Already, The Mummy is getting a bad rap. As soon as the studio embargo dropped, the critics’ gloves came off: By Thursday morning the score at rottentomatoes.com was 23 per cent and falling.
But I’m here to tell you it’s not all bad. The Mummy is more coherent than Suicide Squad, less grim than Batman v Superman, and easily 16 times better than Fantastic Four.
That may sound like faint praise, but Universal’s first chapter in its so-called Dark Universe franchise of gods and monsters is off to a fair start. Whether it can better the DC or Marvel series remains to be seen.
The movie opens on a dour note, with an ancient prayer of resurrection, followed by a lengthy Egyptology lesson from Russell Crowe, who plays Henry, a doctor with some severe angermanagement issues. Among the information he doles out: Several thousand years ago Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) made a pact with the god of death and was mummified alive for her troubles. Pay attention: There may be a test later.
Cut (at last!) to the present day, where Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) and Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) are hoping to relieve Iraq of some of her valuable antiquities. There’s more than a little Raiders of the Lost Ark in their escapades — even Brian Tyler’s score nods to it — but if you recall that franchise you’ll realize that Cruise’s character is more Belloq than Indy.
When the lads uncover a mummy, scientist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) shows up to study it. But this is where things start to go bad. First, the plane transporting the sarcophagus — “the chick in the box,” according to the decidedly lowbrow Nick — crashes in England.
Nick goes down with the aircraft, mysteriously surviving but suddenly able to see and even converse with Chris’s chatty ghost. In another throwback moment, their interactions have a very American Werewolf in London vibe.
He’s now in a race against time to figure out why he’s still alive, whether Ahmanet has something to do with it, and what she might want from him. Henry, who looks like he might become the Nick Fury of this franchise, has managed to capture the mummy in his underground lair, but she has powers he can barely understand, including a remarkably quick ability to learn English and figure out 21st-century technology.
One of the complaints critics have with The Mummy is that it’s not nearly as terrifying as a monster movie could (or should) be. This is true — there are jump scares and a few scenes of mummies face-sucking the life out of others, but it’s all pretty bloodless. On the plus side, while Cruise continues to do his own falling-aircraft and underwater stunts, at no point does he jump on a motorcycle.
Boutella, meanwhile, is creepy and intense as Princess Ahmanet, with extra irises (don’t call her “four eyes”) and a plethora of facial markings, as if she’d walked into a New Kingdom tattoo parlour and told them to give her the Heliopolis phone book. Though I have to wonder which of The Mummy’s six writers thought it would be a good idea to have Cruise “dump” her with an it’snot-me-it’s-you speech? And wouldn’t a better line have been: “You had me at hello, but you lost me at hell”?
One of those writers is director Alex Kurtzman, whose only previous movie was 2012’s People Like Us, though he does have producing credits on everything from Star Trek to Spider-Man. He manages the pacing of this one nicely, keeping the whole thing down to a manageable hour and 50 minutes so you won’t feel you’ve been buried for millennia.
Mind you, things get a little wonky at the end, when the screenplay scrambles to set up its endless sequels. There’s a quick glimpse of a skull that would seem to suggest the Wolfman, or maybe Dracula, while another character lopes off into the sunset all but promising to return. There may even have been an Invisible Man reference, but I didn’t see it.
And to all those reviewers warning you away, I ask: How are you going to follow this franchise if you don’t sit through the compulsory Mummies 101?