slipshod the overall narrative is.
As with 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise goes all out in the self-deprecation department. He spends much of The Mummy confused and trying to play catch-up or being comically tossed about the room by Boutella or Crowe. It doesn’t help that the role was clearly written for a younger actor, and even Cruise’s presence frequently becomes something of a distraction to the movie’s story and character development. Still, the actor’s commitment to the role is undeniable, and he’s often paying service to the supporting actors with which he shares scenes. Boutella is downright awesome as the eponymous villain, and Crowe hams it up so much you expect him to break into song at any minute. Johnson delivers casual, comic relief when necessary, but much of his role is hindered by its derivative and clichéd nature. Wallis, unfortunately, is forgettable and ultimately wasted, a clear victim of the screenwriting issues that pop up throughout the film.
Still, The Mummy, with its endless barrage of action, set pieces and impressive visual effects, ends up being a much more entertaining movie than it deserves to be. The notion that the film’s troop of screenwriters couldn’t have had a better handle on its narrative is noticeable, but Kurtzman’s abilities when it comes to blockbuster, action direction are undeniable. The Mummy succeeds in more areas than it fails, and, in this day and age of horrendous works by committee, that should be recognized as a success. Universal’s “Dark Universe” has much work to do if the cinematic world is to be viewed as much more than studio content. As it is, though, The Mummy is a fine piece of entertainment that asks you to forgive its many faults.