The numbers are in, and Universal’s cash-intensive stab at resurrecting its classic monster movies is dead in the water — at least in the U.S. Now, there are plenty of legitimate reasons for this, ranging from franchise fatigue on the part of audiences fed up with overblown shared-universe spectacles to lackluster direction from a man better known for writing and producing terrible movies than helming them. But by the end of The Mummy, I found myself harboring the sneaking suspicion that the critical derision heaped upon this film might have more to do with trying to teach the studios a lesson about ambition and avarice than with what actually takes place on screen — a Sisyphean task if ever there was one.
To be clear, my assertion is not that The Mummy is a great film. It’s not even a good film. But is it as bad as the outrage would suggest? I’d have to say no, with a few caveats. In the plus column, the script’s pacing is solid, it’s legitimately creepy in places and deceptively witty in others, and the set pieces are predominantly effective (if largely derivative). On the negative side, the movie feels distinctly overstuffed, folding concepts ranging from tired zombie tropes and Indiana Jones ripoffs on top of the expositional foundation for Uni’s subsequent Dark Universe films, a tall order for a picture that also has to at least attempt to string together a cogent narrative amid all its world-building. So I’m a little surprised to find myself definitively in the dissenting minority when I say that The Mummy is fine for what it is.
Let’s face facts — The Mummy was designed to be a summer blockbuster, so it was never likely to be high art. It’s a film built to appeal to the broadest possible cross section of international audiences (which may save Dark Universe from a premature death), and as such, it was already at a distinct disadvantage in the estimation of most critics. There are also some very evident problems with the script, perhaps most notably its regressive gender politics. The titular villain is now a woman because … parity? I don’t know. And the third act falls apart, but at least has the integrity to preserve a semi-downbeat ending that probably scared studio execs more than audiences.
Director Alex Kurtzman, better known as a prolific TV writer and the scribe behind the Star Trek reboots, seems to be in over his head by the time that third act rolls around. The casting of Tom Cruise has started to look like something of a hinderance to box office goals these days, at least domestically. In many ways Cruise feels ill-suited to his roguish role, while Russell Crowe is much more interesting in his turn as expositional font Dr. Henry Jekyll, leaving me with higher hopes for the rest of the DU franchise now that the awkward business of setting up those films is out of the way.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m predisposed to harboring those high hopes — the Universal monster movies were possibly the first films I truly loved as a kid, and I’m still excited to see what comes next despite this tepid first installment. And to be frank, I think people may have forgotten just how bad the Brendan Frasier Mummy movies of the early ’90s actually were. In terms of mindless summer cinema, I’ve seen far worse than The Mummy, and I remain defiantly, if cautiously, optimistic for the prospects of a shared universe franchise that isn’t owned by Disney to actually take root. Rated PG-13 for violence, action and scary images, and for some suggestive content and partial nudity. Now Playing at AMC Classic River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.