I saw The Mummy at a drive-in that was showing Cars 3 at the same time across the lot. When the cartoon popcorn implored me to go to the lobby, and I walked to the concrete snack bunker that hasn’t changed a bulb since 1976, I heard a little kid tell his dad, “I can’t believe Lightning McQueen did that at the end.”
That eavesdropped non-mystery gripped me more than anything in the entire two-hour runtime of The Mummy. And I don’t even like Cars.
Watching it inspires a strange kind of cognitive dissonance. It looks like a blockbuster, sounds like one. We see plenty of blockbuster faces deliver blockbuster quips. Blockbuster locations are decimated by blockbuster CGI. But it doesn’t feel like a blockbuster, and not in a refreshing way.
One of the most educational experiences for anyone interested in what makes movies work is a film festival. I don’t mean Cannes or Sundance. I mean the film festival at your nearest community college or three-screen theater. The festivals with application fees less than it’d cost a family of four to actually go to the movies.
Go to that kind of festival and you’ll pick up a thing or two. There will be passion to spare, but rough edges of every shape and sandpaper grade. I only know because I’ve subjected a paying audience to my own rough edges and I’m still deeply apologetic. Sometimes it’s bad lighting – the production only had two desk lamps and a flashlight – or bad camerawork – the DP’s tripod had two legs and a limp – or bad acting – in the world of no-budget filmmaking, sometimes showing up is all you can ask for. But what’s most interesting are the nearly there shorts.
The lighting’s right. There’s sound. The actors should be getting their SAG cards any day now. The script is so tight it’s hermetically sealed.
But the direction is off by an inch. That line that’s clearly supposed to be a joke is delivered like exposition. Levity is bowled over because the director was (not wrongly) focused on getting the shot instead of the performances in it. There are a few jaw-droppingly beautiful compositions, but the rest of it is shot in over-the-shoulders and wide two-shots for safety. A flustered character runs out of a room and comes out the other side calm as Christmas morning because the scenes were shot weeks apart and the director forgot the momentum. Technically, the filmmaker is on the money, but they don’t have the discretion, the discipline or the nuance down.
The Mummy is what happens when you hand that director a Cinematic Universe-starting blockbuster.
Tom Cruise delivers every line like he’s in a Call of Duty cutscene, gruffly regurgitating exposition or reacting to someone else’s plot vomit with only enough distinction to make him a type, but not quite a character, so that the player has paper-thin context for the next empty spectacle of computer-generated mayhem. To say any attempts at intentional humor fall flat would imply that you’d notice an impact. At one point, Jake Johnson’s comic relief tells Tom Cruise’s knock-off Nathan Drake that he’s walked into the women’s room without realizing it. Somehow, even with a few women almost interrupting them and Cruise hastily shutting the door, it’s treated as just another piece of information in a movie that chronically mistakes plot with a random assembly of pieces of information.
The Mummy opens with a 10-minutes A&E special on the history of the titular monster. Just ten minutes of raw information that tells us who the bad guy is, why she’s bad and where she’s going. It’s startlingly uncinematic, and is about as fun to watch as the evening news broadcasts it clumsily copies. If you come in late, though, don’t worry – The Mummy cuts back to this prologue every time a character calls it to mind, almost admitting your eyes probably glazed the first time.
When the actual movie, emphasis on move, starts, it doesn’t fare much better. A blandly competent action sequence hurtles into a halting information dump, followed by another forgettable-but-functional action sequence until the next jolting pit stop for painfully necessary exposition.
The Mummy, to its (dis)credit, saves all those bone-dry explanations for just two characters – Russell Crowe’s Sequel Tease and Annabelle Wallis’s Love Interest. Crowe does an Anthony Hopkins impression for Dr. Jekyll and Bob Hoskins for Hyde. He dresses nice, speaks in trailer lines and manages to make evil as boring as the common cold. You’ll need to watch The Nice Guys immediately after to remind yourself that Russell Crowe can act. I neglected to name Wallis’s character not out of disrespect, but because nobody involved could be bothered to give her anything resembling an identity. She’s supposed to have shacked up with our toothy antihero, but it comes as an accidental twist considering every exchange between them sounds like it’s the first time they’ve met. Not even the characters – the actors. As the only archaeologist in the mix, she’s supposed to be the voice of historical accuracy (read: plot), but she speaks almost exclusively in cliches, screams and that thunderously fake kind of line where the first half says what something isn’t just so the second half can dramatically explain what it really is after a dramatic pause. (i.e., “This isn’t a tomb…it’s a prison.”)
