May 27, 2020
The Mummy (2017): Universal's Dark Universe begins (and ends)
Obviously, one reason Disney continues to thrive today is because of the crap-loads of cash their films revolving around Marvel superheroes have brought in. While not quite as successful, Warner Brothers has still managed to endure thanks, in part, to the same big-screen treatment they’ve given to the DC superheroes. So perhaps it was understandable that Universal was feeling left out and wanted to play this game as well. But that studio didn’t own a thriving comic company, so instead they resorted to reviving their beloved monsters franchise, which brought in crap-loads of cash from the 1930’s to 50’s and ensured Universal would remain on the movie map.
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Universal’s original 1932 Mummy, which starred Boris Karloff, was a wonderfully atmospheric scare-fest, and the success of that picture made the studio as synonymous with mummies as it was with vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein.
Over 20 years later, after scoring big time with the first color films of Frankenstein and Dracula (The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, respectively), Hammer Studios would do so again when it gave similar treatment to the Mummy. This film starred Hammer’s most famous associates, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and like the original with Karloff, led to sequels of its own.
Universal would return to its Mummy Well in 1999 with Stephen Sommers’s film, which starred Branden Fraser and Rachel Weisz. That film owed more of a debt to Indiana Jones than previous mummy pics (which annoyed some viewers), but it was still successful enough to spawn sequels.
So it certainly seemed like it was time to bring the character and his compatriots into the 21st Century. The studio even christened this planned series of films the “Dark Universe”, with a new mummy film as the starting point, and this time adding Tom Cruise for star power. But this ended up crashing just as hard as the last attempt to revive the Lone Ranger.
The film itself begins with a quote similar to the one which opened the 1932 original film. We’re suddenly in 1127 A.D. England, where a group of knights are chanting as a body is being entombed. Cut to present day London, and that tomb, filled with coffins of knights, is discovered by construction workers. A man (Russell Crowe) leading another team tells the construction workers to get their asses out of here. As we struggle with the extreme lack of lighting here, he narrates the story of Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who was next in line to rule Egypt until she had a brother. She soon makes a pact with the God of Death, Set. The ritual she undergoes with the deity causes her to get small tattoos spread all over her body. After killing her father and brother, Ahmanet attempts to bring Set to the world in a mortal body, but is stopped by her father’s guards, and like her fellow movie mummies, was mummified alive and buried far from Egypt.
We next learn that she was specifically buried in Mesopotamia, now known as Iraq. This is also the point where the film begins to toss out any promise it may have held as we meet our hero Nick Morton (Cruise) who’s officially an U.S. Army sergeant and unofficially a grave robber, complete with an unfunny sidekick in Corporal Chris Vail (Jake Johnson). Per Nick, we learn that the man who told the London construction workers to get lost is the one who sent them here, and he goes by the name Henry. When Nick deduces that their target is surrounded by Iraqi insurgents, Vail naturally expresses doubts about going ahead, pointing out that they’ll get their asses thrown in jail. But Nick just asks him where his sense of adventure is, which is a question I’m sure critics have wanted to ask of Cruise regarding his pick of film roles in recent years.
Naturally, the insurgents are pissed and Vail calls for backup, allowing him and Nick to get closer to their location, which leads to Ahmanet’s tomb being revealed by sand being parted like the Red Sea. As Nick’s CO (Courtney B. Vance) arrives and rightfully rips him a new one, we also learn that Nick found the location of the tomb thanks to a map he stole from the film’s obligatory love interest archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis). But in a change of pace, this was after he slept with her, thus sparing us the agony of these two having to court each other first.
Jenny is astonished that the tomb is Egyptian, which prompts Vail to ask if that’s unusual. Well, they’re in Iraq… so I’d say so. They go into the tomb, and thankfully, we get a little more light in this scene and we see wells filled with mercury, which Jenny says was meant to ward off evil spirits. Jenny records what she’s seeing while telling Nick not to touch anything. The CO then radios telling them to bolt, because “bogeys” are on their way, but Jenny says she needs other specialists to see the tomb and is curious about what’s in the body of water they just found. But Nick just takes his pistol and fires, causing the sarcophagus to rise up and spiders to appear. Vail gets bitten by one, causing him to go apeshit and discharge his weapon. At the same time, Nick suddenly gets visions of Ahmanet telling him that she’s now free.
