'The Mummy' Spoiler Review: The Dark Universe Fails Instantly

(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.

Jekyll

Thanks For Bringing Me Back From The Dead, Dude!

The Mummy opens with the Dark Universe logo, an act of laughable hubris that seems even more silly once the film has ended. What a feeble universe launch this is. Curiously enough, The Mummy doesn't open in ancient Egypt, but rather London in 1157 A.D. We watch as a group of Templar knights bury one of their own in an underground tomb. The knight is buried with a red jewel that will become the film's McGuffin; one gets the sense that the multiple screenwriters studied the MCU, noticed that characters kept babbling on about Infinity Stones, and reasoned that The Mummy needed a precious stone of its own. Why they felt the need to include Templars is anyone's guess.

After the Templar intro, we jump to present day, where the underground tombs have been discovered by work crews. Enter Dr. Henry Jekyll, as played by Russell Crowe, the only actor having any fun in this dreck. The Dark Universe wants Jekyll to be their Nick Fury – although just what Jekyll's plan or goal is is maddeningly vague. Here he serves as an exposition-heavy narrator, laying out for us the tale of the Ancient Egyptian Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella, who deserves better than this movie). Ahmanet wanted absolutely power, but that power was threatened when her father, Pharaoh Menehptre (Selva Rasalingam), sired a male heir. Ahmanet's solution to this is to summon Set, the god of death, and then slaughter her family. For some reason, it's not enough for Ahmanet to sell her soul to Set – she also has to find a male to copulate with, then kill, so Set can take over his body. Already, the mythology for this film is muddled and convoluted. Why must Ahmanet have a male counterpart to rule with? Boutella's visage is all over the advertising for this film, and one gets the sense that Universal was trying to sell her as an alluring, appealing villain, yet the film has little use for her. She spends much of the runtime sidelined, which implies Universal has absolutely no idea what the hell they want from these movies. Are they about the monsters, or about the humans trying to stop the monsters?

Before Ahmanet can complete her dark ritual, she's seized by guards who mummify her alive and entomb her far away from Egypt – all the way in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). After we get Ahmanet's backstory the film clumsily introduces us to our main character, Tom Cruise. Sure, the character has a name – it's Nick Something or Other – but it doesn't matter. With a few exceptions – Edge of Tomorrow is a good example – Cruise has been playing variations of his Mission: Impossible character for the last decade. But his character in The Mummy is even more of an empty vessel; void of any real characteristics or distinguishing traits. He's a thief who uses his job as a military reconnaissance man to plunder treasures from Iraq, so I suppose the film is trying to set him up as a bit of a rogue, a cross between Han Solo and Indiana Jones. But there's no charm to this character, which is incredibly odd since charm is usually all Cruise has to go on. Somehow, the actor's natural charisma has been vacuumed from every frame of this film.

Cruise's Nick is teamed with Vail (Jake Johnson), his "comedic" sidekick. Johnson is funny as hell...in other projects. Here, he's annoying. He spends the first 15 minutes of this movie shouting and shrieking at Cruise, and you can tell it's supposed to be funny, but it just comes off as grating. We want nothing more than for this character to shut up. After dodging gunfire from insurgents, and calling in an airstrike, Nick and Vail accidentally discover Ahmanet's tomb – which is what Nick was searching for this entire time. Nick swiped a map from archeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), after seducing and bedding her. The film seems to think this will play right into Nick's charming rogue facade, but it just makes Nick seem even more unlikable and creepy. When Jenny shows up at the site of the tomb, furious at Nick for stealing her map, we get some painfully terrible stabs at humor about how Nick underperforms in the sack, and oh my god, this movie hadn't even been playing for a half-hour yet and I was already ready for it to end.

The Mummy

Wallis was quite good in the otherwise lackluster Annabelle, but she's dreadful here. I'm not sure if it's a case of poor writing, poor editing, poor acting or all three, but Wallis has absolutely no screen presence in The Mummy. And she and Cruise have about as much chemistry together as a water buffalo has with coat rack.

Jenny convinces Nick and Vail's superior, Colonel Greenway (Courtney B. Vance) to let them explore the tomb. Jenny is understandably surprised to see ancient Egyptian paraphernalia in a tomb in Iraq, and even more surprised when they find a pit filled with mercury. Because Jenny exists solely to lay out exposition, she explains that mercury was used to weaken evil, or something like that. It doesn't really make any sense, and I'm not even sure it's supposed to.

Nick, being the oafish man that he is, decides to raise whatever is submerged in the pit, which turns out to be Ahmanet's sarcophagus. Nick takes one look at the sarcophagus and begins having visions of Ahmanet in the sands of Egypt, seductively thanking Nick for freeing her. A hoard of CGI camel spiders come pouring out of the cracks in the tomb walls, causing the three actors to comically act as if they're under siege – it doesn't look the least bit convincing. Vali is bit by one of the spiders, which will cause him to change drastically, because I guess these are supernatural camel spiders.

