Let me start by saying that this wasn’t completely awful. Maybe all the terrible reviews I read had the effect of managing my expectations, but bottom line is I didn’t hate this movie. I assumed — rightly — that it would be a pretty standard action runnaround through CG effects, like so many big budget movies nowadays. In fact, there were a couple of genuinely creepy horror moments, which I honestly didn’t expect. The decision to have the Mummy discovered in Iraq rather than Egypt makes not a lick of sense in terms of realism, but thematically ‘America goes to Iraq, unleashes horror’ is surprisingly close to the original Mummy idea of ‘Britain goes to Egypt, unleashes horror.’
Honestly, if this was a one off Mummy movie, I’d say it was adequate, if not especially memorable. Yes, the ending is awful for a whole lot of reasons. Yes, the gender politics are even worse than most horror movies. Yes, if I were ranking movies I’d seen titled ‘The Mummy’ it would probably come in forth. Even so, if this is the worst movie I see this year, I’ll consider myself lucky.
But that’s viewing The Mummy as a one-off film. But this is the introduction to the Dark Universe, Universal’s attempt to get at some of that sweet, sweet shared universe money that Marvel is raking in. How does it do on that score?
Well, let’s start with the problem of escalation. The whole shared universe idea is based on this — individual characters leading to ensembles; one-on-one fights leading to massive battles. The Mummy is super powerful, able to summon sandstorms, hordes of animals and undead legions (it’s really only the fact that she dismisses her zombies in the final fight scene that gives Tom Cruise the opportunity to defeat her). The film series is supposed to escalate from this to Phantom of the Opera? Seriously?
The bigger issue is characterisation. One of the critical elements of the old Universal horror movies was that, sure you wanted the monsters to lose, but you sympathised with them. You could see why they were doing the terrible things that they were doing. The Frankenstein Monster, the Mummy, the Wolf Man — you get them. Hell, watch The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and tell me you don’t side with the poor Gill Man more often than the jerks who keep messing with him. The Universal monster movies are technically dated, their pacing is creaky and slow and the plots often make very little sense. That sense of sympathy is what keeps them popular decades later. Lose that, and you lose the entire point of bringing those characters back.
The Mummy herself is extremely undercharacterised. That the Mummy committed the crimes that lead to her mummification… we’re pretty clear on that. There’s even a half-hearted attempt to let us understand why she did what she did. Sofia Boutella plays this scene very nicely, but the script stops short of getting into her motivations. Instead, when Cruise’s questions her reasoning, she brushes his questions away. As to why was she trying to unleash Set upon earth? No idea. Destiny? That usually works when you can’t be bothered setting up motivation.
Tom Cruise’s character, (who I believe was named ‘Thomas Cruise-Character, esq.’) was basically a charming douchebag, much like Cruise has been playing almost nonstop since the 1980s. But we’re told that he’s redeemable, based on the fact that he’s somewhat nice to a woman during the movie, after being unkind to her beforehand. Great redemption arc, I guess?
Thomas Cruise-Character’s love interest, Generica, was a character. She was in the movie.
Oddly, the character who actually worked the best – whose motivations and reasoning were actually backed by script and acting – was Russel Crowe’s Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde. He/they are head of a secret British organisation dedicated to fighting monsters, known as UNIT the Watcher’s Council Torchwood the Prodigium. Crowe’s the only person in the movie who looks like he’s having any fun at all. He plays Jekyll as a cross between a pretentious academic and a cold-hearted puritan, which actually works towards explaining and justifying the callousness with which the Prodigium works.
So is Dark Universe going to work? My bet’s on ‘no’. Honestly, a low-budget reboot of the original Universal monsters could be a nice little money maker for Universal. The insistence on it being an effects heavy, star-driven series suggests to me that it will struggle to make a profit. I suspect it will be quietly shelved before long.
[UPDATE — It was]