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By Valerie Kalfrin · July 18, 2017
Whether you’re building one film or several with story threads and characters that intertwine, you need a solid foundation with a focused story and a clear tone. The latest incarnation of The Mummy, a Tom Cruise summer vehicle meant to launch interconnected films with our best-known movie monsters, is built on sand. It sinks in one part, then another, and winds up a misshapen mess.
That’s unfortunate considering the potential scope and the history involved. From the 1920s through the 1950s, Universal Studios brought audiences multiple films about the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Film legends like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney Jr. appeared in several of these.
The studio’s term for its classic-horror heyday has been “Universal Monsters” or “Universal Horror,” but with The Mummy, we now have the banner of “Dark Universe.” Variety, for one, argues this is unnecessary, saying Universal pioneered shared cinematic universes thanks to mashups like 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. But the concept that it takes a monster to catch one has inspired films as diverse as 1991’s Silence of the Lambs to 2014’s Godzilla.
The current Mummy is a woman (Sofia Boutella of 2016’s Star Trek Beyond), an Egyptian princess who made a pact with an evil god to secure her place on the throne. Directed by Alex Kurtzman (producer of 2009’s Star Trek and the TV series such as Hawaii Five-0 and Scorpion), the film co-stars Russell Crowe and the ageless Cruise, who can carry a film through sheer will and kinetic energy. The credited writers are David Koepp (1996’s Mission: Impossible, 2002’s Spider-Man), Christopher McQuarrie (2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, 1996’s The Usual Suspects), and Dylan Kussman (the 2010 web series The Steps). Story credit goes to Kurtzman, Jon Spaihts (Prometheus, Doctor Strange), and Jenny Lumet (Rachel Getting Married).
But the storytelling just isn’t solid, and audiences domestically have noticed. The film has a production budget of $125 million but has grossed about $78 million nationwide after five weeks of release as of July 9. Its overseas numbers are better, raking in about $307 million, enough to guarantee the next Dark Universe chapter: Bride of Frankenstein. That’s scheduled for a 2019 release; Kurtzman, Koepp, and three other writers are credited with the screenplay.
Let’s hope that’s an improvement. To keep your own project from unraveling, here are some of The Mummy’s missteps. (Some spoilers follow.)
The Mummy has loads of ambition. Along with unleashing horror from a hidden tomb, the film also springs the idea of a present-day monster-hunting organization. Either is meaty enough to sustain a feature, but packing both into the same one does neither any favors.
When Marvel Studios started what it hoped would be a shared superhero universe with 2008’s Iron Man, the story focused on one plot: how billionaire genius inventor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) changed from a weapons manufacturer into a hero. The film hinted that this world was bigger than what Stark knew: one S.H.I.E.L.D. agent kept asking for a debriefing during the film, and S.H.I.E.L.D. boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) said maybe five lines about “the Avenger Initiative” in a post-credits scene. Anyone who didn’t know about S.H.I.E.L.D. or the Avengers could still enjoy the story without feeling lost.
The Mummy starts too late with unnecessary flashbacks, exposition, and narration. The first few scenes show us a Crusader buried with a red gem, the Crusader’s tomb discovered during an expansion of the London Underground, and Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) visiting this tomb to read hieroglyphics. Jekyll in voiceover describes the Egyptian princess Ahmanet (Boutella) and why she was mummified alive.
Then we jump to Iraq, where Tom Cruise as Nick Morton is supposedly an Army recognizance officer scouting for insurgents but calls himself a “liberator of antiquities.” He fingers a note and a map of the area before he and his buddy Vail (Jake Johnson of TV’s New Girl) get into a skirmish that results in an airstrike. That opens a hole in the ground leading to Ahmanet’s tomb.
This hodgepodge gives us no sense of whom these characters are or why we should care about them. It also robs Nick of any meaningful growth when he later becomes unselfish. Jettison the Crusaders and introduce us to Jekyll in his element, showing his excitement over the significance of this discovery. Lose the Crusaders, Jekyll, and the Egyptian flashback to show Nick sneaking off to seduce archeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis of the BBC’s Peaky Blinders) and snatch that map. Or open in ancient Egypt, tell Ahmanet’s story, and then show Nick swiping the map and stumbling upon the tomb.
The Mummy in 1999 and The Mummy Returns in 2001, both with Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, entertainingly blended action, light comedy, family-friendly scares, flirty romance, and clear plot points and consequences. This Mummy never decides whether it wants to be campy or frightening.
The cursed Vail visits Nick as a wraith, an homage to 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, spilling how Ahmanet wants Nick because he freed her from her tomb (more on that below). She wants to reincarnate an evil deity in him, but we never know what will happen if she does.
Meanwhile, Ahmanet sucks the life out of people, throws them around with super strength, and summons waves of black dust. When she gets Nick in her clutches, she straddles him, pokes skeletal fingers in his mouth, and runs her hands over his abs, as if validating that he’s a good choice.
A fantastical story becomes stronger when grounded with concrete touches, even just realistic character reactions. But no one in The Mummy acts with a brain when the plot requires otherwise.
Take how Nick unearths Ahmanet’s sarcophagus. Moments after the airstrike that reveals her tomb, Nick’s commanding officer (a wasted Courtney B. Vance) arrives and says he’s onto Nick for scouting for antiquities instead of insurgents. Just then, Jenny drives up, slaps Nick, accuses him of stealing her map after they’d slept together, sees the tomb, and wants to explore. The commanding officer orders Nick to go with her for safety. Huh?
Inside, Jenny notes how the decor indicates that the deceased was someone the Egyptians thought was evil. She wants to contact Cairo. As if thinking, “Cairo, Schmairo,” Nick chops through a rope-and-pulley system, hoisting the sarcophagus into the air and arousing Ahmanet.
Then there’s Dr. Jekyll, the head of this monster-hunting organization. Anyone with cultural literacy knows that Jekyll has a murderous alter ego, Mr. Hyde. (Nick has never heard this name before.) Jekyll keeps Hyde at bay by injecting himself with a special immunization gun that fires four vials of antidote at once. For each dose, he loads the vials one by one and injects himself into his suddenly cloven hoof, neck, or whatever’s handy.
The first time he does this, struggling to speak as Hyde percolates below the surface, we know he’ll fail at some point because the whole routine is too dang complicated. People nowadays carry asthma inhalers and EpiPens. How about Dr. Jekyll wearing the equivalent of an insulin pump?
The filmmakers behind The Mummy wanted to usher in what Jekyll called “a new age of gods and monsters.” Instead, the film is a horror for all the wrong reasons.
Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning veteran crime journalist turned entertainment writer. A member of the Florida Film Network, she writes reviews and analysis for The Script Lab, Signature Reads (formerly known as Word and Film), and The Tampa Bay Times, among other publications. She’s also an emerging screenwriter and script consultant. She lives in Florida.