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Nobody sets out to make a bad movie. We’ve all heard that. Certainly, riding on the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Universal would want to capitalize on the trend and build a franchise of their own, and since they own all the rights to classic movie monster titles, it only makes sense that they would go to that well in which draw inspiration. Welcome to the Dark Universe.
The plan of course is to remake the classic monster movies of the Golden Age, including Frankenstein and Dracula (which they kind of already did with Dracula Untold in 2014, but have since abandoned after poor returns), and combine them into a single universe. Kicking it off, and introducing both the Mummy and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is this big budget epic. Maybe. It turns out that The Mummy didn’t exactly make the impact the studio had hoped for (many theaters pulled it after only three weeks with ticket sales dropping by 60%), with box office results far below expectations and both audience and critical dismissal (read our review) of the film in general. Statements were made about marketing and “blockbuster fatigue” but no matter the spin, The Mummy is just a bad movie. But it’s more than a derivative story and over-dependence on visual effects. Let’s explore.
A huge part of the marketing strategy was the reveal that the main antagonist of the film, Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who became cursed after murdering her father in order to resurrect Set, had a double set of pupils, ones that would slip out from the primary set and give her four pupils. Not eyes, just pupils. Sure, it kinda looks cool, but it is far more a visual gimmick than anything useful and indeed is not shown to do anything but do that. We are never given a ‘Mummy POV’ that shows how it benefits her, instead, every poster and trailer featured it as if it were something dramatic. It isn’t, and just goes to show that the filmmakers were more interested in the look than the content. It really is frustrating because you can see right through this as a marketing ploy rather than a story element with no way to use it in an interesting way. Disappointing.
The film’s larger issue is its odd tone. Tom Cruise, who is a talented actor that can carry great action, drama, and comedy, has always had a flare for each and often gives his performances some layers. Here though, he seemed to think he was in a light comedy, or at least a comic book-like adaptation. His co-stars however, and the entirety of the rest of the film, including that of Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe) were much darker. It was an odd directing choice. Cruise is funny in the movie, but unfortunately, the gags thud every time because no one around him is on the same page. It’s a shame to have that kind of charisma and then waste it in a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be. Why make Tom Cruise – one of the biggest movie stars in the world – the comic relief?
Studios seemed convinced that we are only entertained when things are moving fast and with lots of escalating action. Pick any superhero movie franchise and you’ll get the point. Compare 2008’s excellent Iron Man with Civil War. While both are good films, Civil War is 80 percent action with no consequences. We are partly to blame, lobbying gobs of money at these films in the hopes they will offer great escapism, but the truth is, we love the character of Iron Man not because he can fly and punch bad guys (or allies) but because he feels like us. We identify with him in those early appearances. With The Mummy, which is hardly alone in this, there is no slowing down. Every conversation, if there is one, is punctuated by a lengthy action set piece that goes on and on, and while some are impressive, they invariably become dull. Maybe a film like The Mummy doesn’t need a lot of talking, but it sure needs time to slow down and let the fear sink in. This movie never does.
The most important thing about any monster movie in not the monster. Yes, we need to be convinced, but the reason Jaws is so effective is hardly because of the shark. It’s because of the people it threatens. We come to care about them so deeply that the shark has far more impact. That’s a thing so few of any movie that borrows from Jaws seems to get. Same goes for The Mummy. Quick, what was Tom Cruise’s character’s name? Or his job? How about the girl? Can’t remember right? That’s because they are paper thin fodder meant only to drive the action forward, not the plot. There is so much effort in putting these people in peril, we never get a chance to care who they are. It’s too bad, because we all go in wanting to invest. We want the hero to do hero things, but hero-ing isn’t just surviving a conflict, it’s having the vulnerability and humanity within to make us feel glad they did.
Monsters are by definition, scary. That’s the point. The word itself comes from the Latin monstrum, meaning something biologically out of the natural order, a sign of evil that is typically highly objectionable to look at. The thing about monster movies, especially the very ones this film and the planned universe it centers on, were that they were horror movies. Most were black and white and made to scare the bejeezum out of the audience. By no fault of the current The Mummy, the industry, in an effort to get as many seats filled as possible, has watered down all blockbusters to be sterile experiences that have little dialogue (to make it easy for international distribution), lots of action to pad the time, and a decidedly – here’s the kicker –mass audience age appeal (the PG-13 effect). That means no gratuitous violence, no nudity, little swearing, and definitely nothing too scary. This catch-all attitude has left many big budget films looking all the same and The Mummy suffers for it. The Mummy, a movie that should be terrifying is anything but, reduced to a lightweight action thriller with no sense of its history. This amalgamation of genres is slowly stripping away the joy these kinds of movies once held. The Mummy is just the latest victim but is should be a watershed moment for studios. We can only hope they learn.