Following with the current state of mainstream moviemaking, this Friday Universal will begin to start laying the foundation of their new shared cinematic universe with the release of The Mummy. Perhaps realizing the narrative benefits, but more likely eying the profits that Marvel and now DC have been able to conjure with their respective cinematic superhero universes, Universal is throwing their hat in the ring with, what they have coined, The Dark Universe. The plan for this universe is to bring together the Universal classic monsters, one character (one movie) at a time, much the way that Marvel built up to the Avengers. In retrospect it was really only a matter of time before more studios shamelessly attempted to recreate this model, as Marvel studios has basically earned a license to print money with their current superhero franchise. However, this monster mash-up isn’t a complete brazen cash grab, or at very least solely existing to mimic what other studios have found success with. The Universal monsters have been around now for nearly a century and have appeared together in several cross-over films dating all the way back to the 40’s. One could argue that it was in fact Universal that invented the shared universe model through their classic monsters franchise. Furthermore, after being so well established for such a remarkable period of time, it could be said that in current pop culture characters like Dracula and Frankenstein are just as recognizable, if not more so, than some of our most beloved superheroes. These characters have gained a widespread and diverse fan base, since first they appeared on the screen, through their constant reinvention in the years that followed. Whether they were raised on the 1930’s classic era movies, fell in love with the Hammer monster films beginning in the 50’s or, like most of the younger generation today, was indoctrinated through Brendon Fraser’s Mummy movies, chances are that many moviegoers have, at least, some sort of affinity for the classic monster characters. All this to say, the idea of The Dark Universe is most likely an intriguing concept for many fans out there. But with such potential for this shared forum much responsibility is stacked upon the first bricks to be laid down, in this case Friday’s release of the Mummy. So with that, the question on every moviegoers mind will undoubtedly be, how strong is this first building block? The answer, unfortunately, is not very. Not only does this come as a disappointing for the obvious reason that it doesn’t bode well for Universal’s grand plans, but more intimately because their was actually a good movie in the Mummy that ultimately succumbed to formula.
After a routine prologue introducing ancient Egyptian princess and future undead mummy Ahmanet, played by Sofia Boutella (Star Trek Beyond), things start off promising in present day Iraq with fellow soldiers Nick (Tom Cruise, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation) and Chris (Jake Johnson, Jurassic World), the bumbling pair who stumble across an ancient tomb kicking off the Mummy’s story. Let me stop here for one indulgence. No matter your opinion of the man Tom Cruise, based off of any personal beliefs, strange couch destroying Oprah interviews or anything in between, I don’t think that anyone can argue against the fact that his screen presence oozes with charisma. Perhaps I’m holding on a little too tightly to the 80’s classics like Top Gun or am too taken aback with a man who still performs all of his own stunts but, as you may have guessed, I’m somewhat of an unapologetic Cruise fan. Those like me will be rewarded (at least for a time) right off the bat with Cruise’s high-energy portrayal of Nick. The character works great beside Johnson’s Chris who displays his signature subdued comic skepticism and both show immediate and humorous chemistry. In fact, this is one of the only areas where the film actually outdoes it’s immediate predecessor. In preparation for The Mummy I revisited several previous installations, including the 99’ Brendan Fraser vehicle. What struck me upon coming back to that film after several years was its rather unbalanced tone. At times so silly that it appears seemingly made for children but at others so frightening (and graphic) as to assure that it most certainly wasn’t. This recent offering remedies this issue by being spooky when it needs to be and funny when it needs to be, but more importantly balancing the two.
One of the films most promising devices is set up when Chris is infected, for lack of a better word, with a curse upon uncovering the Mummy. This curse ends up leading him to his death only to return as a decrepit zombie that only Nick can see. Chris becomes a sort of haunting figure for Nick that constantly advises him against his better judgment. The relationship between the two is elevated to an even more humorous and offbeat level and calls back to one of the best parts of another monster classic An American Werewolf in London.
Another of the films intriguing ideas comes about as a sort of curse is also inflicted upon Nick. However, in his case he is affected by attacks on his physiological state. Nick begins to have visions that blend time and space leaving the audience never quite sure what is actually happening and what isn’t. This has an intriguing effect on the story but is unfortunately not allowed to play out to fruition.
The real trouble begins at about the midway mark, when the picture comes to a screeching halt during a would be great chase/fight scene, as Nick and female lead Jenny (Annabelle Wallis, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) are saved from the hands of Ahmanet by a dues ex machina turn of events. Nick, Jenny and the mummy are brought to a secret facility that is home to a group of covert archeologists, led by Henry (Russell Crowe, The Nice Guys). One has to wonder whether Universal intends that this organization be their equivalent of Marvel’s shield as from that point on far too much time is spent in the secret facility, giving background to this mysterious organization. All the excitement that proceeded is sucked out of the picture and the psychological aspects that Nick has been facing as well as Chris’ character pretty much completely disappear for the remainder of the film. It’s almost as though the studio let filmmaker Alex Kurtzman have free reign on half the movie, for the most part, before they stepped in and claimed the second half for their own. The film culminates in a trivial climax that incorporates all the movie tropes that scream generic studio film.
The Mummy ends up as a disappointment on multiple levels. Not only does it’s overall quality, or lack thereof, not bode well for the Dark Universe, but it had all the fixings for a good bit of entertainment before squandering them for routine. I think that the lesson here, which is one that DC recently learned (hopefully) the hard way, is that the first movies to lay the foundation for a shared universe should perhaps have more of a narrow rather than a wide focus. In the end isn’t it best to simply build off of a good movie?
P.S. A piece of useful trivia for all those still planning a trip to the Dark Universe. I know what you thinking, because I was thinking it too, but despite that fact that this film is attempting to set up a multi-film and character spanning universe, there is no post-credit glimpse of what’s to come. I learned the hard way. You’re welcome.
Universal Pictures releases The Mummy on Friday, June 9, 2017