After loading Ahmanet's sarcophagus onto a plane, Vali proceeds to go insane. He's clearly possessed by some sort of malevolent force, and he kills Colonel Greenway in the process (note: why the hell would cast a great actor like Courtney B. Vance only to kill him after four minutes? Because this movie is stupid, that's why). Nick kills Vali, but the danger isn't over yet, because a horde of birds attack the plane – you likely remember this scene from the now-infamous trailer that was accidentally uploaded without certain audio elements included. Truth be told, had the film included this error-ridden version it would've been more entertaining than the final result. The plane is damaged, spiraling towards earth, and in the hands of a competent filmmaker this sequence could've been exciting! Instead, it's flat and almost incoherent. Nick manages to strap a parachute onto Jenny and save her life, but he dies in the crash. Later, in the morgue, Nick rises from the dead in the morgue without a scratch on him. This is another scene played for laughs, but it doesn't quite work and no one seems particularly alarmed that Nick is a-okay after such a crash.

Nick is cursed, because Ahmanet wants to use him as the new vessel for Set. Ahmanet rises from the wreckage of the crash and begins sucking the life out of everyone she comes in contact with, restoring her decayed body in the process. She then turns the people she's sucked the life out of into her own personal army of the walking dead. After attacking Nick and Jenny, Ahmanet is captured by a group of mysterious men in tactical gear. They work for Jekyll, which I guess means they're meant to be this universe's version of S.H.I.E.L.D. I doubt they'll be getting their own TV spin-off anytime soon, though.

the mummy russell crowe

God bless Russell Crowe, who seems to be the only actor in on the fact that this movie is cataclysmically stupid. He hams it up as he lays out a wealth of confusing mumbo jumbo. Ahmanet needs the red jewel – the one buried with the Templar Knight – to finish her ritual. Jekyll either wants to kill Nick, or use the jewel himself to finish the ritual – it's not clear which. But before he can get on with it, he transforms into Mr. Hyde, because sure, why not? Here, Crowe goes over-the-top to the nth degree, adopting a cockney accent and sporting ridiculous green ghoul makeup.  

From here the film descends into boring chaos, with Ahmanet getting free, CGI disaster movie cliches abounding, and Cruise getting in some of his trademark running. Through it all, a zombie-fied version of Vali keeps popping up to taunt and/or help Nick. It's clear the filmmakers stole this concept from An American Werewolf of London, yet it contains none of the macabre charm of that film.

The Mummy culminates in Nick finishing Ahmanet's ritual himself to become an all-powerful being in order to resurrect Jenny, who has been drowned during the film's climax. He defeats Ahmanet by grabbing her by the throat, slamming her down on the ground and kissing her to death – and yes, it's about as nasty and misogynistic as it sounds. Nick is now superhuman – a monster, as Jekyll puts it – and he heads to Egypt with Vali, whom he's brought back from the dead. To hammer this point home, the film has Vali announce, "Thanks for bringing me back from the dead, dude!" Hey, wrap this movie up and bury it in the sand forever, please.

Dark Universe

Dreck Universe

Here's a bit of sacrilege for you '90s kids: the 1999 Mummy isn't really a great movie. It has its issues, mostly on a plotting level. But it is entertaining. It's a light, airy treat that's easy to snack on. What's more, you get the sense that everyone involved is having a great time. Most of all, though, it works well because it was clearly focused on being one movie. Yes, there were two sequels and a spin-off, and yes, they were bad. But the first Mummy had no interest in being solely a launchpad for future films. It's a self-contained adventure, just like Raiders of the Lost Ark is a self-contained adventure that just happened to spawn a franchise.

This seems to be the secret to a successful film series – make one movie first, worry about the franchise later. Yes, Marvel has subverted this concept and made it work for them, but this is the exception rather than the rule. There's nothing wrong with wanting to start your own cinematic universe, but perhaps you should focus on getting the first film right? If Iron Man had been a critical and box office failure, Marvel wouldn't have been as confident plowing-ahead with their MCU. And even though there are nods in Iron Man to the films to come, it's still very much a self-contained narrative.

That's not the case with the 2017 Mummy, even though the film does borrow the basic plot-structure of the '99 film. Just about every moment of this film exists to set-up a cinematic universe no one is clamoring for. Crowe's Dr. Jekyll is apparently the bridge to these future films – when the film shifts to his lab, we get quick shots of various specimens, including a skull with vampire fangs. But why is Dr. Jekyll the character in this position? Wouldn't it have made more sense to make someone like Van Helsing – already well-known as a monster hunter – the Nick Fury-like character here? Then again, it's never clear just what Jekyll wants to do with monsters. Does he want to destroy them, or use them as weapons? Is he pro-monster, since technically he's part-monster himself? The movie has absolutely no idea, so why should we?

