I have never seen a movie work harder or more hopelessly than Universal’s new The Mummy, not merely to launch a new franchise, but to jump from a standing start into a full-blown Marvel-style shared cinematic universe in one go. Even Batman v Superman, as hard as it worked to get within striking distance of Justice League, at least had Man of Steel to build on. (The Mummy was originally supposed to build on Dracula Untold, just as Kong: Skull Island was a prequel to Godzilla, but that idea was staked through the heart.)
Another thing Batman v Superman had going for it was that the DC universe is well-established, much-rebooted terrain, so there’s a lot to draw on. If you want the Mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and all the other Universal Studios monsters all baked into the same narrative pie, you’re working from scratch, and to do that you must first create the universe.
Or you could just do what Kong: Skull Island did, and what The Mummy also does, which is steal from Marvel’s template. Both films include covert S.H.I.E.L.D.-type organizations as the hub of their universal premise, only instead of recruiting superheroes they investigate monsters. In the “MonsterVerse” of Kong there’s a government agency called Monarch (introduced in Godzilla). In the “Dark Universe” of The Mummy it’s a private operation called Prodigium run by Russell Crowe as Universal’s answer to Nick Fury, Dr. Henry Jekyll. Yes, that Dr. Jekyll — and he plays the other guy too, so he is also kind of the Dark Universe’s answer to Bruce Banner.
Both films also drop Easter eggs promising, or threatening, characters we haven’t seen yet. Kong drops hints of Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah. The Mummy offers relics hinting at Dracula and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I saw no relics of Frankenstein’s monster or the Wolf Man. If there were any Invisible Man relics, how would we know?
If you’re having trouble telling them apart, just remember: The MonsterVerse is where the building-sized monsters live, and the Dark Universe is where the human-sized monsters live. If you’re still having trouble remembering, why are you trying to remember in the first place?
Alarmingly, The Mummy is the third would-be cinematic big bang in as many months, after King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Kong: Skull Island (even if Kong doesn’t quite count). The shared universes are multiplying faster and faster, like inflationary multiverse theory. We must just hope a big crunch is coming to Hollywood, and the sooner the better.
Of the recent big-bang movies, The Mummy, directed by Alex Kurtzman and written by a committee that includes David Koepp and Christopher McQuarrie, is the feeblest and most exhausted. Yes, even feebler than King Arthur, which was at least occasionally livened by Guy Ritchie’s trademark flashback/flash-forward set-piece storytelling. The Mummy is not livened by anything at all, except perhaps Crowe, who sparkles briefly as an ambiguously affable Jekyll. Even the redoubtable Tom Cruise seems lost as a boringly written opportunist, boringly named Nick Morton — a directionless character in a directionless movie.
It’s not so much that The Mummy is a bad movie as that it’s hardly a movie at all. It’s a pastiche of genre elements — a blend of horror, action, comedy and romance of the sort that was done reasonably successfully in the 1999 Brendan Frasier version, though this film is almost never scary, exciting or funny, and never, ever romantic — buried under an avalanche of plot and world-building.
When the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie came out 10 years ago, I coined the term “mythology-bound” to describe how franchises tend over time to become overwhelmed by the growing complexity of too many rules, institutions, characters, back story and so forth. Sometimes, as with The Matrix Reloaded, this can happen as early as the second film. Now we have a depressing new phenomenon: movie universes that come mythology pre-bound, launched by films aspiring so earnestly to the condition of middle-aged franchises that they begin with middle-aged spread and then try to backfill the bones and brains.
The Mummy is so eager to bring us up to speed that within the first five minutes or so Crowe’s Jekyll is explaining to us the occult origins of our mummy, Sofia Boutella’s Princess Ahmanet, and how she came to be mummified alive and elaborately buried in Iraq 1,000 miles or so from the ancient Egyptian capital city of Memphis. This might be the worst possible opening. On the one hand, it destroys the sense of mystery and suspense of a cold modern-day opening, like the 1932 original starring Boris Karloff. On the other hand, it lacks the dramatic and emotional connective tissue possible with a real prologue backstory, like the 1999 version (no masterpiece, but at least it told a story). The upshot is that Ahmanet’s story as it’s told to us is neither cogent nor mysterious.