The other laugh comes courtesy of the monster that made this whole mess possible. When Sofia Boutella’s mummy is asked how she killed her entire family, including a baby, she says, “It was a different time.”
Like asking mom about that uncomfortable relative who’s always casually racist at Thanksgiving. It’s hilarious and, considering The Mummy‘s dire sense of humor, entirely unintentional. Other than that, she doesn’t leave much of an impression. Statements from the filmmakers and a few reviews mention the feminist-bent to this reboot. The mummy kills her entire bloodline after the sudden entrance of a baby brother revokes her throne, even adding in voice-over that she learned she’d never be given power – she’d have to take it. But then she only receives her power after making a deal with a male god, Set, and can only truly reign again if she finds the right man to use as a vessel for Set’s resurrection. In practice, this means she’s just the other 30-something chasing after Tom Cruise’s 54-year-old body.
Much energy and attention has been wasted blaming Maverick for everything wrong with The Mummy. The reports claim he had too much control, over the script, the casting, the director, the catering, etc. But with few exceptions, Tom Cruise always does these days and whatever your opinion of him might be, he rarely turns out a genuinely bad movie. The man understands what makes blockbusters work about as much as anyone can.
But The Mummy doesn’t feel like a recipe ruined by too many cooks or a head chef with an outsized ego. The Cinematic Universe clutter reeks of studio mandate, but it’s not an uninteresting concept – it’s just handled poorly, like everything else in the movie.
It’s impossible to assign exclusive blame on any given production considering the veritable army of artists and technicians involved. But in The Mummy‘s case, most of the problems fall on that nearly there director, Alex Kurtzman.
He’s co-written plenty of blockbusters, even if some of them have become shorthand for the worst of their kind (i.e. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Star Trek Into Darkness, etc.). But he’s only directed one other movie, a romantic drama with a tenth of The Mummy‘s budget. Kurtzman’s only the latest in a wave of directors handed an enormous action tentpole after turning out a lone, low-budget feature that in no way demonstrates a competency with action. It’s a studio gamble that’s proved massively successful, especially to the bottom line, with Jurassic World and Kong: Skull Island. But considering The Mummy‘s poisonous critical reception and less-than-expected box office, Kurtzman might be the gamble that convinces the studios to cash in their chips and go home.
The Mummy buries Kurtzman alive, and it’s hard to blame him considering it’s his second time behind the camera. Despite the handful of noteworthy screenwriters (most recruited by Tom Cruise) in the credits, The Mummy is ironically a Frankenstein’s monster of recycled/stolen subplots, destructive CGI and spare parts better left to sequels that look increasingly unlikely by the day. It’s hard to say and useless to wonder if any director could’ve turned The Mummy into something worth watching (and plenty of more experienced hands walked away during pre-production), but its crippling insecurity probably doomed it from the start.
I’d love to know why The Mummy, of all properties, was chosen to kickstart Universal’s Monster Universe. The opening credits call it the “Dark Universe,” but that smells an awful lot like The Walking Dead being too good to use the word “zombies” to me. These are monster movies. The monster movies, really. But they chose to make an action-adventure reboot of the one Universal monster that had a wildly successful action-adventure reboot in the last twenty years. A whole franchise, even, and the 2017 even directly references its Brendan Fraser-based predecessor. The last in that series ended with Yetis playing football. Yet Tom Cruise’s The Mummy somehow has less to do with its horror roots than that series.