They leave with the sarcophagus, but Vail ends up taking out his frustrations with the job way too far when, en route back, he goes crazy and kills the CO. This leads to Nick killing him while crows go all Hitchcock on the plane. Naturally, everyone dies but our two lovebirds Nick and Jenny. Nick tosses Jenny out with a parachute just before the plane crashes.
But surprise, surprise: Nick isn’t dead. He wakes up in a body bag in a morgue in England. Vail’s ghost appears and tells him he’s cursed. I’m guessing this was an homage to similar scenes in An American Werewolf in London, as we’re supposed to laugh when Jenny and others suddenly appear and are shocked, as is Nick, who suddenly realizes he’s nude.
Authorities are searching the wreckage of the plane, once again with plenty of darkness that’s meant to convey eeriness but doesn’t. The mummy of Ahmanet quickly emerges, and like Arnold Vosloo, kills people by sucking out their life-force in order to regenerate. This time, though, those victims also become zombies for her to control.
Nick and Jenny are soon at a restaurant comparing notes. She tells him that Ahmanet has been erased from the history books, and that a jewel found at the site in London and the dagger they found in Iraq could lead to Set being brought to life in a physical form if they’re brought together. But Nick soon goes into the restroom (which turns out to be the ladies’ room of course) to banter with Vail’s ghost some more, while Jenny calls Henry to fill him in. He instructs her to bring Nick to London.
Ahmanet tracks Nick down as he darts off into a nearby alley. He’s soon engulfed by CGI rodents before we realize that he was hallucinating again when Jenny drags him out of the way of an approaching car. His new knowledge of ancient Egyptian prompts Jenny to go with him to see the sarcophagus, which is at a nearby castle. Ahmanet appears, but just as she attempts to presumably convert him, Jenny pops up. Naturally, Nick has to tell this archaeologist to help him before an action scene begins. He and Jenny get into an abandoned vehicle, but Ahmanet’s influence (I guess) draws Nick back to her.
But Ahmanet is soon subdued by authorities, who do take Nick to Henry, who identifies himself as (yep!) Dr. Henry Jekyll. He explains that he and Jenny are part of a CIA-esque organization that hunts down the supernatural. He shows Nick the chained Ahmanet, who Jekyll is injecting with mercury to make it easier for him to dissect her. The not-so-good doctor is also all for Nick being sacrificed, believing that would make it easier to kill Set.
Nick’s troubles increas as Henry soon transforms into Edward Hyde, although Nick, after another action moment, stops him thanks to a serum Henry made for such a rainy day contingency.
But their scuffle allows Ahmanet to barf up that mercury (why not, since Vosloo previously barfed up bugs) as she breaks free. Soon, she’s shouting to the sky, causing all the glass in London to shatter. And oh yeah, she also gets that stupid dagger.
Thankfully, Vail’s ghost directs our heroes to a London subway tunnel for another action sequence. But Ahmanet fatally wounds Jenny before capturing Nick. However, he puts the ruby in the dagger and uses it on himself. This turns out to be a ruse, however, in order for him to do that “suck the life out of you” trick on Ahmanet in order to resurrect Jenny. He then darts off, although he at least tells her goodbye.
Jenny and Jekyll are later pondering Nick’s fate, which turns out to be less than exciting, as we see him and a resurrected Vail back in the desert.
As unfair as this may sound, some may have seen a red flag on this with its director Alex Kurtzman, who’s infamous in some circles for co-writing two of the Star Trek reboot films. But this film flopped big time, mainly because it was never scary and often boring. As annoying as Brendan Fraser’s Mummy films were, they at least kept you awake.
So while Universal’s Dark Universe began and ended with this film, I’m still optimistic that Universal’s monsters can be properly resurrected and subsequently embraced by a new generation. Better luck next time, Universal!