It seems that mummies are not the kind of monster that audiences can take seriously for very long. Eventually, mummy films devolve into comedy, or succumb to terrible storytelling. The history of “Mummy” films began in 1932 with Universal’s The Mummy, directed by Karl Freund and starring Boris Karloff as the titular villain. It is one of the great monster films of the 1930’s, a golden age for horror, and the success of the initial Mummy film led to five additional instalments throughout the 1940’s and 50’s. The final instalment, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955), is the only one among them to be a horror-comedy, pitting comedy-duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello against the monster.
Starting in 1959, the Mummy got a fresh coat of paint, as Hammer Film Productions rebooted the series with The Mummy, followed by four more stand-alone films. Hammer films were generally derided as schlocky, B-horror at the time of their release, but today they are often regarded as seminal films of the genre, having influenced future horror directors. After the final Hammer Mummy film in 1971, the Mummy disappeared for almost three decades before finally returning in 1999 with Stephen Sommer’s The Mummy, starring Brendan Fraser as the swash-buckling hero who accidentally awakens a cursed Egyptian priest, Imhotep. The priest has been mummified for thousands of years, but now has the ability to raise the dead and bring plagues down on Egypt. The franchise included three films, and spawned a less successful spin-off series, The Scorpion King. Though the films still include elements of the horror genre, the filmmakers chose to focus more on the adventure and comedic elements.
Finally, in 2017, we have Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy, a “reboot” of the original series, and part of Universal’s “Dark Universe,” which encompasses all of the reboots of Universal’s original monster films. The backstory of the The Mummy follows Ahmanet, a daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh who, fearing that her succession to the throne has been jeopardised, sells her soul to the God Set and murders her family. As the final part of her pact with Set, Ahmanet must kill her lover with a ceremonial dagger, thus providing Set with a physical form in which he may return to Earth. However, her father’s priests stop her before she can finish the ritual. They kill her lover and mummify Ahmanet alive, pouring mercury into her sarcophagus so that she can never escape.
In present-day Iraq, our hero, Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), is a soldier who uses his status to sneak into hostile territory to recover ancient artifacts that he may sell for personal profit. After inadvertently discovering an ancient tomb, Nick encounters Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), an archeologist and Nick’s one-time lover. The two do not get along at first, but when they discover the sarcophagus of Ahmanet, they must both accompany Ahmanet’s mummified body on the flight back to England. During the flight, a flock of crows suddenly and mysteriously attacks the plane, causing it to spiral out of control. While they are in free fall, Nick ensures that Jenny has a parachute so that she may escape safely, choosing to sacrifice himself for her. However, after the crash, Nick suddenly wakes up in a morgue, unsure of how or why he survived the crash. When he meets back up with Jenny, the two set out to uncover the mystery behind the plane crash and Ahmanet’s curse.
Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy shares very little (beyond the title) with the original film series. Instead, Kurtzman chose to emulate the successful style of the Stephen Sommer’s films, themselves emulations of the adventure/romance/comedy formula of Indiana Jones. with atrocious results. Looking back at Sommer’s Mummy films, they were not spectacular, but they were enjoyable. Even though the films were often hokey and banal, they worked because they were equal parts comedy, adventure, and horror. The emphasis on comedy reminded audiences that they should never take any of it too seriously, so the cheesy one-liners and predictable plot were somewhat forgivable, while the horror helped to intensify the action and engage the viewer more fully with the story.
Alex Kurtzman never struck this balance. In The Mummy (2017), there is definitely comedy scattered throughout the film (though much like Kurtzman’s films, none of it is all that funny), but the focus is primarily on the adventure side of things. Nick Morton is the stereotypical flawed hero: a little too selfish, but with a heart of gold and huge muscles. Tom Cruise does what Tom Cruise usually does; he substitutes quality acting for running and jumping and punching and shooting. The problem is that the story is not well-crafted. I found myself tempted to zone out as the characters embarked on long-winded exposition to try to make the audience understand the rather loosely-formed plot. Many of the more confusing and questionable plot points are quickly dismissed or explained-away because of convoluted “Mummy magic” and nonsensical pseudo-science.
Another aspect of Kurtzman’s films that made them far more entertaining was the emphasis on Egyptian lore, and not simply just talking about it, but allowing the audience to actually see the events of the ancient past as well. Beyond an early sequence to set up Ahmanet’s backstory, and a few interludes of the past here and there, the story mostly takes place in the present. If the filmmakers had made the story of the present more interesting, this wouldn’t have been such a problem, but they didn’t. In fact, they made it laughably bad. Halfway through the film, it becomes apparent that the filmmakers don’t find the Mummy to be all that interesting, so they decide to tie-in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and this is the moment when the plot fully unravels. It feels totally uncessessary, and we are left scratching our heads, wondering why they ever chose to include this sub-plot in the first place. The Mummy’s backstory was interesting, and with better writing, the entire story could have been worthwhile, but obviously the filmmakers chose to go in a different direction.
The Mummy is currently in theatres, but I suggest you save your money, or go rent one of the many previous Mummy films.
Rating: ★½ out of 5
The Mummy is available for purchase on Amazon.