The original, 1932’s The Mummy, was cheap even by Universal horror standards. Both Dracula and Frankenstein, produced the year before, had bigger budgets. The director had a storied career as a cinematographer, but The Mummy was his directorial debut. It was successful enough to spawn a bunch of (ever-cheaper) sequels and, eventually, crossovers with other Universal monsters.
See what I’m getting at?
The Mummy, Frankenstein(‘s Monster), Dracula and co. were never intended to be multi-million-dollar franchises. They were cut-rate experiments in horror that happened to be handled by budding, ambitious filmmakers who accidentally revolutionized the genre. Considering the video-on-demand renaissance of independent horror, there’s no shortage of budding, ambitious filmmakers who are already revolutionizing the genre and looking for a big break.
I’m in no position to tell anyone what they should do or should’ve done, but a Monster Universe driven by those folks sounds a lot more interesting and lot more faithful than what we just got. The Mummy doesn’t want its subject matter and it shows like a black eye. It’d rather be the Uncharted movie than anything that might make family audiences skittish, like *gasp* scares.
It took me four days to write this. Each time I stopped, I’d tell myself I must’ve manufactured part of The Mummy in my head. I was too tired to write, getting loopy. Must be. Then like that cliche where someone assumes an adventure was all a dream until they see some artifact from it waiting on their bedside table, I’d realize it was all real. I’d come back to this review, read what I wrote and damn my immediate past-self for rambling.
But when my stream-of-consciousness article is more coherent than the movie it’s raking over the coals, I can’t be that sorry; it’s already more than The Mummy deserves.
So now I’ll end with a list of specific complaints I haven’t managed to weave in anywhere else. There will be spoilers, but I hope at this point you’ve at least decided whether or not you’ll be seeing The Mummy, and whatever your decision, I guarantee your entertainment will not be altered by ruining the movie’s many stupidities.
- Tom Cruise and Jake Johnson are supposed to be morally reprehensible grave robbers but they cast two incredibly likable actors and manage to make their opening grave robbery look more like Indiana Jones fun than anything despicable
- Jake Johnson has no reason to be here
- But thank God Jake Johnson is here
- There’s a writing rule of thumb that says nobody ever says exactly what they’re thinking or planning on doing; The Mummy vehemently disagrees with that rule
- The tomb is only revealed by wanton, unnecessary military force by the U.S. in the Middle East and the movie doesn’t see any problem or commentary in that
- Tom Cruise’s character is a moron, but nobody wants to admit it
- Despite blowing open an entire village looking for treasure, Tom Cruise and Jake Johnson don’t want to explore the tomb for some reason
- More than any of his movies before it, The Mummy really wants you to think Tom Cruise is about 35; you won’t, he isn’t
- When Annabelle Wallis tells her superior that she slept with Tom Cruise and he stole her research, you don’t believe she’d even want to sleep with Tom Cruise
- That’s the first of many scenes that explains events that happened off-screen that would’ve made for more interesting scenes
- Tom Cruise unearths the mummy’s sarcophagus by shooting a rope
- While he does see the rope running through gears around the room, there’s no reason to assume that rope wouldn’t seal them all in if broken
- Everyone else in the movie makes it seem like that rope was obviously going to lift the sarcophagus if broken
- Annabelle Wallis sees the sarcophagus hanging from the ceiling and says “Those chains aren’t holding it up…they’re holding it down,” which isn’t how gravity or chains work
- Freeing the sarcophagus (but not opening it) somehow imprints Tom Cruise on her
- Everyone inhales an awful lot of mercury fumes in this movie without suffering any ill effects, unless it’s all just Tom Cruise’s dying hallucination
- CGI spiders crawl out and the movie forgets to notice them at first
- One bites Jake Johnson; this turns him into a zombie/Griffin Dunne from American Werewolf in London
- They transport the sarcophagus by dangling it from the bottom of a chopper like a wounded horse
- Only when they land and someone bumps the sarcophagus does Annabelle Wallis warn them to be careful with it
- Jake Johnson is very obviously dying in a plane full of people but nobody notices
