Tom Cruise’s new movie The Mummy has something to sell you. And it is not Tom Cruise, who is still gamely devoted to giving the people what they want, whether that means hanging from airplanes, or grinning his way through press tours, or looking spookily untouched by time at the age of 54. Cruise is a star of the old guard, but stars old and new just don’t open movies the way they used to (not even the Rock is reliable).
Watching Cruise fit himself into a prefab brand like the one The Mummy is part of brings back the sensation of seeing Will Smith as a mere part of the Suicide Squad ensemble last year. It’s the bemused realization that while the age of the A-list actor has passed, the era that’s succeeding it — the age of the franchise — has yet to fully sort itself out.
And a franchise is what The Mummy is peddling — the “Dark Universe,” which is the name Universal Pictures has given to what has hubristically been planned as a potential 10-plus film series reinventing the studio’s library of classic monsters, from The Wolf Man to The Phantom of the Opera. Already in the hopper is a 2019 remake of Bride of Frankenstein, with Bill Condon directing, Javier Bardem playing Frankenstein’s monster, and Johnny Depp on board for the eventual role of the Invisible Man.
Which means that as the first Dark Universe installment, The Mummy, which was directed by Alex Kurtzman, is effectively a $125 million pilot. It’s tasked with hawking what Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) refers to as "a new world of gods and monsters," with said monster-gods being targeted by or allied with Prodigium, the secret evil-fighting organization that Jekyll runs. And hawking a whole cinematic universe turns out to be an especially tough ask when The Mummy can’t even conclusively hawk itself over the course of its labored 107 minutes.
What The Mummy does have to offer is Kingsman’s striking dancer-turned-actor Sofia Boutella as the title character, a strategically bandaged undead Egyptian princess whose powers come from a deal she made with the god Set, and whose sparse lines at least spare her having to deal with much of the film’s clunky dialogue. Annabelle Wallis fares far worse as Jenny Halsey, Cruise’s archeologist love interest, a character charged with getting rescued, populating some strikingly awkward reaction shots, and making irrational swings in behavior as needed to guide the plot along. (The film's third woman appears in a flashback, and dies almost immediately.)
Jake Johnson is underused as a comic sidekick with a twist borrowed from An American Werewolf in London, and Courtney B. Vance is even more so as a military type. Crowe, as the Dark Universe’s Nick Fury equivalent, flounders mightily with a character who’s meant to be a brilliant mastermind, but whose decisions are baffling, right down to the way he times the injections that keep his Mr. Hyde side at bay.
And then there’s Cruise as treasure hunter/grave robber Nick Morton, sparking to life only in the action set pieces in which he fights off zombie attackers while driving, and gets tumbled around a crashing airplane like socks in a dryer. Otherwise, he looks as lost as The Mummy feels, never clicking with a character who’s supposed to be a rogue with a heart of gold. The early scenes in which Nick and Jenny spar over having slept together before the start of the movie are actively painful, what’s supposed to be sparky banter instead as convincing as Steve Carell trying to describe breasts in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Nick, even in the grips of a curse, never actually feels torn between good and evil, making the moments in which he has to choose between the good (blonde) and evil (brunette, mummy) ladies in his life absurdly underwhelming.
Nick never seems like much of anything, really — anything more than just Cruise, doffing his shirt and deploying that hundred-watt smile and projecting a palpable hope that everyone watching is having a good time, even if he’s not sure what’s going on. There’s nothing he could have done to save The Mummy, or to have further ruined it either. The sad truth of The Mummy is that Cruise doesn’t matter all that much to it in the end. The movie grinds its way toward a will-be-back-again-soon finale that, tellingly, stages Nick’s biggest emotional moment so that you can’t see his face. It’s as if The Mummy is already setting up a way to go on without him, if it needs to.
It probably won’t. International box office numbers are unpredictable and have saved many a disappointing studio effort, but it’s still hard to imagine much of a future for the Dark Universe if this is the best pitch it can make for its existence — a film with no distinguishing characteristics or distinguished characters. It instead feels like an object lesson for the age of the franchise, one about how name actors may not matter as much as they used to, but characters definitely do. The Mummy promises a fantastical world of supernatural beings colliding and collaborating, forgetting that if no one cares about any one of these beings in particular, they’re not going to be sold on seeing them together, either.