The world never feels under threat in The Mummy, no matter how often the film tries to tell us it is. The dangers never feel palpable, the key characters never in any peril. What is in danger, however, is Universal’s much-ballyhooed Dark Universe project; with this being the tone-setting opening gambit for their Universal Monsters shared universe, you wouldn’t hold out much hope for the future.
The problem is genre; The Mummy isn’t a horror movie, but an action movie, and one in the globe-trotting mode that leading man Tom Cruise has pretty much perfected in the Mission: Impossible series. Indeed, if you ever wanted to see Ethan Hunt take on supernatural evil, that’s basically what you get here. The Cruiser is Nick Morton, a cross between a special forces soldier and Indiana Jones, who we meet going about some tomb raiding in Iraq along with his sidekick, Sergeant Chris Vail (Jake Johnson, almost screaming to be heard over Cruise’s attention-hogging charisma). Uncovering an ancient Egyptian tomb (in Iraq! It’s explained poorly) sets in motion a series of events that unleashes the evil of The Mummy (Sofia Boutella) via that actually quite impressive plane crash set piece you’ve seen on every trailer and TV spot.
The only survivor of the crash is archaeologist and former paramour of the ever-virile Nick, Dr. Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis). But don’t you fret! Nick is not dead for long (not a spoiler, folks – it’s in the trailer) and soon discovers that he is now magically linked to the titular menace, formerly Princess Ahmanet, who was mummified alive back in the day for regicide and now wants to rule the world with all the powers of darkness at her comma- look, you get it. From there it’s basically in Cruise control, with all the running, jumping, exploding, and can-do determination you’ve come to expect – which sits uneasily in a story basically about a man fighting for his soul against an all-enveloping evil.
It’s low stakes stuff, and we never think for a second that anything is really at risk, be that specific characters or the world in general. The supernatural elements are all just window dressing, never feeling as unearthly or eldritch as they should; it’s just CGI spectacle piled upon CGI spectacle, with armies of extras falling to data-farmed critters to little emotional or visceral effect. Frankly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer handled its apocalypses with more aplomb 20 years ago, and they played half of ’em for laughs.
Of course, the ’99 version of The Mummy was a big CGI actioner for the most part, too, but its success was largely down to the fact that it’d been a long time between Indiana Jones movies, and Brendan Fraser was the man who cameth at that particular hour. Cruise cometh every year, and there’s little to differentiate this effort from his other star vehicles.
There is interesting stuff happening in the margins, to be fair. Russell Crowe is clearly having a ball as Dr Henry Jekyll (yes, that one), head of a shadowy international organisation tasked with investigating and defeating supernatural threats, and his lab is full of Easter eggs that old horror heads will get a rill of pleasure at seeing. Still, it’s a problem when the best part of your film is the connective tissue shoehorned in to set up your shared universe, even when that connective tissue gets to trot out his best cockney accent when his other persona begins to take hold.
Sofia Boutella gives it her all, and certainly looks the business – the design of Ahmanet is pretty great all the way through, from her weirdly-jointed, cadaverous first appearance to her double-pupiled, tattooed later form. We’re never called upon to empathise with her, though, and that’s a failing. The Universal Monster flicks have always presented their villains as somewhat tragic figures: think of the Monster’s loneliness and confusion, the Wolf Man’s helplessness in the face of his curse, Dracula’s yearning. There’s a brief bit of lip service to that here in Ahmanet’s backstory (she was passed over for the throne in favour of an infant son) but the film never really grapples with the idea that she’s a victim of patriarchal forces – hardly surprising in a film that largely sidelines its other main female character as well.
Still, that’s just subtext – more importantly, the film fails as just basic text. Ultimately, The Mummy feels like a missed opportunity. We were promised a big budget, audience friendly horror adventure; we got Knight and Day with an effects budget. Bill Condon’s mooted Bride of Frankenstein redux wants to be flat-out amazing – otherwise the Dark Universe is dead on arrival.