“Welcome to a New World of Gods and Monsters”
Directed by Alex Kurtzman
Starring Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Marwan Kenzari, Russell Crowe
The first Mummy movie – and, as the original Universal Mummy, the direct ancestor of this current version – was The Mummy (1932), starring Boris Karloff as Imhotep, an Egyptian priest, mummified alive for the blasphemy of trying to restore his girlfriend Ankh-es-en-amon. Restored to life by someone carelessly reading aloud from a scroll, Imhotep seeks forthe reincarnation of his love, intending to kill and mummify her, so that Ankh-es-en-amon can be returned as an immortal mummy. In the nick of time, the girl in question remembers enough of her past life to call on Isis, whose statue ends Imhotep’s unlife with a god laser to the magic scroll.
There have been roughly a shit-tonne of mummy movies since, including a Hammer Horror series, beginning with The Mummy in 1959 which featured Christopher Lee as the title character, Kharis.
The Hammer series wrapped up with Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb in 1971, a rather histrionic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s ‘Jewel of the Seven Stars’ which featured a rare instance of a female Mummy (Valerie Leon).
The next major entry – as opposed to direct to video efforts – was Stephen Somers The Mummy, a 1999 super-loose remake of the 1932 film, but bigger, dumber and just… a whole lot of fun. Featuring Brendan Fraser as adventurer Rick O’Connell and Rachael Weisz as librarian Evelyn Carnahan, this version was a rollicking adventure with an emotionally tough heroine who displayed genuine agency. It was followed by the vastly inferior The Mummy Returns (2001) and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008), which had an interesting idea, but poor execution and a marked lack of Weisz (Maria Bello stepping into the role with an iffy accent.) It also span off the Scorpion King series, so there’s that to thank it for.
The new version is the first film in the ‘Dark Universe’, Universal’s somewhat delayed (Dracula Untold was intneded to be the first, but has since been detached from the franchise) attempt to get on the expanded universe gravy train.
In 1197, a group of crusader knights bury their comrade with a significant red gem. In the present day, the tomb is discovered by Crossrail excavation and taken over by a mysterious group of archaeologists in black, led by a man we will later learn to be Dr Henry Jekyll (Crowe), who proceeds to translate and narrate the story of Ahmanet (Boutella), an Egyptian princess of the New Kingdom who responded to being disinherited in favour of her infant brother by murdering her father, stepmother and the baby after making a pact to bring the god Set into the world. Prevented from completing the ritual, she is mummified alive and buried far from Egypt.
Back in the now-now, cocky soldier/treasure hunter Nick Morton (Cruise) and his more interesting sidekick Vail (Johnson) accidentally discover an ancient tomb in Iraq while following a map Nick stole from archaeologist Jennifer Halsey (Wallis). From the tomb they recover a sarcophagus that might as well be labelled ‘full of evil’ after Nick disregards basic archaeological protocols, which they extract pursued by insurgents, sandstorms and flocks of kamikaze crows which bring their plane down over London, leading Nick to realise that he is basically unkillable, while Vail turns into a zombie, stabs their CO (Vance) and later starts appearing to Nick like a lycanthrope’s victim in An American Werewolf in London.
Visions of Ahmanet draw Nick, while Halsey introduces him to Jekyll and his henchman Malik (Kenzari), and the work of Prodigium, a secret society that fights evil and stuff. Ahmanet wants to stab Nick with the Dagger of Set so that he will become Set’s living embodiment and they can rule the world in an orgy of magic, violence and – it is strongly implied – crazy god sex, while Jekyll wants to stab Nick with the Dagger of Set so that he will become Set’s living embodiment and they can destroy him by… means. Nick would like very much not to be stabbed, and Halsey is on side with this because… reasons.
As Ahmanet breaks free, all parties involved converge on the crusader tomb for a final showdown between evil and… well, largely non-malicious douchebaggery; but we’ll take what we can get.
What’s wrong with it?
This is a film that… to be charitable, let’s say that it homages a lot of other films. The most obvious are Vail’s spectral appearance a la American Werewolf, and the sandstorm face borrowed from the 1999 movie, but if the key to horror is to take the familiar and make it alien and threatening, then this film achieves the opposite: Taking dark, eldritch forces and making them seem familiar and almost comforting.
Halsey wants to learn about Egypt from Ahmanet, but the oh-so-clever princess fails to use this to her advantage, instead just snarking off (because… women, amirite?)
