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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Review: The Mummy (2017)

* *

Director: Alex Kurtzman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe

I'll give The Mummy this much: it takes stones to start your movie by announcing it as the inaugural entry in the "Dark Universe" when previous attempts to launch the series have already been released and failed (and then disavowed as if they were never meant to be anything of the kind in the first place). As for the rest? Meh. Marketed (in North America, at least) as a "darker" take on the Mummy story that would veer towards horror, it's actually aiming to be an Indiana Jones-style adventure yarn with frequent shots of humor, and if that's what you want to watch, well, you may as well just watch the Brendan Fraser version of The Mummy, which does everything that this one is trying to do (except kick off a shared universe) but much better.

The Mummy finds Tom Cruise in "charming jackass" mode (I'm not necessarily saying that those watching it will find it charming, but the film certainly seems to think he's a delightful rapscallion) as Nick Morton, a member of the U.S. army's long-range reconnaissance patrol who uses his job as a cover for looting and black market dealing of artifacts. Having come into possession of a map that he believes will lead to something valuable, he persuades his cohort, Chris (Jake Johnson), to venture with him into an area of Iraq currently being held by insurgents, which almost gets them killed but also ends up revealing an Egyptian tomb. The discovery of the tomb draws Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), an archaeologist who was originally in possession of the map until she had a one-night stand with Nick and he absconded with it, to the scene and she investigates the tomb with Nick and Chris, which results in the ancient evil within being released back into the world. The evil is Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), an Egyptian princess who made a pact with the God Set but was mummified alive before she could take the final steps to help Set take on a corporeal form. Now having been released from her prison, she's determined to see her plan through and use Nick to accomplish it.

The Mummy is pretty dumb, but that's not necessarily a death knell for a movie. The 1999 version of The Mummy was a dumb movie, too, but it was dumb in a fun way. This version is dumb in a laborious way that leaves all of the Hollywood machinery exposed within the narrative. The Mummy has three credited screenwriters (Christopher McQuarrie, who was presumably brought on board to make the movie more "Tom Cruise friendly" given that he's a credited writer on 5 of Cruise's last 10 movies, David Koepp, and Dylan Kussman) and three more people who get a "story by" credit (Jon Spaihts, Jenny Lumet, and director Alex Kurtzman), and it absolutely plays like the result a whole bunch of people sitting around a table to write a movie with each one getting to contribute one idea to it. So "Person A" says that the story needs to devote some of its time to doing the legwork to set up the upcoming stories of the "Dark Universe" by introducing Prodigium, a secret society dedicated to the supernatural under the direction of Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe). "Person B" says that the protagonist should be a lovable rogue who's only in it for himself - until he isn't. "Person C" says there should be a romance where the two love interests start out as antagonists and the female half gradually lets go of her animosity as she comes to rely increasingly on the male half, who is surprisingly capable. Person "D" says that there should be a funny sidekick whose reluctance to go into dangerous situations makes the protagonist seem more rugged and adventurous in comparison. Person "E" says that the protagonist should be funny, too - but in a rugged and adventurous way. And finally "Person F" says, "But what about the monster?" At which point one of the others replies, "I don't know, but let's make the monster a woman so that she can be a 'sexy update' on the classic and let's make sure she's naked within the first 10 minutes."

The Mummy is a slapdash affair that, assuming it ever did know what it wanted to do with itself, lost its raison d'ĂȘtre somewhere in the process of however many re-writes it took to reduce the importance its villain so that the protagonist could occupy the roles of both hero and monster. Here's Ahmanet's deal: her life was perfect and then her brother was born and ruined everything for her (been there, get that) so she turned to evil. Now, having been released back into the world, she's determined to get Nick so that Set can take over his body. This would fulfill her pact with the deity and unlock the power she's been promised... even though she's clearly already pretty powerful (what with rising from the dead and having the power to raise the dead around her to do her bidding). At best, killing Nick so that Set can take his body will make her less powerful because it will make her the second most powerful creature in the vicinity, meaning that her pursuit of Nick is one that will see her trading her position of dominance for one of submission (at one point she tries to seduce Nick to the dark side by promising to be his Queen, by which she means consort not ruler). The film's whole conception of her is one of subservience - her power in life determined by the men around her, her power in undeath determined by the men around her - and she exists less as a character in her own right than as a plot device for Nick's "origin" story.

While The Mummy has a few decently entertaining moments, such as Nick fleeing from zombies underwater, everything about it is so half-assed that nothing really works as it should. The "love story" is unconvincing despite turning out to be the linchpin of the narrative. The comedic beats largely fall flat, more often than not coming across as forced. The CGI isn't particularly impressive, especially in light of the film's $125 million production budget, and nothing about it made me curious to see where the series will go from here. When you get right down to it, The Mummy is little more than a generic action movie, a film that has nothing of the enduring sinister charm of Universal's original monster movies and which does nothing to distinguish itself from any number of other movies. It would have been better off left in the vault.

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