What makes the classic monsters created by Universal Pictures more than 80 years ago still so iconic? It’s simple: Each and every one of them is, underneath the bandages or the fangs, or the sewn-together body parts, a tragic figure. Frankenstein’s Monster never asked to be born and only wants friendship; Dracula did not seek to become a vampire; and the Mummy — Boris Karloff’s Imhotep in the original 1932 film — was punished for using forbidden knowledge to resurrect his dead lover. Their tragic histories are what makes these monsters so compelling and memorable.
Realistically, a faithful remake of something like 1932’s The Mummy isn’t feasible in this day and age; it’s a 73-minute black and white movie that looks largely like a filmed play and only features the archetypal imagery of the title monster in one scene. But the story itself — a horror tale with a tragedy at its core — is sound enough that with care and thought, it could be adapted for modern audiences. Sadly, Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy is not that movie. In fact, it’s a disaster that tries to be scary, funny, and thrilling, often all at the same time. Yet it ends up being none of those things.
Kurtzman — beloved as co-creator of TV’s Fringe but also co-writer of the franchise destroying The Amazing Spider-Man 2 — seems to have no idea what movie he wants to make as director here. The same goes for his cast, especially leading man Tom Cruise in what may be the worst performance I’ve ever seen from him. The army of writers (there are six in total credited for the story and screenplay, including Kurtzman himself) do not seem to be any less confused.
Instead of making a straight horror movie or a Raiders of the Lost Ark-style period adventure (like the 1999 iteration starring Brendan Fraser), Kurtzman and crew apparently just decided to throw everything against the wall in the desperate hope that some of it sticks. You want underwater zombies swimming after people? You got it! You want shootouts and explosions in the desert? Sure, we can come up with those! You want world-building that lays the groundwork for other movies to come? Hell, that’s a given these days.
The movie opens with perhaps its most atmospheric scene, in which the story of how Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) became the title creature is recounted. Cut to present day Iraq where we meet Nick Morton (Cruise) an Army “reconnaissance expert” who likes to snatch antiquities and sell them on the side with his joke-flinging wingman, Chris Vail (Jake Johnson). We’re immediately thrust into a frenzied and ultimately pointless action sequence in which Nick and Chris are chased and fired upon until Chris calls in an airstrike, which in turn creates a blast that uncovers a buried tomb.
Cue the arrival of beautiful, bland archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), who accuses Nick of stealing her treasure map while sexing her the night before. Nick, Jenny, and Chris descend into the tomb, where they discover the burial chamber of Ahmanet who has been long erased from history because of her evil deeds or something to that effect. Ahmanet’s tomb is airlifted to a waiting cargo plane where for some reason she begins to resurrect herself — and instantly decides that Nick is going to be her new love toy for the next few thousand years.
After that the movie becomes a jumble of one overwrought, generic action scene after another, interspersed by brief pauses for exposition and/or comedy. The latter comes mainly in the form of a character whose role in the film seems lifted whole from An American Werewolf in London — a dead person sent to snarkily dispatch helpful info to the lead character when needed. The longest stretch of the former comes when Nick is introduced to the Prodigium, a secret society dedicated to eradicating monsters from the world, that’s led by one Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe). This is where the movie all but stops dead to basically act as a commercial for future movies. This is a flaw inherent in all these shared universe franchises but it’s handled especially clumsy here.
At least the idea of the Prodigium is somewhat cool and Crowe — even if he’s acting in his own movie — is interesting to watch. That’s not the case with Cruise, who is horribly miscast and apparently doesn’t know what movie he’s supposed to be in. Is he a jovial, devil-may-care, wisecracking anti-hero like a modern Indiana Jones, or a tragic, doomed figure unable to escape his inevitable fate? He doesn’t know and it shows with a performance that’s all over the map. Even his apparent devotion to a woman he just met days ago seems like it was left in there from an earlier, discarded version of the script.
In actuality, the whole movie feels like a hodgepodge — as if Kurtzman put all the drafts in front of him, took out pages from each that he liked, and shuffled them together into what he called the final shooting script. The same goes for his direction, which blandly delivers the action but offers nothing in the way of originality or flavor. Even the Mummy herself — Boutella just doing a lot of screaming, whispering, and writhing — is distinguished simply by the fact that she’s a female version of the familiar monster. She’s described as “pure evil” and can literally destroy a city, but to what purpose?
That is finally what makes The Mummy such a bore: it’s about nothing, except maybe Hollywood’s deadly corporate impulse to set up a new franchise based on existing brand names. We get no particular insight into Nick or Ahmanet, or anyone else. And we’re given no compelling reason to care about what happens to any of them (although if you like to see Cruise get the shit kicked out of him, this might be the movie for you). There are no rules, there’s precious little mythology, and even the beats of the plot are spelled out in the most vague terms possible.
It’s as if Kurtzman and the studio, and everyone involved decided to make the most generic monster movie ever, and if that was the goal than I suppose they succeeded. But as a resurrection of a classic monster, this thing crumbles to dust faster than one can light the Scroll of Thoth on fire. And as the launching pad for a new universe of “gods and monsters,” The Mummy is less a big bang and more a sad, wasted implosion.
The Mummy shambles into theaters on Friday, June 9.