Between his work on Star Trek and Transformers, I am in no way a fan of Alex Kurtzman. He’s one of those clowns who proudly declares himself to be a fan of something and then wades into a project with a complete misunderstanding of what makes those stories work. His demonstrations of veneer over substance continue to prove to me just how empty this guy is, how devoid of creativity. He’s not alone in this blame, but he’s the one more or less on trial this time. When I found out he was to be the executive producer behind Universal’s “Dark Universe,” the reboot of their classic monsters franchise… well, I found that idea to be more horrific than anything I knew they could put on screen. Upon learning he’d be directing the opening film to this new series, The Mummy, every instinct I had said this movie was going to be terrible beyond words. I’d like to say that I’m capable of keeping an open mind, but experience with virtually everything about the Hollywood machine has made me hone my instincts to the point where I can just tell — with few surprises — when a movie is going to suck. They show us everything we need to know in a trailer these days, don’t they? And then the more they drop hints about something that’s made to tantalize us and bolster our confidence, the more information we have that can either confirm or deny whether or not our instincts are justified. Kurtzman’s movies make tons of cash, which is the only metric the Hollywood studio machine understands. A movie is “successful” only if it makes back its money and achieves a certain percentage of box office profit, not if it tells a good story and entertains its audience. For the Universal Monsters franchise to live again in a new, cohesive form, any movie they put forth to open this franchise would have to live up to the audience expectations, to the nostalgia of what went before, and to the legends left behind by the likes of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney.
So you see, I’m not in the habit of defending Alex Kurtzman. I won’t start now.
If you’ve kept up on this site, you know that I love me some cheesy monster movies. The more classic they are, the better, but even the classics are not immune to a slice of cheddar here and there. I know well the pedigree and limitations of the Universal Monsters. I’ve grown up on them. I love them for the things they did right, for the things they did badly, and for all of the things that made them last generation after generation. It’s not just repeated viewings on commercial television across decades that makes these movies what they are. Any fool can see that age of a film is not a requirement to making something a classic. The Universal Monsters are something special, something that taps a vein in the collective consciousness and speaks to us in the same kinds of terms that the source materials for many of these monsters did.
Dracula Untold was supposed to be the opening for Dark Universe. They created a new ending to shoehorn it in, and when it failed, they excised it from the lineup. It’s not that they recognized it was bad, it’s that it didn’t make the money they hoped. Before that, Van Helsing was beyond bad, being not so much laughable as uncomfortably stupid and asinine despite hearkening back to Universal’s glory days right from the opening shot. I kept this in mind as the early reviews for The Mummy rolled in. I don’t really heed much when it comes to such things as we all have our differing opinions, but I’ve seen enough bad monster movies in my life to know the signs, and I’ve seen Hollywood train wrecks reveal themselves to be such even before a film opens. So when I sat down to watch The Mummy, all things considered, I expected to this to be bad. I hoped beyond hope I would be wrong, that there might be something here to offer a glimpse of hope for the future, but I expected to to be disappointed. The good news is that no matter how bad these films could be, unlike the current superhero films they compete against, there is a bulletproof legacy that says that sooner or later someone will come along and do right by these characters.
The critics have spoken. The audiences have spoken. Rotten tomatoes have been hurled. The Mummy is a terrible movie that should have stayed buried, by virtually all accounts. So how does it stack up for a fanboy who wants nothing more than to see an interesting new take on a classic monster?
To answer that, let’s talk about what it is before we talk about what it did or didn’t do.
The basic setup is pretty simple. Soldier-turned-treasure-hunter Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) steals a map from archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) so as to “liberate antiquities” from a fight zone in Iraq. An ancient evil in the form of Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) is unearthed. It’s revealed that Halsey is working for Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), who also hired Morton in the the first place. Jekyll’s purpose, so he claims, is to locate, identify, contain, and destroy supernatural evils just like this one.
Ahmanet was betrayed in her previous life and sentenced to a fate worse than death when she attempted to take her revenge upon the world. That revenge would take the form of bringing the god of evil and chaos, Set (revealed also to be known as Satan and many other names), into this world from beyond the veil and to be given a physical form, that of Ahmanet’s “chosen.” Her chosen is, of course, Morton, who ends up sacrificing himself to save Halsey’s life, gifting him with the power to defeat Ahmanet, but opening up the Dark Universe to a potentially larger threat.
This movie has a few interesting points in the setup. The prison that held Ahmanet is visually stunning and offered the right kinds of vibes in terms of “this is how they hold an ancient evil.” As soon as it was revealed to hold something down rather than to raise something up, Cruise’s Morton tricks something that releases all of the ancient holds and raises the sarcophagus out of its prison. It’s so laughably stupid to consider that anyone would make a prison specifically designed to let out its star inmate. Honestly, I’m surprised she had to wait 5,000 years. There’s a dagger that works in conjunction with a jewel on its hilt. The jewel was buried with a crusader knight. Jekyll just happens to already have it. Why did he not just destroy it? Because his plan is to allow Set to come through and become physical specifically so he can destroy that physical form.
Had he seen the previous version of The Mummy from 1999 or a few dozen other great monster movies, to say nothing of a couple thousand bad ones, he’d know that just because something is physical, that doesn’t mean it’s mortal and can be killed so easily.
The whole movie unfolds just like this. A hint of cool, then a complete undermining of anything viably credible. The hallmark of the Universal Monsters, and indeed any monster movie that’s worth watching no matter how bad it may be, is that there has to be something in it that allows for a suspension of disbelief. An even worse crime here is that the film at no point knows what it wants to be. Is it an action movie? Is it a horror movie? Some movies can walk that line between the two. This one fumbled in the dark, never living up to any potential, and never having the balls to be truly over the top bad either. It just… sucked. But it didn’t even suck hard enough to be considered the fun kind of bad. It just sort of lies there like a limp noodle. I was well rested and coffee’d up before watching this dreck, and I was fighting hard to stay awake. Me: the insomniac who loves monster flicks. So as much as I’d like to say this really average movie was just that: average, the fact of the matter is that it does not even stand up to the scrutiny of average. The only saving grace is that it’s blissfully short with a running time of under two hours. It’s not short enough. There is nothing inherently scary here. There’s nothing spine-tinglingly exciting. The acting is about as good as you can hope for given the terrible things these actors are given to say and do, which is made sadder by the fact that you know they’re all capable of better. We don’t spend enough time on anything, as this film is trying merely to offer whiffs of greatness and the promise that something better is coming. I know enough of Kurtzman’s credentials to know he doesn’t have a prayer of delivering on any such promise. It’s just unbelievably bad. Worse, it’s boring too. To me, that’s a far greater sin. How in the hell do you get license to remake the greatest monsters of all time and find a way to make them boring with all of the resources at your disposal in this modern age? The idea of cool just isn’t enough to be cool.
If there is any justice, Kurtzman won’t have a job with Universal before this is over, and neither will his boss. If that comes to pass, I’ll declare this film had one good thing that comes from it. Until then, it’s a complete write-off in my book. If they want this franchise to succeed, they’ll have to do a mad scramble because, quite frankly, even as much as I didn’t like the new Wonder Woman, that film deserves to kick this one’s ass at the box office. I may disagree with the choices they made, but that’s at least a watchable movie. Wonder Woman had no previous big screen versions to compare with before this incarnation. The Mummy… well, you get the idea. Universal needs every reason to reassess and regroup before they drive themselves into unending embarrassment over the sheer amount of incompetence demonstrated here. With few exceptions, nobody sets out to make a truly bad movie. At long last, Kurtzman can be seen for the creative hack he is.
At the very least, Karloff’s legacy is secure. Long live the king.