When it came to the studios realising that they needed to jump on this shared universe franchise nonsense or die on their respective asses, you have to give Universal credit for thinking they could do with their roster of monsters what Marvel/Disney have done with their superheroes. Or maybe they thought “hang on one goddam minute! We’ve done this before: House of Frankenstein mixed up most of the classic Universal monsters along with House of Dracula and a few Abbot and Costellos meet ups thrown in for good measure. We’re old hands at this shared universe malarkey, all we need is a big star, a similar action approach to horror as the last three mummy movies and an inexperienced director without a strong vision: we are laughing.”
Clearly no one is laughing now.
In and of itself The Mummy is a perfectly fine summer blockbuster, there’s lots of interesting and well staged action, Tom Cruise, as usual, gives it his all and there’s plenty of cgi. If this was, in fact, a semi reboot of the Brendan Fraser movies but with more greys and blues then it might be just about acceptable. However, this would suggest that The Mummy movies only live in their own Mummy bubble… but they do not. They are part of a long and rich storytelling mythology that cannot be ignored for the sake of the next action scene. The Mummy itself is a walking cadaver that is exacting revenge on those who would break its curse: it is a monster from a horror story not a fun family franchise. This film seems to have forgotten that this is what the story of the Mummy is meant to be. It’s far too busy trying to bombard us with the next stunt or effect to tell us a proper, scary (but still thrilling) tale.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have it’s moments. There is some great imagery. When the tomb of the mummy is first discovered the giant stone head looking up from the pit looks suitably ominous. The returning victims of the mummy pop and crackle their bones as they shuffle towards Tom and co, looking all withered, horrifying and pretty cool. And the action is well mounted, especially the early scene in the plane, spinning around with our heroes bouncing around the inside at zero gravity. It’s shame that moment was shown everywhere before the film came out, it’s the highlight of the movie.
However there are a number of major problems outside the technical brilliance on display. First and foremost, and it pains me to say the obvious, but the script is just nowhere near good enough. Between the action scenes poor Annabelle Wallis is forced to give pages and pages of exposition which stop the film dead. This dreary dialogue is often describing ancient legends we the audience have already seen earlier, and (as a clear sign of behind the scenes problems in the editing suite) we are forced to watch again. Other bits of the script are so clearly lifted from other films it’s kind of embarrassing. The always great Jake Johnson is (spoiler) forced into the undead best friend role from An American Werewolf in London. The Mummy herself sucks the lifeforce from her victims in a clear homage/rip off of, well….Lifeforce. I’m never going to be one to complain about reminding people about the glorious cinematic experience that is Lifeforce but to do it so blatantly in a tentpole summer blockbuster reeks of either laziness on the writer’s part or poor judgment.
Which brings us to Alex Kurtzman, the director and one of the many writers of The Mummy. The guy clearly knows a thing or two about how to write a successful blockbuster movie, so there’s no way I’m going to criticise him for that, however I’m not sure him or many of the team had a very strong grasp on what a modern Mummy movie should be about. Of course updating the concept to contemporary times is a given but the rest of the film keeps the whole mummy mythos too simplistic and shallow. The Mummy herself, gamely played by Sofia Boutella, wants to sacrifice someone to release the god Set so she can stand by his side or marry him or what? We know nothing more than that. The poor mummy here is so shallowly written that I started thinking that the monster in the 1999 version was the epitome of intricate character development. At least he had a tragic love story as well as all his mummy stuff.
Making a massive budget Hollywood movie is a daunting task nowadays and there are so many balls to juggle when trying to get the film to the (not) silver screen for it’s release date. It just confuses me why the studios keep on hiring inexperienced directors to do this. To be fair to Kurtzman I think he handles the action set pieces well and the film looks pretty and modern if a little grey but this is all for nought if we don’t engage with the characters. And I think the director has to take some blame for this if his inexperience with directing actors has an affect on how involved we are with them, and hence how involved we are with the story. Of course Cruise, Wallis, Johnson and Russell Crowe (as Doctor Jekyll) are all more than capable of bringing their acting skills to any set but it takes a good director to bring them together and bounce off each other with proper chemistry. Cruise and Wallis try for the old cliche you’re-the-most-obnoxious-man-I’ve-ever-met routine but sparks don’t fly. The lacklustre dialogue doesn’t help here of course. Sadly the climactic emotional pay off also falls flat mostly because the characters don’t seem real or even real with each other.
I know that a studio employing an inexperienced director like Kurtzman means he doesn’t have the clout to get his own way so they can pull the creative strings but this has backfired here with no clear idea of what the film should be other than the start of a bunch of other movies.
Saying all that I still enjoyed The Mummy a lot. It is a slick, well made movie even if the cracks are fairly visible (too many flashbacks and I think three voice overs – always a bad sign). I do love a big budget horror movie even if it is an unsuccessful one. It may have been more of an action movie than a scary one but they gave it a shot. I’m just not sure that you can remake all the old Universal monster movies and actionise them as much as they have done. It didn’t work with Dracula Untold, it didn’t work with The Wolfmam and sure as hell didn’t work with Van Helsing. Adding the shared universe business right from the start is, with an extremely clunky mid section which slows the story down to a full stop, also not going to work.
Okay I’m watching this after the film has flopped stateside so have the benefit of hindsight, however it’s a shock that Kurtzman and co couldn’t see what a miscalculation they were making when they were in the script stages: there was an interview with Kurtzman way, way before the film went into production and he gave away most of the pitch. Even then people (and when I say people I mean angry internet nerds) thought it was a horrible idea. Not even oh-well-i-might-be-wrong-let’s-wait-and-see type reaction but a general this is awful moan from the collective geek world.
Oh Well…you live and you learn. Hopefully Universal will, for their next Dark Universe film, remember that the monsters are from horror movies. Mix it up a bit sure, but just know what your story is at its core. Or just rip off Lifeforce again if that’s too much effort.