Opening this week:
The Mummy—After the usual Universal logo at the start of this movie, we're shown a second, spooky logo informing us that it's part of the "Dark Universe." This seems to be the studio's attempt to start its own franchise-crossing brand in the style of DC or Marvel, drawing on its peerless stable of iconic monsters.
This is fair enough, considering that, with its multi-monster free-for-alls of the '40s like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and House of Dracula, Universal was overlapping its properties before anyone else. There are fun possibilities in the "Dark Universe" notion, but it's off to an inauspicious start with this first salvo, no less than the fourth film to go by the title The Mummy.
While last week's big opening involved a female superhero, this week's has a female monster, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), a lethal Egyptian princess who made a deal with Set for power, committed a bunch of murders, and got mummified and buried alive, far from Egypt, for her trouble. Centuries later, two fortune hunters (Tom Cruise and Jake Johnson) from the U.S. military and an English archaeologist (Annabelle Wallis) find her tomb in Iraq, and, like any self-respecting cultural imperialists, promptly schlep her sarcophagus to England. The desiccated deadly damsel is of course awakened, and starts causing trouble, with the idea of making Cruise her Set-possesed consort.
This movie, directed by Alex Kurtzman, starts out really badly. Even setting aside how unsavory it feels to try to make raffish buddy-picture heroes out of archaeological profiteers in present-day Iraq, the attempt to create a jocular rapport between Cruise and Johnson falls embarrassingly flat on its own terms. And the attempt to generate a roguish romantic tension between Cruise and Wallis plays no better. Hope and Crosby and Dorothy Lamour these people aren't; they don't even rise to the level of Dick Foran, Wallace Ford and Peggy Moran in The Mummy's Hand, from Universal in 1940.
I make these comparisons, by which Cruise et al suffer, not to be ungenerous but because almost everything in this expensive, elaborately-produced movie feels like a hyped-up, computer-enhanced version of something from a cheaper, less elaborate, better old movie. One minute you're reminded of Valerie Leon in Blood From the Mummy's Tomb, and the next of the crows from the Omen flicks, and then of the zombie shockers, and then of Renfield's rat army in Dracula, and then of Griffin Dunne's chatty putrefying ghost in An American Werewolf in London, and so on. But this effect doesn't make this Mummy a gripping repurposing of these tropes—it makes you want to go home and watch the movies of which it reminds you.
The Mummy gets a little more engaging, at least for a while, when it gets to England and Ahmanet starts reeling around sucking the life-force out of hapless victims, because it's more of a conventional monster picture. But pretty soon she and Cruise are detained in an underground complex run by a mysterious scientist (Russell Crowe), and more gratuitous plot twists are piled on. Presumably this is in service of establishing the "Dark Universe" mythos for future films, but mostly it just dilutes whatever momentum the story was starting to develop.
None of these complaints would amount to much, of course, if The Mummy could lay claim to any true scariness. But there isn't one scene in which I can recall being drawn into any authentic, atmospheric dread—as with Alien: Covenant a few weeks ago, everything's too virtual, to insubstantial, too lacking in tactility.
It should be said, though, that the closest the movie gets to any genuine chills is in the performance of Sofia Boutella as the lithe, malignant, slyly smiling Ahmanet. Boutella was probably the best thing about last year's Star Trek: Beyond, and she's definitely the best thing about this movie.