Look back to the 1932 Universal Pictures classic, The Mummy with Boris Karloff, and you’ll recall a horror movie with story, lots of atmosphere, but little action. In the pantheon of Universal horror, admittedly it wasn’t the best, but on reputation, it remains a classic.
Watch the new re-boot from Universal of the same name, this time with Tom Cruise, and you’ll find an adventure with lots of action, no atmosphere, and a minimum of story. If anything, it actually looks as though story and atmosphere were the last things the filmmakers were going for; they’re just annoying requirements to get a new franchise off the ground. And there’s certainly no horror here, not in the traditional horror movie sense, just horrific images.
Universal has seen the success that DC Comics and Marvel are enjoying, so, like Sir Joseph Whemple’s archaeological expedition in the original, the studio opened its vaults and unearthed its own cinematic treasures; not with costumed-clad super-heroes but with the classic black and white monster characters, such as Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Invisible Man, Frankenstein, Dracula. There’s even a Bride of Frankenstein remake set for a 2019 release. On the evidence of the concluding scenes from this new Tom Cruise outing, there’ll be more Mummy movies on the horizon, too.
What disappoints the most is that if Universal is going to raid its own material and resurrect the very things upon which the studio was built – namely classic horror – then turning them into large-scale violent action flicks for current teenage tastes to compete with the excess of super-hero movies will be like desecrating those Egyptian tombs, and leaving a mess in its wake. By all means, clean, polish and update the treasures you’re sitting on, but at least respect the tradition of horror upon which they were created, and include a sense of slow-burn mystery. In this update, being a Mummy is merely a way to transport a character from ancient times to present-day. Once that occurs, it might as well have been the release of an evil genie in a bottle, running amok in the streets of London, literally sucking the life out of everyone it meets in order to build back its own strength.
From the way the film jumps from place to place and introduces us to characters who may be in it for the long haul, meaning the subsequent sequels, it all feels messy. There isn’t really a story, just a series of setups, and that’s not the same as telling a story.
The film begins with a brief introduction dating back to 1127 AD during the Crusades when a mysterious ruby red stone is buried in a tomb under the streets of London. It then jumps to present-day when construction workers digging a new underground tunnel accidentally discover those ancient 12th century burials, along with piles of human bones scattered all over the place. As a TV talking-head on the BBC states, London is a modern city built on a century of death; the place is one, huge cemetery.
Next we’re off to Northern Iraq which, if you remember the opening scenes to The Exorcist, is where excavation sites abound in archaeological remains. Tom Cruise plays Nick Morton, a kind of thieving adventurer with an overbearing need to put himself and those around him in danger, as long as it means finding a valuable trinket or two. He’s meant to be likable, but he’s really just reckless, and annoying, even if he’s played by Cruise.
Jake Johnson plays best friend Chris who is constantly pulled into Nick’s shenanigans. As things fast develop, it turns out Johnson is really playing the Griffin Dunne role in the ‘81 horror comedy An American Werewolf in London. (Skip the rest of the paragraph if you’re worried about plot spoilers, but it actually happens early, so what the heck.) Chris becomes an early victim of the Mummy’s hypnotic powers, resulting in a fate of un-death, except he keeps coming back in a decaying, colorless form to haunt Nick and to tell him to get his act together or they’ll both be doomed forever. Just like Dunne’s humor in American Werewolf, Chris will suddenly pop up at the end of a death-defying action sequence and tell a breathless Nick, “Wow, that was intense.”
From Iraq where an Egyptian mummy is found buried way below the surface – “This is not a tomb,” insists intrepid archaeologist, Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), “This is a prison” – the film then jumps back to England where the plane carrying the tomb of the mummy crashes in the county of Surrey, narrowly missing the ruins of Farnham’s Waverly Abbey, releasing the ancient evil known as Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella). When Cruise reminds the evil princess what she did during those days of Ancient Egypt – she murdered her father, then his wife, then their newborn child, all for the lust of personal power – she responds, “Those were different times.”
At this point, you may already feel tangled in too much detail, but there’s so much more, like Russell Crowe’s suspicious Governmental department that specializes in investigating infectious diseases. He’s Dr. Henry Jekyll, and, yes, he really is the doctor of Jekyll and Hyde fame. At this point you won’t be the first to think of the disastrous 2003 adventure The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen if it wasn’t for the fact that the film already resembles a low-rent Indiana Jones, closer in tone to the National Treasure series than Raiders of the Lost Ark, despite the presence of an A-lister like Cruise headlining the marquee.
In its favor, that plane crash sequence as it falls from the sky is portrayed well, and there’s something about Annabelle Wallis that makes you hope that if there has to be a follow-up, make sure the makers bring her character back. Plus, its running time is slightly less than two hours, which in these CGI-laden adventures is always welcomed. But in the end, the film really isn’t about much other than wanting you intrigued enough to see what’s going to happen in the next one.
For the less critically inclined who are happy to settle for lots of noisy stuff happening, The Mummy may work as a brief, early summer, popcorn flick. But as the over-hyped season of multiplex fantasies continue until school is finally back in session, the film will find itself buried deeper than Imhotep’s ancient tomb far sooner than Universal had hoped.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 107 Minutes Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)