Thursday, June 15, 2017

'The Mummy' review

Dark Universe feels like an exercise in futility, but that won't stop the good people at Universal from trying. Even though the studio already houses a plethora of big ticket franchises like the Fast and Furious series, the Jurassic World films, and the Despicable Me cash cow, in the eyes of studio executives, you can never have enough surefire hits based on recognizable properties. So since the breakout success of The Avengers in 2012, Universal has been trying to replicate the shared universe format with their Classic Monsters, bringing together Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and more for some kind of team-up movie. The whole thing had a serious lack of vision for a while, leading to the disappointing box office of Dracula Untold. But as the stakes grew, Universal decided to lay it all out there. They put together a massive press release last month, announcing stars, movies, and labeling the connected series of films as the "Dark Universe."

In some ways, this showed that the people at Universal were ready to make this work, and in other ways, it came off as desperate. Going into the press release, The Mummy was not tracking well at all, and Universal needed something to get butts in seats. So they scrambled to announce the next steps for Dark Universe, hoping that it would pique audience interest and turn Alex Kurtzman's massive production into a hit. There was a lot riding on this movie from both a commercial and critical perspective, and Universal needed something that would solidify Dark Universe as an important franchise to watch. Unfortunately, that didn't turn out to be the case- The Mummy is currently the worst-reviewed film of the summer, and in addition to those widespread pans, it bombed in North America. Worldwide box office was better, but there's no question that the Dark Universe is on shaky ground now. 

I remember when the first trailer for The Mummy played in front of some NFL game last year, and my immediate response was "No, no, no." This looked like everything that I wanted Dark Universe not to be- I wanted a new series of horror movies, not some overblown action fest. As the marketing campaign pushed forward, I eventually settled into the idea that The Mummy would be just another big, expensive summer blockbuster. And on the surface, it didn't look particularly bad- there seemed to be some fun adventure stuff, Tom Cruise is usually pretty reliable, and Universal opted to open the film in the heart of summer, the same spot that led to massive worldwide numbers for Jurassic World. But ultimately, there isn't much beyond the surface level shine of The Mummy, as it quickly reveals itself to be another tedious, soulless film that doesn't really know what the hell it wants to be. Simply put, The Mummy is a very, very bad movie, one that starts Dark Universe with a pathetic whimper.

The Mummy is the story (?) of Nick Morton (Cruise), a soldier who specializes in stealing things and finding antiquities across the globe. As the film opens, Morton and fellow soldier Chris Vail (the ever-reliable Jake Johnson) are in modern day Iraq, searching for some kind of treasure that they believe is in the area. After an air strike saves them as they're being surrounded by insurgent forces, they discover that there's an ancient Egyptian tomb buried beneath the surface. Why is there a tomb from Egypt thousands of miles from the country? With the help of archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), Nick and Chris investigate the tomb and realize that this was really a prison for a force of pure evil. Being the brash moron that he is, Nick accidentally unleashes this evil, setting in motion a series of events that will change his life for the worse.

This ancient evil is known as Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), a being of true cruelty whose jealously led to a pact with Set, the god of death. In order to bring Set back into the world of the living, Ahmanet needs a human host. At the last possible minute back in the days of the Pharaoh, she was stopped, leading to her being imprisoned in the top-notch tomb. Now that she's unleashed, she has a new human host in mind, and he just so happens to be the protagonist of the story. But to bring Set to life in the form of Nick, Ahmanet will need some kind of magic dagger, one that was separated during the days of the Crusaders. Ahmanet has the dagger, but she needs the stone to make it work- a stone that is currently under the protection of Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) and the good people at Prodigium. Basically monster S.H.I.E.L.D., Prodigium is devoted to guarding our world from the forces that threaten us. The result is a convoluted trek across London with lots of running, shooting, and other dumb things.

