By Diego Cagara
Tom Cruise, noted action film star and unfortunate victim of typecasting, stands center stage in “The Mummy” but not even his trademark good looks, physicality and iconic status could save this film which hit theaters on June 9.
Serving as a reboot of “The Mummy” franchise which actually originated in 1932, it is meant to be the first of a series of films by Universal Pictures in what is called the Dark Universe, a shared universe in which famous classic monsters from the 1920s to the 1950s like Frankenstein’s monster, Count Dracula and Wolf Man will be revived for modern audiences. But judging from the quality of “The Mummy,” this overall ambitious project could be in peril, much like how 2016’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” infamously caused the DC Extended Universe to stumble.
The film begins with an all-too-familiar backstory of Princess Ahmanet (portrayed by Algerian actress Sofia Boutella) in ancient Egypt, an era that has long stimulated Hollywood’s interest. Originally first in line for the throne, she becomes threatened when her father and his new wife produce a son, pushing her to make a deal with Set, one of the gods, who would guarantee her throne as long as he is given a body to inhabit like a vessel. When her plans are interrupted and she is doomed to be buried alive as punishment, the film jumps centuries ahead to modern-day Iraq where her tomb is accidentally discovered, leading to Ahmanet to awaken and wreak havoc.
Cruise stars as Indiana Jones-esque antiquities-enthusiast Nick Morton who, with his friend, Chris Vail (played by Jake Johnson), inadvertently stumble across her tomb. Annabelle Wallis plays Morton’s love interest and archaeologist. While the film strives to create sexual tension and for the audience to root for them, there regrettably was not enough chemistry to achieve them. Veteran thespian Russell Crowe plays the legendary dual role of Dr. Henry Jekyll and Mr. Edward Hyde, head of Prodigium, a secret organization that studies evil forces and protects society from them. This character’s appearance clearly was meant to help set up the Dark Universe too, his origins remaining unexplained.
The film’s first hour felt inviting, if one can overlook the overdone origin story, with the gorgeous sandy landscape of Namibia portraying modern-day Iraq, Sofia Boutella’s exotic features painting a convincing ancient Egyptian princess and Tom Cruise’s determination to win audiences over. The action segments during this hour were exhilarating as the three mortal characters have to face much gunfire, explosions, a literal swarm of camel spiders and seemingly possessed crows, and a plane crash. It felt like a live-action video game done right, in the like of the PlayStation’s “Uncharted” and “Tomb Raider” series.
The quality starts to flail when the characters reach London and the basis of Prodigium feels very similar to Marvel’s SHIELD in the sense of its shared mission to protect the public and its mutually modern-looking headquarters. Thus, begins an exodus of saturated CGI-heavy sequences: a sandstorm licking its way through London, the destruction of buildings, the rise of once-dead Crusaders, and Ahmanet being revived and leading the assault. Dr. Jekyll’s transformation into Mr. Hyde feels forced because the audience had met him for only five minutes, and the struggle for Morton to save him feels like a parody as Mr. Hyde continuously taunts him with a poorly-written script. The scene was arguably the most cringe-worthy moment of the film.
The film lacks a sense of humor too, which Jake Johnson’s character was meant to uphold but falls flat instead. His “bro talk” and frequent appearances throughout all attempted to inject comical dialogue to this film but ironically, they only emphasize how much of a dispensable sidekick he comes across as.
On the other hand, Morton is likable to a degree and his hand-to-hand combat proves useful whenever he fends off the undead, recalling how Brendan Fraser himself excelled in that regard in the popular 1999-2008 incarnation of the series. The film itself maintains its horror undertone with several notable jump scares, Ahmanet’s disturbing motive and the overall grotesque-looking undead. The camel spiders from the film’s first hour were nightmare-inducing monsters indeed.
Director Alex Kurtzman does his best to make the film work but it could cause nostalgic viewers to return home to their TVs and rewatch the 1999-2008 films instead which starred Fraser, Rachel Weisz and Oded Fehr. Those films, with unforgettable action scenes and contemporary CGI effects, always seem to be on repeat on TV anyways.
Being a reboot, it raises the question of whether Hollywood has become too dependent on reboots and remakes these days. Some like Disney’s live-action remakes and the recent “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” films are successful while others like 2016’s “Ghostbusters” and “Independence Day: Resurgence” slumped. Tom Cruise’s status as a leading man is also challenged in recent years, except for the 2011 and 2016 “Mission Impossible” films, and this film did little to boost his status.
“The Mummy” is like a hollow sarcophagus. On the outside, it looks ambitious, enthralling and fantastical. But upon accessing it, its contents reveal nothing worthy of interest.
The film certainly was intended to be the first film in a seemingly impressive shared universe but with its disjointed storylines, subpar script, dizzying CGI effects and no characters to genuinely root for, it perhaps should have been left unearthed. The next film, “Bride of Frankenstein” comes out on Valentine’s Day in 2019 and Johnny Depp, another actor whose leading man power has been challenged recently, will lead the still-untitled Invisible Man film down the line.
Michael Hallisey is Managing Editor of Spotlight Newspapers.