'The Mummy' (2017) Abandons Campy Fun for Faux Gravitas
Alex Kurtzman’s first chapter in the ‘Dark Universe’ franchise is stuck somewhere between William Castle and William Shakespeare.
A wise man once said, “Only a fool would make a campy horror movie into a serious drama." Actually, no one ever said that, but they should have, preferably on Tom Cruise's voicemail.
There are moments of inspired stupidity sprinkled throughout The Mummy (2017). At times, director Alex Kurtzman and his talented cast seem to be winking at us, imploring us to share the joke with them. Other times, they're determined to break out their existential notebook on human frailty and ladle on the dramatic soliloquys. The final product is a haphazard blend of faux gravitas and familiar story elements lifted directly from other recognizable (and far superior) horror-adventure movies.
The pain begins immediately, with Russell Crowe (as 'Dr. Henry Jekyll'… yes, that Dr. Jekyll) delivering a laborious voiceover about an ancient Egyptian princess named Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella). It seems Ahmanet, an only child, was destined to inherent the throne until her father the Pharaoh got frisky and sired a son. Angry over losing the best parking space in Egypt, Ahmanet makes a deal with Set, the god of death, to make her the immortal ruler of the world or something. All she has to do is murder her entire family and then find a human vessel for Set to possess, preferably, a man with ageless good looks and a contractual obligation to romance leading ladies who are half his age.
Enter Tom Cruise…
Tom Cruise as Nick Morton
Cruise plays 'Nick Morton', a consistently insubordinate American military officer serving in Iraq. Nick and his wisecracking partner, Chris (Jake Johnson), use their military clearance to plunder Middle Eastern relics to sell on the black market. “Liberators of precious antiquities", as Nick so piously describes them. It's the type of outrageous racket Indiana Jones might have tried were it not so recklessly stupid and dangerous.
When a smart bomb accidentally uncovers a crevasse the size of Texas in an Iraqi insurgent stronghold, Nick, Chris, and Jenny (Annabelle Wallis), an antiquities expert, unearth the mummified remains of the murderous Ahmanet. In the film's most visually arresting sequence, an elaborate system of ancient pulleys lifts the sarcophagus from a pool of shimmering mercury.
Here's where the script for The Mummy (2017) reveals itself to be borderline incompetent. As Ahmanet's massive sarcophagus is lifted skyward, she puts the whammy on Nick's brain. Determined to make him the next earthly vessel for Set (i.e., “the chosen one"), she shows Nick visions of her past, including hints of the immortal power he will enjoy by succumbing to her considerable charms. In other words, we get an instant replay of everything we just saw 15 minutes earlier during the insufferable Russell Crowe narration!
Even worse, major events happen off screen, forcing director Kurtzman (People Like Us, 2012) to relay the information secondhand. For example, Nick and Jenny apparently had a torrid “15-second affair" just nights before the movie's story picks up, after which Nick stole a map from her suitcase that reveals the location of Ahmanet's tomb. Not only might this missing scene between Nick and Jenny have been entertaining, it might have leant a bit of chemistry to a listless relationship that pulses with all the life of one of Ahmanet's zombie mummies.
And we haven't even gotten to Dr. Jekyll yet. Jekyll is the leader of a modern-day secret society of scientists and archeologists that “recognize, contain, and destroy evil". He's also got a nasty habit of morphing into his evil alter-ego, Mr. Hyde, who can only be subdued by an injection of magic serum from a syringe painstakingly assembled each time. Perhaps having a spare syringe handy might be advisable when trying to quell evil incarnate? Just a suggestion.
Russell Crowe as Dr. Henry Jekyll
These are the gloriously silly elements of The Mummy (2017) that desperately need to be exaggerated; to re-capture the camp glory of past masters like James Whale and William Castle. When Jekyll inevitably transforms into Hyde, the screen crackles with energy, and for one exciting moment, you wonder where the story might lead. Don't worry, the situation is quickly resolved so the screenwriters can return to telling the same story we've already seen a million times.
You'll certainly recognize elements of the Raiders of the Lost Ark franchise, as Nick is portrayed to be a lovable scoundrel with a heart of gold (or at least cubic zirconia). There are also callbacks to everything from An American Werewolf in London to Interview with the Vampire. In fact, The Mummy (2017) is to horror-adventure movies what Oblivion was to sci-fi movies; a diluted pastiche of genre tropes that challenge the palate about as much as a bland tapioca.
Okay, fine. Kurtzman and his stable of screenwriters are going for something more realistic and less campy. Great. So where are the interesting, relatable characters to carry the action?
So little effort is invested into character development, in fact, that sincere communication becomes virtually impossible. When Crowe solemnly intones that, “The past cannot remain buried forever," he probably deserves an honorary Oscar for not laughing. There's more tangible evidence of Bigfoot than the existence of affection between Nick and Jenny, whose love affair becomes the basis for every peculiar decision Nick makes in the film's disastrous final act. By the time the end credits roll, it's impossible to understand what has transpired, and even more futile to care.
The Mummy (2017) is the first offering in Universal Pictures' 'Dark Universe', a franchise of films based upon classic Hollywood monsters such as Frankenstein and the Wolf Man. Striking visuals from Kurtzman's effects team and capable performances from Crowe and Cruise might distract from the familiarity of this particular story, but it's hard to imagine modern audiences clamoring to see more from a universe that feels like a watered down comic book.
The ambition is admirable, with Cruise's creative team trying to blend humor, horror, and pathos into something resembling a serious drama. Sadly, they've chosen the blandest, most predictable approach possible to the material. More than likely, The Mummy (2017) is cursed to be quickly forgotten.