mummy

(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick…and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy.)

Bad news: The Mummy has risen from the tomb, and it stinks! Universal Pictures bet big on the first film in their “Dark Universe” – a cinematic universe meant to capture the magic of the Marvel movies. The studio was hoping that the surest way to success was to take characters they already owned and fit them into an uninspired action movie formula. The results are stunningly inept. Just how did this film go so wrong? Let’s excavate this monster and get to the bottom of it all.

Spoilers ahead.

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A Whole New World of Gods and Meh

In some respects, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is the most unfortunate thing to happen to modern films. Not for Marvel, of course – they continue to make (mostly) enjoyable films that clean up at the box office. No, the misfortune is the result of other studios scrambling to emulate the Marvel formula, and failing spectacularly. Why make one hit movie when you can launch an entire universe of interconnected films? To quote The Social Network, “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.”

Yet somehow, no other studio has managed to pull-off what Marvel has done. The DCEU has only just managed to deliver their first good movie (after three dreadful previous attempts) with Wonder Woman. Guy Richie’s box office disaster King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was intended to spawn several sequels, building a cinematic universe that introduced each new member of the Round Table (don’t expect any of those to see the light of day). And now Universal Studios wants to get in on this action, hastily cobbling together their Dark Universe – a proposed series of action-packed remakes of their classic Universal Monsters.

There’s a touch of irony here, since, historically speaking, Universal and their monsters were responsible for the very first “cinematic universe” back before anyone had coined the term. It all started back in the 1920s with the Lon Chaney-led silent films The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, but it was in the 1930s that Universal really cracked the formula, releasing Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931. Universal learned fast that monsters were very profitable, and a whole slew of horror followed, including The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, The Mummy and more. In the 1940s, they found ways to cross-over these characters into films like House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and of course Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

In the modern era, Universal has been trying – with very limited success – to resurrect their roster of the walking undead. There was 2010’s The Wolfman, helmed by Captain America: The First Avenger director Joe Johnston and starring Benicio del Toro. Despite some stellar makeup work from master monster maker Rick Baker, and a committed performance from del Toro, The Wolfman sagged at the box office and inspired very little audience interest. 2014 brought on Dracula Untold, which turned the infamous vampire count into a handsome folk hero, as played by Luke Evans. Dracula Untold wasn’t a complete disaster at the box office, but it didn’t exactly set the world on fire. The only true success Universal had trying to capitalize on their monsters was in 1999, when B-movie maestro Stephen Sommers remade The Mummy as a rollicking, Indiana Jones-style adventure. Sommers’ film had none of the eerie charm of the 1932 Boris Karloff original, but it was a fun popcorn movie, full of energy and wit, and featuring a star-making turn from Rachel Weisz. Yet Sommers squandered whatever goodwill his Mummy had generated with a lackluster sequel and the absolutely abysmal Van Helsing, featuring Hugh Jackman as the famous monster-hunter, who must contend with Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Frankenstein Monster and Kate Beckinsale delivering a truly terrible Transylvanian accent.

Universal’s new Dark Universe was intended as a fresh start, ignoring the reboots that came before it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Universal’s plan. But the MCU was a huge gamble that ended-up paying off thanks to years of good will built up from the comic book source material, some smart casting and some talented filmmakers. Even though the Universal Monsters still have their fans, the fanbase isn’t as rabid as those who thirst for all-things Marvel.

The Mummy Clips

Right out of the gate, with 2017’s The Mummy, Universal’s Dark Universe is a colossal misfire that doesn’t understand just what, exactly, it wants to be. Imagine laying an uneven, structurally unsound foundation for a massive skyscraper and blindly hoping everything will work out. That’s The Mummy.

Putting the cart way, way before the horse, Universal went ahead and announced their Dark Universe weeks before The Mummy hit theaters, with Johnny Depp set to play The Invisible Man and Javier Bardem cast as Frankenstein’s monster. Two more movies featuring the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame announced mere days before The Mummy was released. Universal is putting all their hopes on The Mummy, and with a tepid domestic take of $32.2 on its opening weekend, it looks like Universal execs will be walking around Monday morning paraphrasing Gob Bluth, muttering, “We’ve made a huge mistake.”

They thought they had a hit on their hands. After all, the 1999 Mummy was a box office success, and Tom Cruise, one of the biggest stars in modern film history, is the lead of this new film. Yet not even Cruise’s star power is enough to salvage this lifeless corpse. Cruise, an actor who always commits 150% (and continually risks his life via stunt work in the process) seems completely lost here, unsure of who his character is supposed to be. It doesn’t help that the 54-year-old actor is inexplicably playing someone in his 30s. Hey, Tom Cruise looks great for his age, but that doesn’t mean he should be playing 30-year-olds.

The fault of The Mummy doesn’t reside solely with Cruise. The story and script, credited to six (!) different writers, is execrable. The direction, from Alex Kurtzman, who has previously only directed one other film (the already forgotten People Like Us from 2012), is so uninspired it’ll make you want to take a nap. Like its title character, The Mummy is a lifeless husk, yet no amount of dark magic can breathe life back into it.

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