The Universal monster movies: a time-honoured brand for which there is so much love, which the studio have tried so hard and failed so miserably to resurrect time and again. 2004’s Van Helsing, 2010’s The Wolfman and 2014’s Dracula Untold had all been pitched as launchpads for a new monster movie universe, but none of them won over the crowds or the critics. This time around, Universal have gone for broke and declared their new take on The Mummy to be the first chapter in the Dark Universe (ugh, we’ll come back to that title), with promises of a Bride of Frankenstein reboot next and many more to follow. Alas, The Mummy arrives to widespread critical condemnation, and potential audience apathy in the wake of unexpected smash hit Wonder Woman. So, have Universal bitten off a bit more than they can chew here, and is The Mummy really the disaster-in-waiting that many are expecting?
Well, perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t think The Mummy is anywhere near as bad as it’s being made out to be. I won’t deny, it may be that I’m easy to please when it comes to bog-standard blockbusters (to name but a few, I really like Charlie’s Angels, Sahara, National Treasure, Prince of Persia, and Suicide Squad), but as far as I’m concerned, all any film of this nature really needs to do is provide some enjoyable spectacle and keep things fun. As to whether or not the film in question is particularly inventive, makes complete sense, or is even particularly well put-together: these, to my mind, are all rather secondary concerns, so long as the overall tone of the piece is right.
No, The Mummy is not in any way, shape or form a great film. Yes, it’s dumb, derivative, shabbily assembled and borderline-incoherent at times. However, I can honestly say I never found it boring, and it’s just that bit weird and macabre enough to stand apart from the general blockbuster crowd of 2017 thus far (although Kong: Skull Island surely has it beat in the weird/macabre stakes).
The key thing that keeps The Mummy from being a total loss is the fact that none of the key players appear to be taking it too seriously. While pitched as a total reboot with no relation to the Brendan Fraser movies of the 90s/00s, there’s actually more of that goofy tone here than you might have anticipated, with Tom Cruise playing a little against type as the dim-witted soldier/treasure hunter Nick Morton – a role which, in a parallel universe, Bruce Campbell would be all over – who accidentally unearths a hidden Egyptian tomb whilst on an illicit search for antiquities in Iraq (don’t worry, they do provide an explanation for Egyptians building a tomb so far outside their own borders which more-or-less makes sense so long as you accept this is just a dumb popcorn movie). Yep, more than 30 years on from Top Gun, Cruise is still playing dangerous rule-breakers, and as ever his recklessness comes back to bite him on the arse as, in unwittingly freeing the evil Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), Morton has fallen under a mysterious curse which makes him pivotal to the power-hungry princess’s plans for world domination.
As soon as the first trailers for The Mummy arrived, there was one key film that immediately came to mind for me: Tobe Hooper’s notorious 1985 schlockbuster Lifeforce. We’ve got an unstoppable supernatural force in the form of an extremely sexy lady, and she’s unleashing her evil power in London. This resonance is even more pronounced in the film itself, as there are multiple scenes of Ahmanet gaining sustenance by sucking the life out of hapless men via a kiss of death. Taking this into account, it’s only logical that Tom Cruise is the new Steve Railsback. Again, there are clear similarities here, as Cruise’s Morton shares a psychic link with the bandaged beauty, and her power over him has a strong sexual component (let’s avoid the obvious Tom Cruise insinuations here). Nor is Lifeforce the only 80s horror favourite referenced, as there’s also a recurring homage to An American Werewolf in London, as one character (I won’t name names for the sake of avoiding spoilers) returns to haunt Morton in a manner very reminiscent of Griffin Dunne’s Jack.
Of course, Lifeforce gets much of its entertainment value from how outwardly straight it plays things, whereas The Mummy, as I’ve already noted, has a knowing wink in its eye throughout. This is never more apparent than in the scenes featuring Russell Crowe as one Dr Henry Jekyll, clearly pitched as the Samuel L Jackson of this particular movie universe. Crowe seems to be playing Jekyll as a marginally less deranged version of Mr Knife from The Man With the Iron Fists (another film that’s much better than some have made it out to be); as such he’s clearly under no illusions that this is a film of any particular importance, which I find quite refreshing from an actor once touted as the greatest of his generation.
Interest in The Mummy doubtless got a boost among UK horror fans once it was announced that the film had been given a 15 certificate, but given that it’s a PG-13 in America, it should be obvious straight away that we’re not getting a profanity-strewn orgy of gore and nudity; indeed, it’s a fair bit less grisly than the 12A-rated Kong, which got away with murder thanks to most of the violence being monster-on-monster. Even so, I’m not entirely surprised it got the more restrictive rating given it gets pretty dark at times – dead baby dark – not to mention the prevalence of Sofia Boutella’s mostly-naked body, and a few brief glimpses of naughty bits. Sorry, but in that respect, Lifeforce this ain’t. Although she’s hog-tied in chains at one point, and I have to wonder whether that’s in some way a leftover from the Clive Barker Mummy script which Universal rejected in the early 90s…
Of course, The Mummy has more on its shoulders than simply being an entertaining movie in its own right, as it’s also the official first chapter in Universal’s Dark Universe. And yes, I hate that they’ve chosen to call it that. Not only is it stepping on the toes of Warner Bros/DC, who had been using Dark Universe as the working title for their Justice League Dark movie, but it also seems to be a concerted effort to avoid the horror label. This is a revival of the Universal Monsters, so why not just call it that? Grrr. Arrgh.
Still, as the jumping off point for a new interlocking movie universe, I think The Mummy is a far more promising start than Man of Steel or Batman V Superman were – or, for that matter, Dracula Untold would have been. There are without a doubt plenty of things they could have done better; they could have had a few less action sequences, a stronger story, a clearer sense of just how the curse on Morton actually works. Above all, they could have had a better director than Alex Kurtzman, an experienced blockbuster screenwriter on only his second time behind the camera, showing little flair for it. Yet none of this necessarily means the Dark Universe (if we must call it that) is buggered from the offset. Universal have Gods and Monsters director Bill Condon lined up for The Bride of Frankenstein, with Javier Bardem signed on to play the Monster, so the potential is clearly there for something special.
As to whether or not these films will live up to, or even surpass the classics of the 30s and 40s which inspired them: honestly, that’s not a question worth asking. Almost every classic Universal horror has already been remade in some form or another over the years, and the originals are always going to be there; all these new movies will present is yet another take on those same stories. Certainly I hope the ones to follow will be a bit better than The Mummy, but I maintain that it really isn’t the total crash-and-burn it’s being made out to be.