- Tom Cruise takes issue with Annabelle Wallis claiming he’s bad in bed, but considering the lack of chemistry, this seems less like banter and more like uncomfortable truth – this is funny
- Tom Cruise shoots zombie Jake Johnson three times, which turns him into a spirit that only Tom Cruise can see
- Somehow that’s what awakens the mummy, bringing on a swarm of birds and a plane crash
- Considering it’s the stunt that all the marketing highlighted, you’ve probably seen all of the zero-G plane stunts in the trailers
- Tom Cruise doesn’t die because he’s now the Chosen One, despite the preamble claiming any dude would suffice
- Because Tom Cruise can’t die by anyone’s hand but the mummy, all of the tension dies to compensate
- The MacGuffin is a mystical dagger which is split into two pieces, but the movie never gives a half-decent reason why besides it needs an excuse to go to London
- Nobody seems to care that Tom Cruise is immortal now
- Tom Cruise and Jake Johnson should’ve traded roles
- John Landis deserves a writing credit considering how much this movie “homages” An American Werewolf in London
- Rats attack Tom Cruise for horror reasons, nothing more
- The mummy is needlessly CGI before she restores herself enough to resemble Sofia Boutella
- The rats and the mummy might’ve been a dream
- Annabelle Wallis walks in on Tom Cruise seconds away from sacrifice and he shouts her name like she just caught him in the bathroom with a Playboy
- The CGI-assisted mummy drones are just zombies
- They also die so easily, they seem more like comedic relief than a threat
- A hectic ambulance escape through the woods is the same sequence from Jurassic World with the contrast cranked up
- Tom Cruise and Annabelle Wallis are saved by Deus Ex Sequel Tease
- Why would the Monster Hunters Club be okay with its leader having a violent split-personality disorder?
- Russell Crowe tells Tom Cruise they’re going to kill him to ensure the mummy loses her power; Cruise is livid, but this in no way sounds like a bad plan
- Russell Crowe says evil is a disease; this is almost the tagline of the movie Cobra
- Russell Crowe says evil is an entity, trying to push its way into the world through monsters; this is dumb
- Russell Crowe is awfully lazy about administering the drugs he needs to stay Jekyll
- Someone made Russell Crowe say he was older than Tom Cruise, despite that not being true
- Annabelle Wallis refuses to let them kill the mummy because she could tell them so much about ancient Egypt; no archaeologist in the world would trade an intimate look at history for the potential apocalypse
- Again, mercury fumes
- A quick shot of the 1999 Mummy‘s Book of the Dead only reminds that you could’ve bought that entire trilogy on Blu-ray for the same price as a single ticket to this one
- London is besieged by a sandstorm, totally clean and forgotten about immediately after
- Seemingly half of London is turned into mummy drones and chase Cruise and co. underground; end of movie implies monsters are still a secret to the world
- Only two unnerving scenes – Cruise and Wallis trapped against wall by a train as a mummy drone creeps up alongside them, and a swarm of drones swimming after Cruise – are undone by hero’s immortality
- In the finale, Cruise gets smacked around more comically than anyone intended
- He’s presented a choice – two options – where one is being sacrificed to welcome the god of death and the other is breaking the MacGuffin to gain ultimate power over life and death; option 2 is presented as the obviously worse option
- Cruise takes option 3, commits suicide with MacGuffin and somehow becomes a more powerful mummy; at no point would he have known this could happen and in fact should’ve probably assumed that would’ve welcomed the god of death anyway
- He made this noble decision to save Annabelle Wallis, the woman he only slept with so he could rob
- But despite gaining mummy powers, he growls at the revived Annabelle Wallis and his face goes dog-like for a split-second; I genuinely don’t know if Cruise is supposed to be The Mummy or The Wolfman going forward
- Seriously, the movie is called The Mummy and it stumbles the landing so hard I don’t know if its hero is supposed to be The Mummy now
- In the last scene, I swear they only used takes of the actors rattling off their lines to the script supervisor to make sure they remembered all the words
- Tom Cruise is all covered up and has sand powers, so I really don’t know which monster he’s supposed to be
- Russell Crowe finally says it – sometimes it takes a monster to fight a monster – so we can go home