The final scenes of the movie, with Nick and Vali riding on horseback through the desert, show Nick with bandages wrapped around his hands, implying he's the new mummy, which is a particularly boneheaded move. I get it – Cruise is a big star, and they likely signed him for multiple films. But it would've been wiser to keep Sofia Boutella as the mummy. No matter how hard the film tries to limit her, Boutella's screen presence shines through. A dancer-turned-actress, Boutella moves with lithe grace while also conveying a kind of seductive menace, and had this been a better film, her mummy could've very well become an iconic movie monster. In fact, even though Boutella's Ahmanet is evil, it's hard not to root for her. So lifeless are the heroic characters here that it's easier to wish Ahmanet would destroy them all and reign supreme.

Of course, what with the nature of the character, there's always a chance Boutella's mummy could return – the mummies defeated in other films always managed to come back for sequels, after all. But with the way the film sets Cruise up to be the "new" bandaged monster at film's end, that seems unlikely. Then again, with the way this film underperformed at the box office, sequels themselves seem unlikely as well.

The Mummy trailer 3

Kurtzman's direction is astoundingly unfocused, but there's always a chance it could've been saved, or at least made passable, in the editing room. Yet the three different credited editors do it no favors. One scene after another just lays there, uncinematic and weightless. Jokes fall flat, action beats stumble, the actors seem adrift. The cinematography by Ben Seresin has no personality to speak of. This is not a film, it's a crass product; the very worst example of a movie pieced together from ideas of other movies. It is the Poochie of cinema. The Mummy isn't even bad in an entertaining way. It's just bad. Everyone involved should be embarrassed, especially Cruise, who at this stage in his career has no reason to take a role like this.

Despite its popularity, the horror genre is often maligned. Actors working on horror films will be quick to call the film a "dark thriller" or a film with "horror elements" rather than a straight-up horror film. Yet horror sells: Jordan Peele's Get Out – which Universal distributed – was a huge hit earlier this year, and Robert Eggers' The Witch did incredible box office in 2016. Of course, these were much smaller films than The Mummy. But therein lies the problem – why do these films need to be big spectacles? And worse than that, why can't they be horror movies?

The Universal Monsters movies of old were haunted, lonely, gothic things – films that dealt with shadows, sadness and death. The monsters at the heart of those films were tragic creatures, often misunderstood. They were doomed to their terrible fates, unable to throw off their hellish curses. There was a dignity inherent in those films that is nowhere to be seen in this latest Mummy. Just imagine if Universal had tried to make a series of interconnected, small-scale horror films instead of assuming the only way to create a cinematic universe is through big, dumb action. Imagine if instead of putting Alex Kurtzman in charge of all of this, they had hired someone like Guillermo del Toro. Instead, The Mummy plays out as if the producers watched the abysmal 2003 adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and said, "Let's just try to remake this."

Of course, even if the Dark Universe had gone the horror route, that's no guarantee for success. Universal's 201 Wolfman reboot was an attempt at gothic horror, but the film underperformed. Then again, the film was also bad, thanks to a weak script. And while he has been capable on other movies, Joe Johnston is not exactly a master of conjuring up chilling horror. That can't be the sole reason it failed, though. After all, Crimson Peak, a Universal release helmed by Guillermo del Toro, failed to draw in audiences as well, despite the fact that it's a wonderful film. Perhaps there really is no secret formula here – perhaps it's all chance.

The Mummy featurette

Will the Dark Universe soldier on? I'm sure at least one more film will be made before the plug is pulled. Universal has already invested too much time and money into this concept to completely abandon it after one film. Yet where it goes from here remains to be seen. Will The Mummy become The Incredible Hulk or Iron Man 2 of this universe – the film that everyone pretends never happened? Or will Universal plow ahead with their current plan, and deliver yet another dreadful, unfocused mess? The next planned film is a Bride of Frankenstein remake, directed by Bill Condon. Condon is certainly a better filmmaker than Kurtzman, so there's a chance he may be able to course correct this damaged vessel. But the prospect of a goofy, action-packed remake of Bride of Frankenstein sounds almost sacrilegious at this point.

Perhaps it's best for Universal to cut its losses now and try again in a few more years. Focus on getting at least one movie right and building from that. People will forget The Mummy, as they forgot Dracula Untold; as they forgot Van Helsing. The Dark Universe may not be dead and buried yet, but it's certainly on life support. And The Mummy is already destined to be forgotten to the sands of time, entombed forever, never to be dug-up again. May it rest in peace.