You get a shared universe, and YOU get a shared universe, everybody gets a shared universe!
In the wake of Marvel’s outrageous financial and mostly critically friendly success with their set of interconnected films, every major studio wants in on the action. That includes the linked films of their once crosstown rivals, DC Comics; a series of movies that bring the Knights of the Roundtable to the big screen; and even the one time Eastern cinematic giant Godzilla, with a showdown with King Kong, who made his own return to cinemas this year. But Universal, which came out swinging two years ago with a trifecta of box office hits in Furious 7, Minions, and Jurassic World, saw their fortunes fade a bit in 2016, with The Secret Life of Pets being their lone breakout hit.
As such, the studio had been hard at work trying to resuscitate the one existing shared universe property they own, in their catalog of monsters. Once the originators of the concept, with creatures like The Wolfman going toe to toe with Frankenstein’s monster, and Dracula eventually tagging along in a usually unrelated fashion (seriously, have you ever seen House of Frankenstein? It’s like two pretty bad movies fused together), the big wigs behind scenes have spent decades trying to recreate that spark that once thrilled audiences of the pre-Cold War era. They had their best go at it with the Brendan Fraser starring The Mummy franchise, but after that saw embarrassing attempts like Van Helsing, The Wolfman remake, and an actual shared universe false start in Dracula Untold (think Green Lantern to this new Mummy’s Man of Steel and you’d about have the score of it).
And so, here comes the Dark Universe, which is initially blazoned across the screen like a bad parody of the Marvel and DC logos that pop up before their respective efforts. I’m sad to say, a bad parody just about sums it up where this new take on our favorite wrapped-up creature is concerned.
Brought to you by one-half of the duo that spearheaded such cinematic classics as Star Trek: Into Darkness and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Alex Kurtzman turns one of the more haunting Boris Karloff originals into a painstakingly dumb action film that veers all too often into a territory resembling one of those fake bad movies that would show up in Tropic Thunder or Extras. You can practically see the look on Tom Cruise face that screams, “who writes this shit?” as he warbles off another piece of awful 90’s one-liner dialogue.
As this entire project seems to be designed to get Cruise, Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem and Russell Crowe in on the same sort of backend style money that made Robert Downey Jr. a fortune, you can imagine that this first go with what was once one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars is built to center all around him in the most savior-like way imaginable. And boy does it ever: Cruise plays a Nathan Drake-style protagonist named Nick Morton, a long-range specialist in the military whose flexible morality leads he and his pal Sgt. Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) into all kinds of monkeyshines. Of course, when a mission they’re involved with over in Iraq uncovers a hidden burial chamber, they and archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis, whose initial presence in the film is to act as an exposition device) accidentally let loose the ancient Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella). This princess, whose whole shtick is to stab a fellow with a ceremonial rubied dagger in order to summon the Egyptian deity Set, takes a shine to Morton. And from there begins what is basically a two hour film where an increasingly beautiful woman cannot stop pursuing Tom Cruise, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg on the ego stroke of its star.
I knew from the outset that we’d run into trouble, as The Mummy begins with not one, but two flashbacks, one of which is narrated by Dr. Henry Jekyll (Crowe). The filmmakers, having no actual faith in their audience, return to that second flashback sequence at least two more times, maybe even three…I lost count after awhile. Even worse is that other than Morton, every other character – and I used that term loosely for the ciphers that populate this one’s running time – exists to explain either the Mummy herself, what’s happening to Nick, or the wider consequences of the all too quickly growing Dark Universe. The script, which was clearly the victim of multiple rewrites by the six credited scribes involved, including Kurtzman, never gives you an opportunity to understand anything about its cast. Not even Cruise gets more than a moment to breathe before he’s being thrust back into gear-turning moments that scream “set up for future installments” by way of the Jekyll-led Prodigium, a secret monster hunting organization that gets plopped right into the middle of the second act and never goes away. The few times we aren’t dealing with orations about the “new world of evil”, we’re treated to awful, cringe inducing romantic overtures between Morton and Halsey, and let me tell you, Wallis has romantic chemistry with Cruise that registers somewhere around unfamiliar coworker. This is supposed to be the central emotional hook of the story.
It also shamelessly rips off An American Werewolf in London, and in my neck of the woods, that’s an unfathomable sin.
The monsters themselves fare a tad bit better, but it’s real hard to polish a turd this smelly. Boutella, usually a nice standout in the two recent blockbusters in which she graces, works hard to establish Ahmanet as a fearsome presence, but is constantly undone by the shoddy happenings surrounding her. And while he’s emblematic of all the problems with the film and its intentions, Crowe gets one scene that is probably the only actual fun I had the entire time watching it. I left thinking that I’d be somewhat interested in a whole Dr. Jekyll film, if written and directed by someone else, of course.
I had some awfully low expectations going into this, but holy cow did they blow right past them and into the gutter with this production. This coming weekend, if you get the urge to go see this, do yourself a favor and purchase someone in your life a ticket for Wonder Woman instead. That will be a far more enriching experience.
It’s 9 am, on Wednesday June 7th, and I’m calling it on the Dark Universe, dear readers.
Entertainment Editor for The Beat covering film, television and the occasional comic book. His work can also be found at GeekRex.com and can be heard on the GeekRex podcast. Also, your go-to Grant Morrison/Love & Rockets/Hellboy/Legion of Super-Heroes expert.