Here it is, folks – we’re in the Dark Universe now. And its future is not looking too bright.
With the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, everyone’s been trying to build inter-film continuities in their major franchises. 2017’s The Mummy is the flagship film of the ostentatiously-titled Dark Universe, in which all the monsters from Universal’s classic 1930s films – Frankenstein, Dracula, The Invisible Man, and so on – are interconnected in one big, synergistic, marketable series.
To that end, The Mummy has a lot of groundwork to cover – it has to set up this Universe and its infrastructure, establish the tone of several as-yet-unreleased films, and also serve as a rollicking horror-adventure in its own right. It should serve as no surprise, then, that The Mummy ends up as three different films fighting for screen time, serving none of them well.
The Mummy’s first few minutes are rough, whiplashing around a series of clunky flashbacks with little rhyme or reason. First it’s Crusades-era England for some context-free foreshadowing, then off to present-day London for the discovery of a long-lost tomb of Crusader Knights unearthed and investigated by Universal’s SHIELD analogue, Prodigium, which is headed by Russell Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll. (Wait, was Jekyll even a Universal monster? Why is he here?)
Only after this does the film finally get around to the prerequisite flashback to Ancient Egypt, in which the tragic tale of Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) is told – she was set to rule Egypt, until her father sired a son who would take the throne over her. Not one to be undone, she calls upon the powers of the Egyptian god of death, Set, to help her kill her family, but is stopped, cursed, and mummified before she can unleash Set upon the world through a male human host.
Thankfully, after that self-serious intro, The Mummy kicks into high gear with a first act that shows some genuine promise. We’re introduced to Tom Cruise’s Nick Morton, a laconic military officer/Three Kings-style plunderer, along with his loudmouth partner-in-crime Chris Vail (Jake Johnson), as they blunder their way through a terrorist-occupied city in Mesopotamia. It’s in these scenes that The Mummy crackles with the kind of pulpy energy that elevated Stephen Sommers’ swashbuckling 1999 version; Johnson and Cruise have a fun rapport, and the film isn’t shy of poking holes in Cruise’s larger-than-life on-screen persona.
Quickly getting into trouble, they call in an airstrike that reveals the mysterious tomb of Ahmanet, buried in a lake of mercury (as mercury wards off evil spirits, you see). They, along with archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), unearth Ahmanet’s sarcophagus, load it onto a cargo plane set for London, and if you’ve seen the film’s ever-present trailers, you pretty much know where it goes from here. Ahmanet uses her powers to crash the plane, but helpfully curses Nick beforehand – he’s lined up to become the new conduit for Set’s return, Ahmanet’s ‘beloved,’ and she won’t stop until she gets him. Until then, he effectively can’t die … probably. It’s difficult to discern the nuances of The Mummy’s curse, and the film doesn’t seem to understand them either.
Luckily for this groaner of a film, it has Cruise to do a lot of the heavy lifting. While he’s always been a wryly intense screen presence, The Mummy lets him have a little more fun than usual. He’s basically giving a Bruce Campbell performance as the unlucky, unscrupulous guy caught in the middle of a cosmic event he doesn’t understand. Cruise gets plenty of chances to run, jump, and crack wise, a good anchor for even the blandest of action-horror fare; moments like when he’s accidentally tickled as Ahmanet manhandles him are welcome bits of brightness. Along with Johnson and Boutella (who’s fantastic, and frankly underused, as Ahmanet), Cruise’s charms make the lighter portions of the film work.
(Read: Tom Cruise’s Top 10 Performances)
Unfortunately, The Mummy’s true curse is that it’s doomed to sacrifice its moments of fun, breezy spectacle for overwrought world-building. The film’s second act practically rips the main characters out of The Mummy film you’ve been watching for a jarring pit stop to introduce the rest of the Dark Universe, complete with background shots of vampire skulls and pickled Black Lagoon creature hands. Nick is introduced to Dr. Jekyll, the two talk a bit about the universe of evil they live in, and there are even a few teases of Mr. Hyde. Then Ahmanet escapes Prodigium and the chase begins anew, leaving the audience to wonder why it or the film even bothered.
Somewhere in the rotting bones of The Mummy, there’s a breezy, earnestly pulpy action-horror film in the vein of Sommers’ breezy 1999 blockbuster. Unfortunately, that film dies in the first act, and what arises from its tomb is a bloated mess, one too concerned with franchise requirements to have enough fun with its silly premise. Just ditch Wallis’ lazily developed love interest in favor of Cruise and Johnson’s comic tandem at the center, jettison the creaky Dark Universe teases, and you might have had a stew going.