The Mummy has lots of pieces in place to be a successful piece of entertainment, but it's one of those films that never coheres into anything. It has a weak script that amazingly required the talents of six writers (David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, Dylan Kussman, Jon Spaihts, Alex Kurtzman, and Jenny Lumet are all given screenplay or story credits), an untested director behind the camera, and a lot of complex baggage coming from its position as the Dark Universe kick-off. The result is this weird middle ground between an average dull blockbuster and a misshapen fiasco like Suicide Squad, and the fact that it never firmly falls into either category makes it all the more fascinating. For the most part, The Mummy is just a chore to watch, the kind of movie that is shrill, loud, and constantly trying to amuse the audience to no avail. Honestly, I'm not opposed to the idea of the Dark Universe, but if they want me to stay on board, they're gonna have to do something much more interesting than this.

The Mummy is at its worst when it's actually trying, which is a funny thing to say about a movie. Usually, you want a film to at least make an attempt to be good, right? The problem is that Kurtzman and company don't seem to be content with making a schlock action horror movie- they're consistently striving to do something more. The most egregious error involves the character of Nick Morton, who is bland, unsympathetic, and just plain terrible in every way. So yeah, doesn't it totally make sense to have his character be the emotional core of the movie? Every character choice made by Nick is unbelievably laughable, and the "arc" that Nick takes is downright absurd- it's so bad that not even a bona fide movie star like Tom Cruise can pull it off. The forced emotional beats in The Mummy show an extreme lack of self-awareness on the part of the filmmakers, which is an issue that extends to the rest of the movie.

Tone is another big problem in The Mummy, and it's clear from the first moments that during the course of production, nobody really sat down and figured out what they wanted this movie to be. Is it supposed to be an adventure comedy in the vein of the Brendan Fraser trilogy from the late '90s/early 2000s? There are moments early in the film that certainly are meant to make you laugh. Or is it designed as a straight horror movie, setting the tone for Dark Universe as a scary franchise? Well, there are some moments that are generally pretty frightening. Or is it just a regular action movie, similar to the output from Marvel and other Tom Cruise projects over the years? Those elements are present as well. This leads to the question- what is Dark Universe? Are they trying to replicate Marvel and DC or are they going to do their own thing? Matt Goldberg at Collider seems to think that they're aiming to create their own superhero franchise using these characters, but that goal is never clearly established. The Mummy sees Kurtzman and the screenwriters running around like a chicken with its head cut off, throwing everything at the wall and hoping that some of it sticks.

And lucky for them, some of it does. I actually kinda bought into the whole Prodigium thing, and I like the idea of Russell Crowe being the Nick Fury of Dark Universe, even if the Mr. Hyde stuff is straight-up preposterous. Jake Johnson is actually fairly decent in the movie at times, even if they do this weird American Werewolf in London thing that really doesn't pay off at all. Unfortunately, these fun or engaging elements are stuck in a film that ranges from predictable to haphazard, an uneven blend of recycled garbage with a story that, frankly, sucks. Actors like Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, and Courtney B. Vance are completely wasted, and even the action scenes fail to be distinct or memorable in any significant way. The Mummy is dreadfully messy, featuring lots of running and screaming over the course of its 110 minute runtime that all leads to nowhere. To be quite honest with you, it's difficult to remember anything about it once those credits roll.

As a kick-off for the concept of Dark Universe, The Mummy probably could be worse. As bad as this movie is, I still wanna see more out of some sense of morbid curiosity. But as an actual piece of cinema, The Mummy is about as tedious as a blockbuster can get. It's the kind of soul-sucking "entertainment" that evaporates as soon as you leave the theater, and the fact that this film tries to be more than that is genuinely laughable at times. It's dark, ugly, and stupid, with some of the most distracting 3D I've seen in recent memory. It's been a pretty good summer so far, but it's safe to say that you can skip The Mummy and never even think twice. 

THE FINAL GRADE:  D+                                           (4.6/10)

Poster courtesy of Universal
Images: Coming Soon

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