When the history of the Franchise Wars is written years from now, 2017’s remake of “The Mummy” will be spoken of as something resurrected with an eye toward world domination, but ultimately dropped and broken like so much ancient pottery.
The inaugural entry in Universal’s multi-film gamble that will turn their legendary horror characters (Frankenstein, Dracula, et. al.) into an “Avengers”-like cross-pollinated saga called Dark Universe, is an out-of-the-gate stumble that doesn’t even have the sense to sport its own so-bad-it’s-fun personality. It’s the same loud, excessive strain of blockbuster that’s cursing multiplexes, barely qualifying as horror, adventure, fantasy, thriller, or even Tom Cruise vehicle. The erstwhile movie star — already currently involved in two other movie franchises — has rarely seemed so diminished or ill-used by the event-sized chaos around him.
Though it’s easy to forget how dumb-silly the Brendan Fraser “Mummy” movies were with their ersatz Indiana Jones antics, one might have hoped director Alex Kurtzman — no stranger to brand-tending as a writer-producer (“Star Trek,” “Transformers”) — would return spookiness and weirdness to a story originally made heart-stoppingly creepy by a swathed, stony Boris Karloff. Then again, Hollywood’s addiction to scale, effects, and relentless music and sound probably doomed this version of disturbed tombs and unearthed malevolence (written by David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman from a story by Jon Spaihts) to an expectedly mechanical fate.
Even making the awakened antagonist a woman this time around — “Kingsman: The Secret Service” badass Sofia Boutella as Ahmanet — is a case of gender balance taken only so far: she may be a 5000-year-old Egyptian princess denied her rightful throne (and erased from history books) by men, but in action she’s basically a freaky, mind-controlling stalker looking to join souls with Cruise’s modern-day soldier of fortune, sucking the life out of humans with her kiss.
The only other prominent woman is Annabelle Wallis’s Egyptologist character Jenny, given plenty of historical mumbo-jumbo to spout because she’s highly trained, but who is first introduced slapping Cruise’s Nick Morton over a one-night stand in Baghdad. “Hell hast no fury,” Nick witlessly rejoinders at one point in Jenny’s presence, before the ultimate scorned woman takes over this Bechdel-challenged narrative.
After a Pharaoh-era prologue that sets up Ahmanet’s background, and her live mummification burial as a result of her bloody vengeance, the present-day action kicks off in Iraq with guns, explosions and a military raid, because nothing is simple anymore. Antiquities thief Nick and his partner Chris (Jake Johnson) discover a massive sinkhole — metaphor alert! — within which lies the elaborate burial chamber of Ahmanet. All “Mummy” movies involve deliberately desecrating such spots when warned not to, and this one is no exception: when Nick disrupts the ritual barrier chain holding down her sarcophagus in a pool of mercury, it allows the coffin to be transported away, but unwittingly puts him under the stirred princess’s sway.
Calamities ensue: spider and rat hordes, a bird plague that crashes their plane, Chris turning into Nick’s dead companion à la Griffin Dunne in “An American Werewolf in London” (but way less funny), and Ahmanet gathering a zombie-like army as she hunts down Nick for a gruesome immortality ritual that requires finding the red stone that goes with her curved dagger.
Her sought-after gem, however, extracted from a separate archaeological dig in England, is being stored in a compound run by this universe’s version of Nick Fury: Russell Crowe as a monster-curious, pontificating Dr. Jekyll. His heavily fortified, secret lair/lab is called Prodigium, where jars can be spotted holding clues to future movies (a skull with fanged teeth, a webbed hand from a certain lagoon) and an Oscar-winning actor can deliver to the world’s biggest movie star a franchise manifesto on the inherent fascination of monsters and evil as subjects worthy of study and a possible cure. And then he calls it a business, one whose aim is to “recognize, contain, examine and destroy.” The open acknowledgement that you’re being subjected to corporatized horror with stated goals is the movie’s only true shock.
Boutella, augmented with extra pupils and hieroglyphic skin markings, has a menacing presence, especially when in movement. But she isn’t scary, just committed. Cruise, on the other hand, always looks unsure of what he’s playing at any given moment: heroically bemused? Terrified? Pissed off? As for what’s around them, “The Mummy” isn’t so much a movie directed as a perpetual-climax machine oiled and operated, its shouted dialogue and charging, insisting score (by Brian Tyler, “The Fate of the Furious”) like the rote groans from a factory.
Despite having a considerable budget lavished on elaborate sets and digital wizardry, Kurtzman doesn’t trust silence to ever build a mood when quick cuts, loud noises and CGI are the genre standard these days. (Does the pulling up of Nick’s shirt really require the sound effect equivalent of a jet flying by?) And if you see it in IMAX and 3D, you’ll only wait futilely for those features to make a difference.
If we’re being honest, 21st century audiences don’t need — and wouldn’t even accept, probably — faithful recreations of Universal’s ’30s-era fright aesthetics. It’s a different world, admittedly, and legends can always use tweaking. But what set those horror classics apart was a fierce individuality about gods and monsters and their grim allure.
If Dark Universe is going to conjure a new, interconnected world of evil, it’s going to have to lose the feeling that we’re being sold something, and invent new forms of weird and woolly. In the meantime, this “Mummy” is rags that produce no riches.