It would never have been much of a leap to consider the Universal Monsters as inhabiting a shared universe, even if the thought hadn’t crossed my mind until recently, when Hollywood began to shove them down our throats in increasing regularity, with Marvel, and then DC, and now King Kong and Godzilla. If films like Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man suggested as much way back when, the Saturday afternoon creature double features I grew up with preoccupied my mind with wondrous tales of darkness, of tomb raiders, doomed anti-heroes and horrifying creatures of the night, delivered with uniform, consistent melodrama and campy fun. Heck, even more recently, a deluxe DVD boxed set was released last decade, including every old Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man film, accompanied by three monster statues, and it never crossed my mind that these characters actually have nothing to do with one another. That’s why I don’t see Universal’s attempt to ride the franchise bandwagon by resurrecting these storied villains, as part of a newly designed and orchestrated Dark Universe, as that much of an indication of Tinseltown’s creative bankruptcy as fellow critics. The Mummy just continues the tradition. It is solid entertainment, with a rollicking pace, a cavalcade of terrifying, undead monsters, and a great sense of humor, the latter thanks to a very game Tom Cruise, that leaves me excited for future installments, and curious where Universal will take these characters.
Like any Mummy movie worth its linens, Dark Universe’s inaugural film opens with an archaeological pursuit of ancient artifacts, as Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) and Chris Vail (comedian Jake Johnson) play bumbling soldiers of fortune in war torn Iraq who may have seen too many Indiana Jones movies as children. A firefight breaks out when their cover is blown, and an explosion opens up a massive sinkhole revealing an ancient tomb, or as they soon learn from resident expert Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), an archaeologist and former love interest of Nick’s who discovers that he stole the map to the tomb from her, that it’s really a prison sealing up an evil thousands of years old. A prologue before our story begins, narrated by Russell Crowe, who plays a surprise character, informs us that the tomb belongs to Ahmanet, a woman buried alive for trying to bring Set, the God of Chaos, back to human form as revenge for being stripped of her birthright as the King of Egypt after her father finally sired a son. Crowe’s Henry is a scientist who is searching the world over for evil in hopes of containing it in his laboratory, a repository of MacGuffins not unlike Lewis Vendredi’s shop of cursed antiques in the Friday The 13th television series, or the Warren’s collection of possessed toys in The Conjuring films. With this cold opening The Mummy establishes itself as the first chapter of an ongoing saga that has much greater implications, so any scriptural lapses with respect to the story are easily forgiven in this pursuit. A quick extraction of the sarcophagus, and catastrophic plane ride back to London, the film’s first and most prominent set piece, a zero-gravity crash, awakens Ahmanet and her evil plans are renewed, this time with her sights set on Nick to become host to Set, and from this point on The Mummy becomes pure summer, popcorn fun, with one exciting sequence after another, chock full of unexpected surprises and Easter eggs for fans of Universal’s monster films.
Where critics are getting hung up are the many signs that point to The Mummy’s importance as a franchise starter over its own story, and I’ll admit they are legion. But the story is serviceable enough that to me these signs just become bonus points, promises of potential future payoffs. After an attempt to capture Ahmanet our heroes end up at Henry’s lab and the story digresses to include some scenery chewing and world building courtesy of Russell Crowe, who is more fun in this small role than the entirety of last year’s The Nice Guys. At the end of the film the resolution of the central conflict feels perfunctory to setting up the story’s continuation. And even the creative energy behind the film, with trusty script doctors David Koepp and Cruise’s right-hand man Christopher McQuarrie, and unproven director Alex Kurtzman (a writer and partner of Roberto Orici, who together are responsible for all the Transformers films), feels locked into workmanlike rhythms charged with ensuring The Mummy does not end up with too much of its own identity, with Tom Cruise seemingly hired for credibility and box office muscle. In short, this HAS to succeed, and I don’t blame them for streamlining things a bit for general appeal. In splitting the difference they succeeded as well as anyone could have.
One thing people aren’t talking about, though, is the decision to make the mummy a female, and in the process, rather surprisingly, not make her character a slave to her gender. When was the last time a female character became a source of pure destruction, an evil so infectious, a true villain, all out of spite over a stolen birthright? Traditionally that has male lead written all over it, and Sofia Boutella attacks the role with great, ferocious energy, destroying everything in her path, turning the dead into zombies, and the script treats her with respect, as a cinematic equal to Imhotep, the mummy from 1999’s Brendan Fraser-led reboot which ramped up the swashbuckling camp considerably more than Cruise and co. In my opinion The Mummy deserves some of the praise being blindly heaped on Wonder Woman; sometimes a giant signpost advertising feminism is not always the best place to find it.
Even as Universal hopes its summer tentpole will share in the box office glory that Marvel has experienced virtually unchallenged for a decade now, The Mummy is distinguished from its contemporaries even as it whitewashes itself into the norms of inoffensive blockbuster cinema. Finally we get a film that doesn’t end with a ten minute fist fight between two God-like characters who cannot die, which, now that I mention it, is exactly what happens in Wonder Woman, and almost every entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe ever made. Perhaps it’s a happy accident, in the rush to set up the franchise they shortened the climax, but it’s for the best. In the end I don’t care how market-tested and safe this film is assumed to be, it is ultimately a lot of fun, and if nothing else, reboots those childhood feelings inspired by the campy creature features of yesteryear.
The Verdict: Rave