Friday, June 09, 2017

Zaki's Review: The Mummy (2017)

It's been more than fifty years since Universal's web of interconnected monster movies -- Frankenstein! Dracula! The Wolf Man! -- have dominated the big screen, but the studio has been desperate to recapture that halcyon glory ever since. And when you think about it, it's entirely understandable. After all, long before Marvel Studios was a glint in anyone's eye, before anyone thought to have Batman and Superman square off together onscreen, Universal had already laid claim to the concept of a shared cinematic universe, with its roster of creatures comforting audience from the early '30s through the late '50s.

And while they've tried in years past -- whether with 2015's Dracula Untold in 2015 or 2010's The Wolfman or 2004's Van Helsing -- to reignite those franchise fires, no attempt has really caught on with modern audiences. The closest they came to a box office phenomenon was with 1999's The Mummy. Though the Stephen Sommers-directed film borrowed its title and iconography from the 1932 Karl Freund original, it otherwise went its own way with an Indiana Jones-lite adventure story, and was rewarded with enough success to merit two increasingly far-fetched sequels (though I do have a soft spot for 2001's The Mummy Returns, featuring the cinematic debut of one Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson).

While that franchise petered out ignominiously in 2008 with a truly terrible third entry, the brand nonetheless retains a certain amount of currency with filmgoers. This brings us, in somewhat circuitous fashion, to Universal's brand-new, here-we-go-again repackaging of The Mummy. Unconnected to either previous effort, the film (directed by Alex Kurtzman, from a script by David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dylan Kussman) is meant to raise the curtain on Universal Monsters 2.0 or, as the studio is confidently calling it, "Dark Universe," which promises an entire roster of interconnected creature features inspired by the originals but presumably given some of that 21st century zazz.

Sadly, if this debut offering is anything to go by, it's looking like the Universal Monsters brand may be headed back to the crypt a little sooner than anyone would have liked. The film stars Tom Cruise as globetrotting soldier-of-fortune Nick Morton, on the hunt for rare antiquities in hopes of turning a quick profit. While assigned to the US military in Mosul, Morton inadvertently uncovers the tomb of cursed Egyptian princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella, who's made a strong mark in Star Trek Beyond and Kingsman in years past), mummified alive in ancient times for killing her Pharoah father, killing her infant brother, and making a deal with Egyptian death god Set. 

Of course, given that the movie isn't called "The Mummy Sitting on Display in a Museum Without Incident," it's not long before Madam Mummy shakes loose from her full-body bandages in Merry Ol' England and sets about raising an army of the dead in service of her goal -- which just so happens to involve driving a McGuffin-encrusted dagger into our erstwhile Ethan Hunt's midsection. Soon enough, Morton makes the acquaintance of one Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), head of the mysterious Prodigium organization (satisfying the "enigmatic international organization" requirement for your movie universe), and who himself has something to...(wait for it)...Hyde. (Yes, I'll show myself out, thank you.) 

The problems with The Mummy are many and multitudinous, but they all come down to a sense of not quite knowing what kind of movie Kurtzman and Co. wanted to make. Is it a horror flick like the original? An adventure yarn like the first remake? A little of both? Neither? You'll get an entirely different answer depending on which part of the film you happen to be watching. There are some genuine moments of thrills and terror (a plane crash sequence featuring Cruise and love interest Annabelle Wallis that the trailers have played to death still manages to be impressive when viewed in full context), but they're always undercut by the film, in essence, winking at the camera.

Part of this problem -- making audiences aware of the artifice underlying the proceedings -- is inevitable when you cast a star with the visibility of Tom Cruise in the primary heroic role. Cruise's indomitable screen identity is so thoroughly established in action movies like this (and if you're a fan of the "Tom Cruise running at full speed" sub-genre, hoo-boy, your ship has come in) that there's never a sense of stakes or drama. It's one thing to watch him swinging from a skyscraper or hanging off an airplane in a Mission: Impossible picture because we know that, when all is said and done, he's never in any danger, nor are we really supposed to even think he is beyond the initial ooh-aah of the stunt itself.

But with a story like this, Cruise's persona ends up at cross-purposes with what the film itself is trying to accomplish. (Not helping is that he's reached the point where he's probably too old to be playing characters like the one he's been given here.) As a result, by the end I wasn't entirely sure what the film was trying to accomplish. It takes a reasonably engaging set-up in the first half, and squanders it on a haphazard third act that goes big on CGI but forgets to make us care about much of anything we're seeing onscreen, culminating in a conclusion that's borderline incomprehensible (though, to be fair, there is a sequence near the end with Cruise trying to out-swim a horde of reanimated Crusader corpses that I found genuinely gripping).

As someone who grew up watching the Universal Monsters at a very young age and has retained my childhood fascination with the iconic creatures, I'm certainly not rooting for these films to fail (and they've already got a new Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man queued up in the barrel). However, in trying so hard to lay pipe for interconnected franchises yet to come, the studio and filmmakers forgot to make the Dark Universe's debut compelling in its own right. Though I assumed going in that I'd find the "universe" stuff paying forward future films the most off-putting, that's actually the reason I'm still intrigued. As for The Mummy itself? Probably best to put it back under wraps. D

For more Mummy talk, as well as an in-depth discussion of Wonder Woman, and my interview with director/writer/star Zoe Lister-Jones about her new film Band Aid, check out the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast via this link or the embed below:

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