Universal Pictures may have jumped the gun by announcing long-term plans for its "Dark Universe," an interconnected series of films built around the studio's stable of classic monsters, like Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, and my personal favorite, the Creature from the Black Lagoon. This planned franchise has suffered one failed launch already: once upon a time, 2014's "Dracula Untold" was supposed to begin the series, but it seems we're pretending that never happened. This time, however, it appears Universal is committed.
The inaugural entry into this world of gods and monsters is "The Mummy," an action-horror blockbuster desperately in search of an identity. Alternating between goofy and gritty, the film isn't really good at either, and it ends up feeling more cobbled together than Frankenstein's monster (soon to be played by Javier Bardem, if things keep cruising along). At least eight films were announced before this one was even released, and by the time the credits roll, the knowledge that there's seven more to come inspires nothing but dread.
"The Mummy" opens with an extended prologue telling us the story of an ancient Egyptian princess, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), whose thirst for power led her to desperate acts. After making a pact with Set, the god of the dead, and murdering her family, she ended up buried alive as punishment for her misdeeds.
From there the movie jumps ahead to present day, where we meet Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) and his wisecracking sidekick, Chris (Jake Johnson). They're a pair of globetrotting treasure hunters who, it soon becomes clear, are less interested in protecting precious antiquities than in selling them off for a tidy profit.
There's a bit of Cruise's against-type role from "Edge of Tomorrow" to Morton's morally unscrupulous anti-hero, but the actor's charms are considerably diminished. Alex Kurtzman doesn't have the knack for directing Cruise's humor that Doug Liman did, and despite its army of writers, the script's attempts at comedy are inept at best.
Unfortunately, Kurtzman isn't much for staging coherent or interesting action, either. But Cruise is one of our last remaining movie stars for a reason, and whatever you may think of the guy, there's no denying that he commits 100 percent. I'm generally a fan of Johnson, but he feels miscast here, especially after his role takes a turn similar to that of Griffin Dunne's in "American Werewolf in London."
Along with archaeologist Jenny Halsey (played by Annabelle Wallis, in a role whose sole purpose seems to be spouting exposition), Nick and Chris end up inadvertently awakening Ahmanet after stumbling upon her prison tomb beneath the deserts of Iraq. After a decently-staged plane crash sequence, Ahmanet is free to set into motion her nefarious but vaguely defined plan to reunite a special dagger and a fancy jewel in order to sacrifice Nick to create a vessel for Set to return, thereby unleashing Hell on Earth. It's a whole thing.
Nick and company eventually meet Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), who heads up an underground organization dedicated to fighting supernatural forces around the world (which he explains in one snooze-inducing, world-building info-dump). This character seems meant to be the lynchpin of the "Dark Universe" films, although putting Dr. Jekyll in charge of the world's fight against evil seems ... ill-advised. As a leader, he's not exactly a beacon for rational decision-making (always of two minds about things, you see). At least Crowe appears to be having a bit of fun with the part.
Boutella has a natural charisma that shines even through layers of prosthetic makeup (as previously demonstrated in "Star Trek Beyond") and Ahmanet certainly looks impressive. But we never really get a sense of her as a character outside of an all-encompassing evil. There was an opportunity to give the character a bit more weight, and her backstory feints in that direction by showing how she was denied her rightful claim to her father's kingdom simply for being a woman. I'll try to avoid descending into spoiler territory, but with that in mind, the direction the film ultimately takes with her character is infuriating to say the least.
Kurtzman attempts to make "The Mummy" feel as much like a horror movie (or at least horror adjacent) as possible, which is smart. Obviously it's still a massive action movie, but with its foggy graveyards and cobwebbed crypts, it indulges in the iconography of the genre whenever it can. It's a touch that distinguishes it from 1999's "The Mummy," which aimed more for an "Indiana Jones" style adventure. The film's overall creature design is solid, but the choice to use mostly digital effects instead of practical makeup is definitely disappointing.
Universal is taking a big swing with its "Dark Universe." Every studio seems to be following the Marvel, connected-universe template, but what most seem to forget is that the studio didn't immediately announce plans for a giant, connected universe of films, and instead allowed it develop over time. And made sure people actually wanted it in the first place.
By immediately jumping all-in, "The Mummy" ends up feeling like nothing but a corporate product; one that's just testing the waters before deciding exactly what it wants to be. You'd think that might have been worked out before the finished movie got tossed into theaters, but that's not how Hollywood operates these days. As is, the film is one missed opportunity after another. But hey, with a start this rocky, there's nowhere to go but up.