If there is one trend that has really surged into the blood stream of the film industry, it’s the so-called ‘Cinematic Universe’. Marvel, DC, Fox, they’ve all jumped aboard the train, tearing through films like they’re stations on a prolonged line leading straight to the grand, final stop.
So Universal, figuring that they have no single property to match up to these universe’s scopes, has targeted their film library and resurrected a series of films, cemented in cinematic history, to do their own universe-building bidding. This is the ‘Dark Universe’, a world built around the classic Universal horror characters, ranging from Dracula to Frankenstein’s Monster, and even lesser known creatures of the underworld, such as the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Phantom of the Opera.
With this first instalment however, director Alex Kurtzmann and Hollywood superstar Tom Cruise have opted to revive Karl Freund and Boris Karloff’s classic horror film The Mummy (not the Brendan Fraser remake, which was a far more light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek affair).
Nevertheless, as with most adaptations and remakes in this day and age, this is not a chamber piece or baroque gothic horror story in the vein of a film such as Nosferatu. Instead, this has been specifically tailored around Cruise’s particular brand of blockbuster filmmaking: hectic action, technically ambitious and aiming straight for those of us who love throwing a handful of popcorn in our mouths.
So, like many contemporary blockbusters, The Mummy is perhaps a little too convoluted and lazy in its plotting, taking plenty of time away from the action to spell out the plot to the audience. To provide a brief synopsis of said plot, Cruise plays Nick Morton, a self-designated ‘liberator of antiquities’ (the film makes sure to constantly remind you that, in realist terms, he’s a thief). Happening upon an ancient burial site, and joined by archaeologist Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) and military sidekick Chris (Jake Johnson), Morton unintentionally awakens a great evil, the undead Egyptian princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who vows to control the world by unleashing the Egyptian God of Death ‘Set’, embroiling Morton in the process.
Now, in terms of recording that story outline, I even felt ashamed in myself, in terms of the manifest exposition overload. To start off with its weakest point, in effect, The Mummy’s screenplay is overblown and a little confused. From entire scenes of explaining the plot to Cruise’s oblivious Morton, to awkward tonal shifts and ever-fluctuating plot focuses, it’s apparent that the considerable redrafts have left The Mummy feeling a little unsure of its identity. With a total of six names attached to script and story – David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, Dylan Kussman, Jon Spaihts, Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet – The Mummy is far from consistent. One can feel David Koepp’s mitts on the opening, reminiscent of an Indiana Jones or, more recently, Breck Eisner’s Matthew McConaughey adventure film Sahara. However, this then switches up to an awkward comedy segment and eventual stunt-heavy action sequence, suggestive of the banter and action in the Mission Impossible movies and Edge of Tomorrow: this is thanks to Christopher McQuarrie, who penned both screenplays to those films. As individual elements, they can at times feel effective: the opening is particularly interesting, harkening back to the adventure serials that so heavily inspired Spielberg and Lucas with their Indiana Jones movies. However, there is never a moment where the pieces of the jigsaw fit: it comes off feeling extremely muddled, as though one were watching a highlights reel for a raft of other, more streamlined films.
However, as I have said, some of these elements are expertly handled. The action sequences, as with all of Cruise’s recent efforts, are outstanding and really lend a charge of bravura energy to an otherwise by-the-numbers horror-thriller plot. The airplane sequence, heavily televised due to its zero-g practicality, is a breath-taking scene that does not outstay its welcome. Just on the screen for the right, sweet amount of time, you’ll marvel at Cruise and Wallis’ commitment to the scene, performing their own stuntwork as they tumble and glide around the interior of the cargo plane, struggling to hold on before the plane spirals once more, sending them to the other side of the hull.
Moreover, the acting is typically charismatic and successful. Cruise dexterously handles his action beats, as well as selling his character’s relatable shock and awe at what is unfolding around him. Moreover, Russell Crowe’s appearance as a surprise character is a welcome twist and his performance is ever so slight in its frivolity: Crowe knows how to teeter on the edge of crazy, a factor that is imperative to the role he inhabits in the film.
And of course, there is Sofia Boutella, who is really coming into her own, in terms of her recent efforts on screen. With Kingsman: The Secret Service, Star Trek Beyond and now The Mummy under her belt, Boutella has embraced her physicality to a tee, perfectly utilising her body language to communicate her evil intentions and horrifying torment. With a background in dancing, it is no surprise that she can translate so well to these physically demanding roles, a brilliant inheritor of Boris Karloff’s once unmatched aptitude in creating character from movement, over language.
But again, while these performances are strong, and certain sequences are rewarding on the big screen, the lack of a strong identity really sinks the film from rising above the competition. Alex Kurtzman’s direction does not assist in proceedings. A largely lifeless vision of the world pulls down any appeal that the likes of Cruise and Boutella try to imbue into the confused screenplay. There is no visual moment or aesthetically pleasing sequence where I can recognise Kurtzman’s footprint on the film as a whole. He struggles especially within moments of horror, as the film relies heavily on the jump scare tactic that is so cheaply exploited in contemporary filmmaking. There’s just not enough personality behind the camera to sell all of the action happening in front. With a director such as Adam Wingard, the man behind the darkly comic horror/thriller films You’re Next and The Guest, or Scott Derrickson, an experienced horror filmmaker who has also dipped his feet into spectacle and action with Doctor Strange, The Mummy would have stripped itself of its undead quality and manifested some real spirit into its veins like its lead monster.
Ultimately, The Mummy is a pretty fun, technically proficient and yet excessively by-the-numbers blockbuster. There was an opportunity to work past the confines of modern blockbusters, dial down on the over-the-top action and third-act extravaganzas, honing in on a classic monster in order to flesh out these characters a little more before their inevitable conflict/assembly/shawarma gathering. But it just hasn’t come to fruition in the fresh, succinct and tightly-knit manner that the producers and director were no doubt hoping for. Keep the stars, they work well with what they’re given. Just get a screenwriter who’s willing to stick to a singular vision, and a director with experience in the horror genre, to help bring it to life. A director such as Christopher McQuarrie or Jaume Collet-Serra could have made something of the campy action here. But instead, we’re left with a film that has strong elements, but the compound solution is ultimately a bit of a mess. Too many cooks in the kitchen, at the end of the day. Typical studio mistake. Time to ease off the peddle, Universal, and let your craftsmen make something of the franchise before it sinks into the ground like many of the monsters it hopes to adapt.