We’re told that the beautiful but cunning and ruthless Princess Ahmanet was first in line to her father’s throne until he sired a male heir. Pop quiz: Realizing that “power is not given, it must be taken,” does Ahmanet decide to:
If you guessed c, you are correct. The question is, why not just a? The whole unholy covenant thing is a drastic escalation; what exactly does it do for her plans? I can think of ways to answer this question, but if the filmmakers don’t care, why should I?
Ahmanet’s sarcophagus is found buried in a hidden underground chamber carved from solid rock, immersed in a pool of mercury (which apparently has special evil-countering properties), surrounded by an array of traps and chains, flanked by guardian images ominously facing inward rather than outward. Archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), assessing these clues, comes up with an ominous conclusion that … we already knew: It isn’t a tomb, but a prison. That line could have had some punch, if we had started here and not with the Jekyll flashback business.
Would you be amazed if, in spite of the extreme importance of keeping that sarcophagus immersed in that pool of mercury, it turned out that there were chains connected to a system of counterweights designed to dredge it up if the right chain were broken? My 16-year-old son, ranting about this afterward, said it was like a deathtrap “designed by Doofenshmirtz.” If you don’t know what this means, you have a great discovery ahead of you. There is even a mummy in the theme song and in one episode, and every single episode is much better than this film.
The movie has more issues than I could catalogue — I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned the slain character who becomes a chill, chatty corpse à la American Werewolf in London — but I’d like to look briefly at what we can say so far about the religious dimension of the Dark Universe.
That’s because God is all over this universe — in reverse silhouette, conspicuously present by his absence.
The movie opens with a title card borrowing from the 1932 original: “Death is but the doorway to new life. We live today. We shall live again.” The very first image is a glimpse of medieval Crusader knights, complete with red crosses on their tunics, chanting in Spooky Latin as they bury one of their own in a hidden crypt along with a red jewel that will turn out to be important later. The Crusaders bring another important artifact to England hidden in a reliquary, which is discovered by Ahmanet in an abandoned church. (A mystical pagan artifact in a reliquary?) Ahmanet chooses this church as the site for an unholy ritual, and in the ensuing action the church is smashed up a bit.
We first meet Nick and his Army buddy Chris (Jake Johnson) in Iraq, where they are focused on looting antiquities before they get demolished by violent iconoclastic insurgents. So, by implication, Islam as well as Christianity is part of this world. Finally, we have the Egyptian deity Set, here explicitly identified by Jekyll with Satan or Lucifer (much as Wonder Woman effectively turned Ares into a Lucifer figure).
Perhaps most intriguingly, when Jenny says something in ancient Egyptian to Ahmanet about the “old gods,” Ahmanet replies scornfully, “The old gods?” Then she taunts Jenny with the mysteries of the afterlife, promising her that she’ll learn the truth when Ahmanet kills her. Jenny appears to take for granted that the “old gods” have been displaced, at least historically and culturally, by another. Assuming sequels are made, will they continue to be about characters who fight demonic evil in a world marked by belief in one God without bringing God into it?
Will the Dark Universe Dracula be repelled by crosses, holy water and the Blessed Sacrament? Will the Dark Universe perhaps go the route of some of the Hammer films, in which only a cross wielded by a true believer repels vampires? Will the question simply not come up? (I didn’t see Dracula Untold, but it seems the cross did its usual thing there.)
I can’t hate The Mummy or be angry at it — it doesn’t rise to that level — but there is one twist that sort of offended me, in the same sort of quasi-sacrilegious way as the shattering of Gandalf’s staff in the extended edition of The Return of the King. (I’m pleased to note that this point was called out by at least one other critic, Stephen Whitty of NJ.com.)
This was not Ahmanet smashing the head of an angel statue to retrieve something inside, or some such thing. It was the late-breaking revelation that Ahmanet — who has the power to command the corpses of those whose life-essence she drains from their bodies — is also able to summon the Crusader knights from their sarcophagi and bend them to her will. (As in the 1999 film, the mummy’s dessicated frame becomes more presentable with each life taken.)
The image of the corpses of Christian knights kneeling to Ahmanet is just wrong. These aren’t her corpses, and she should have no power over them. “Wouldn’t Crusaders rise up against a pagan ruler?” Whitty muses. Wouldn’t that have been awesome?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.