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 EggersThe 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.

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a staff writer for /Film. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, RogerEbert.com, Nerdist, Mashable, and more. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at chris@chrisevangelista.net