For a secret society fighting supernatural evil, Prodigium is woefully unprepared for mind control. When Jonesy switches off the monster-restraining mercury, it’s time to consider taking steps, never mind when he picks up the fire axe.
After a movie full of badassery, Ahmanet goes down because her boyfriend dumps her for another woman and then snogs her to death. She literally has her power stolen from her by a stronger, male character.
Nick is inspired to make a sacrifice for the greater good. His sacrifice? Gaining the power of a god – including the ability to bring the dead back to life – while retaining his human will, because apparently Set is helpless before the power of boners.
Halsey’s entire role is to be fridged. Even when she ‘rescues’ Nick from Hyde, he’s actually already dosed him with his serum so that he reverts to Jekyll and so has a hand that could be used to open the doors.
Halsey beans Malik with the Book of Amun Ra, which means that they’re asserting that The Mummy (1999) takes place in the Dark Universe. Apparently the world has grown greyer and more po-faced since then… which is probably a fair assessment. Damn that’s depressing.
Jekyll and Hyde… don’t really do much, and what they do doesn’t really require them to be Jekyll and Hyde. There’s this whole backstory that feels shoehorned in.
What’s right with it?
Okay, in fairness, Set is totally the god of being helpless before the power of boners.
Ahmanet is in many ways the most interesting, certainly the most developed, character in the movie. She is almost sympathetic after being captured, despite having murdered a baby, except that she murdered a baby. Boutella plays her arrogance and her insecurity superbly.
The effects are superb, and the sets are impressive.
The jolting movement of the under-mummies is pretty disturbing.
How bad is it really?
The Mummy is deeply underwhelming, not least because of its insistence on trying to sell the Dark Universe with every available moment of screen time, and some that aren’t. Iron Man and even Man of Steel knew better than to run too hard at the franchise during the first installment, and in the introduction of Prodigium, Ahmanet occasionally seems something of a sideshow, and yet we never really get a sense of the history of the organisation either. How long has it been running? How long has Jekyll been alive? There is also the running problem of Tom Cruise, who here – as in Edge of Tomorrow – plays a character who fails to be redeemed through his continued survival. What is worse is that his role is not that of protagonist, but of damsel in distress, but perhaps because he is the big star he is, Wallis isn’t allowed to continue what Weisz began in 1999 and bring the female academic right to the forefront. Instead, Halsey is relegated to a supporting role before being fridged to allow Morton to monster up and restore the gender status quo.
Overall, The Mummy is an also ran, not terrible, but far, far short of the standards of the day, especially as a franchise launcher. There are articles explaining that The Mummy doesn’t need a stinger because it’s all there in the film, but I would argue that it would have been better off relegating Prodigium to a stinger in this film, and giving it a full introduction in another movie.
Best bit (if such there is)?
Accused of murdering her brother for power, Ahmanet replies simply: “It was a different time.” Honestly, it’s as close as you can get to a valid defence of many historical deeds that appear unconscionable to the modern eye.
What’s up with…?
- Ahmanet’s devil’s deal? She’s established to have been a badass, so why does she need to make a deal with Set to murder one old man, a woman who has just been through childbirth and a baby?
- How was the crusader tomb buried and lost for so long, while still being lit by enormous skylights?
- Why is Hyde a cockney?
- Is Jekyll a semi-immortal Victorian, or a modern incarnation of the character?
- How old is Prodigium, and who founded it? Oh! I’m going to guess Van Helsing, although whether they’re going with Gabriel Van Helsing or Abraham (Van Helsing classic) I couldn’t say.
- The mercury feed system in the tomb? Where is it feeding from?
Production values – The film’s VFX is top-notch, but ultimately feels dated because what it’s showing us is so often derivative. 7
Dialogue and performances – The dialogue is weighted with assumed gravitas, which the performers struggle to carry. It’s notable that the only bits of the movie that escape trying to be super-serious are the initial firefight in Iraq and Hyde punching Morton in the face. 11
Plot and execution – The plot gets sidelined for a time by the introduction of Prodigium and the other Dark Universe stuff, and the ending is all mucked up to let Cruise be the hero. 16
Randomness – Ahmanet has a habit of pulling powers out of her ass, but overall the film is consistent. 4
Waste of potential – The film is less fun than 1999s version, and is hobbled by the need to introduce the Dark Universe, so that it succeeds neither by past expectation or its own lights. 14