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Categories: Movie Reviews

Proof that you can’t just will a franchise into existence. The Mummy tries to keep things level but the result is as shaky as Russell Crowe’s cockney accent.

There’s a lot of jargon that surrounds the way that we talk about films, even out of the context of making them, and it can occasionally cause some confusion. For example, people will often say “blockbuster” while the technical industry term for such a film would be “tentpole”. The term “blockbuster” implies that the film’s power is a result of public approval whereas “tentpole” implies more that it was designed to be profitable by the people who made it and that it will be merchandised with or without public approval. Tentpoles are made, as the name would suggest, in order to prop up other ventures.

The Mummy is a tentpole. The primary reason for its existence is for it to kickstart what Universal Pictures has taken to calling their “Dark Universe” (a series of interconnected films based on the classic “monster movie” properties that were released in the 30s, 40s and 50s; Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman etc).

Shared cinematic universes are the craze right now, they’re basically tentpole machines, and, considering they’re one of the few major studios with no stake in the superhero game, it’s Universal’s biggest gambit yet (having already suffered failure on the exact same mission before when the original kickstarter for the universe, 2014’s Dracula Untold, flopped).

Another term you may hear being used to describe The Mummy is the old favourite “popcorn movie”. A “popcorn movie” is what is commonly referred to in technical circles as a “bad movie”. It’s a film that is unengaging, confusing and tedious but is defended by its fans because it does not require you to engage any form of higher brain function while watching it, in fact it’s best if you don’t. It relates to popcorn because of the implication that you can loudly scoop handfuls of popcorn into your mouth while watching, and then spend the rest of the film picking it off your clothing, without missing anything crucial. Because paying attention to a popcorn movie and not paying attention to a popcorn movie garners exactly the same result.

It’s always a little bit tragic when a group of entertaining people come together, with an entertaining concept, and make something lackluster; but it is also quite common. Perhaps the worst crime that the The Mummy commits, though, is not even being an original failure. In the age of never-ending franchises, it can earn you a lot of bonus points to simply try to do something new, but there is absolutely nothing new about The Mummy.

Considering the negative comparisons that people have made between this project and the beloved Stephen Sommers Mummy films, it’s quite odd to discover that, on the most superficial level, it is surprisingly linked to Sommers’ take on the material. It even invites the comparison at one point by shoving a big golden easter egg right down your throat.   

Tom Cruise plays a soldier of fortune who, like Brendan Fraser’s dashing rogue, is only interested in old fashioned treasure hunting and being a charming cad. This is a horrible miscalculation for a number of reasons. Firstly, Cruise cannot pull of this role. So much of Sommers’ leading man, Rick O’Connell, was based around that Harrison Ford/Indiana Jones sexuality and one of Cruise’s defining characteristics is how unaggressive he is as a sexual presence. He’s perfectly handsome but, for whatever reason, there’s never much physical magnetism between him and his female co-stars (Cruise giggling uncontrollably when being felt up by Sophia Boutella is a nice touch).

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, though is the monumentally baffling decision to place the opening of the film in a small Iraqi village located just outside of modern day Mosul. Tom Cruise’s thieving soldier, another very real thing played with a little too much lightheartedness, is even explicitly described as using local “insurgents” (Hollywood’s favourite word for faceless Arabic villains) to cover his tracks as they destroy historic sites. ISIS. They never say the word out loud but that’s what it is. I never thought that it was necessary to explicitly state that you shouldn’t use ISIS as a plot device in your tacky remake franchise cash cow, but here we are.   

Returning to the Indiana Jones comparison, which the film once again foolishly invites, Cruise is also surprisingly mismatched for a lot of the film’s action. His dedication to his stunt work is, as ever, undeniably great but part of what makes the scoundrel protagonist ultimately likable is their tenacity in the face of their just deserts. You root for Indiana Jones not because he’s a rascal but because he’s a rascal who gets the snot beaten out of him at every turn and ultimately loses the thing he was trying to acquire. The same can be said for Cruise’s character but a big part of Cruise’s star persona has always been his seeming indestructibility. As per usual, he goes through the wringer but always comes out the other side with not much more than a small bloody cut on his forehead.

While some reports state that The Mummy became fundamentally controlled by Cruise to work in accordance with his star persona, this is also very likely due to a studio mandate that such a film, designed to hit the most profitable demographic possible, be rated by the MPAA no higher than a PG-13 (12A in the UK).

It’s all very anaemic and very calculated. Soulless, perhaps, would be the word. Not so much inoffensive as bland. The music is inconspicuously generic, the core ensemble irritatingly cliched (handsome leading male, less handsome male comic relief sidekick and anatomically symmetrical blonde female who will work for scale) and the colour palette for the last third of the film is a solid block of grey and black.

No doubt in an attempt to reference the original 1930s film, the story is limited to a discovery in a desert before spending most of the film’s runtime in London (a favourite location of Cruise’s, he lived there for several years of his life). The result is a rip roaring adventure that has most of its action sequences take place in exotic Surrey. At night. It does not set the imagination ablaze.

Its most frustrating quality, though, is still that it is clearly a film that is less than the sum of its parts. Even if he’s miscast, I don’t think it’s possible for Cruise to turn in an uncharismatic performance. Even if he’s once again criminally underused, Jake Johnson is still a mostly effective source of genuine levity and even if the relationship between Cruise and Annabelle Wallis is so sterile that the only romantic interaction between them happens off-camera, she’s still able to develop a decent comedic patter between the two of them.

David Koepp has written very memorable adventures before and Christopher McQuarrie has proven a highly compatible writer for Cruise’s image. Together though, what they muster up is a film that is as generic as they come. Bury your face in a bag of popcorn. Get up to go to the bathroom. Several times. Check your email. It really makes little difference. The plot will frequently explain and re-explain itself, in clear detail, through excruciating expositional dialogue.

It’s very possible that it was simply a “too many cooks spoil the broth” scenario. The Mummy is a film critically lacking in a clear sense of tone and direction. But inconsistency is a trademark of director Alex Kurtzman, one half of one of the most hated screenwriting duos working in modern Hollywood. The Mummy is Kurtzman’s introduction to the world of big-budget action directing, having penned franchise successes such as Star Trek and Transformers, and it may also be his exit from it too.

It would be impossible to say for certain until he develops a larger body of work as a director, in order to provide context, but he would appear to have no discernible visual style. Which is what a studio wants for project like this. Usually, though, this is so that producers can imprint a unique style onto the film that they can control over a longer period of time. There’s very little hope for the future on display in The Mummy, save for perhaps a desire to see someone with a clear sense for aesthetic taking the reins and expanding on the elements that did work here, and its connections to a proposed cinematic universe are by far its most boring parts.

The Mummy is out now in cinemas.

Mark Birrell

Mark is the editor of The Spread as well as a copywriter, film-blogger and lifelong cinephile who received his bachelors in Film and Comparative Literature from the University Of London.

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Posted on Jun 17, 2017

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