The Mummy throws everything it has at the screen and some bits stick. The first entry in Universal’s Dark Universe franchise updates the classic monster movie with a touch of the contemporary superhero adventure based on the comic book. There are at least three spectacular action scenes (with one particularly satisfying one in a plane on its way to crashlanding), an effective monster who overshadows the mortal characters, zombies, ghouls and questionable scientists, and the intertextuality and hints at future entries in the franchise that are typical of comic book adaptations. Only a post-credits sequence is missing.
Tom Cruise, more lacklustre and ornamental than normal, plays Nick, an American soldier who operates a side business in pilfering antiques from the ongoing Iraq war with his buddy Chris (Jake Johnson). Along with archaeologist Jenny (a miscast Annabelle Wallis), they discover a long-lost Egyptian tomb where the remains of the malevolent princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) have been interred. Ahmanet’s spirit escapes soon enough, and her quest for revenge spreads to London and attracts the attention of monster hunter Jekyll (Russell Crowe).
Nick has a double duty to perform: he is Amhanet’s chosen vessel to invoke the Egyptian god of death Seth and Jenny’s love interest. Cruise’s disinterest in playing either part is as palpable as his inability to bring much-needed insouciance to a mostly deadly earnest movie. Jake Johnson has a better time as Chris, and even Russell Crowe sheds his recent laziness to play Jekyll and his alter ego Hyde.
The plot is creaky and overcrowded but enlivened by a sure sense of dread and suspense. Debutant director Alex Kurtzman maintains a hectic pace despite the frequent flashbacks, and the gorgeous visual effects, atmospheric production design and fluid camerawork give modern-day London the necessary Gothic feel. Cruise comes into his own only after literally sucking the life out of his adversaries – an apt metaphor for the superstar’s tendency to overshadow every project he has been a part of.
At least in The Mummy, Cruise proves to be a disposable hero in the tradition of the early monster movies. Sofia Boutella’s over-the-top antics are a throwback to an era in which the more memorable characters were the agents of dread rather than the saviours. However, many classic monster movies were also allegories about the politics of the time. The Mummy floats in a vacuum, despite nods to the looting and desecration of antiquities by ISIS forces in the Middle East. It lacks the adventure-for-adventure’s sake quality of the previous franchise, also called The Mummy and starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, and its attempts at humour are as unconvincing as the scene that shows up London doctors as incapable of distinguishing a dead body from a live one.
Future entries in the Dark Universe franchise promise resurrections of Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolf Man, but they have been unleashed on willing viewers several times before. The monsters need better reasons to walk the earth again than human error and greed. That and taking on Tom Cruise.