In a snapshot of our present moment, director Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy begins in earnest when Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), a recon soldier who moonlights as a treasure hunter, tracks an artifact to an insurgent-occupied village in Mesopotamia (a.k.a. modern-day Iraq) and ultimately calls in a drone strike that reveals a forgotten Egyptian tomb. The film swiftly moves on to Nick’s discovery of a sarcophagus containing the demonic princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who awakens and seeks to sacrifice her inadvertent savior to make corporeal the Egyptian god of death, Set, but the depiction of military intervention in the aid of tomb-raiding raises uncomfortable questions that the film never remotely answers.
After this chaotic opening, the film’s action settles into a measured pace redolent of Universal’s classic monster films from the 1930s and ’40s. There’s a surprising sophistication to the dread that patiently builds as Nick, along with buddy Chris (Jake Johnson) and Egyptologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), uncover the sarcophagus held down in a lake of mercury believed by Egyptians to ward off evil spirits; the lake is surrounded by statues of Anubis that stand facing toward the sarcophagus, not away from it, sending a message that they’re watching it. Plagues slowly amass around the stone coffin, with bugs crawling en masse from rocks and crows gathering in waves that cover the skies in pointillist walls. And when the mummy ends up in England in search of a curved dagger and the accompanying red stone needed to conjure Set, what ensues is a series of eerie scenes that embrace imagery one associates with a European brand of horror, from plague-ridden rats that swarm around Nick and foggy streets that look primed for the Ripper.
This successful throwback, however, succumbs to a flurry of constant action that not only counteracts the tone of the first act, but clashes with Cruise’s naturally attention-hogging star power. The actor plays Nick on autopilot, never finding any chemistry with Wallis throughout their characters’ flirtations, and despite Nick’s plot-justified resilience to damage as Ahmanet’s cursed but protected sacrifice, he just comes off as another in a long line of indestructible Cruise characters. Far more engaging is Russell Crowe, who, in Universal’s attempt to use this film to reboot all of its classic movie monsters, plays Dr. Jekyll, here the ringleader of a clandestine organization devoted to fighting evil. Crowe, too, plays to his stock type, but he gives Jekyll a collected, wizened tone that nonetheless bristles with the character’s deep reservoirs of rage. Crowe doesn’t shy away from playing to the silliness of this monster mash, and his ability to balance a lighter, more fantastical element with the darker, more contemporary tone of the rest of the film is striking.
The downside of Jekyll’s presence is that it amps up plot mechanics that begin to overwhelm The Mummy and blot out any shred of logic. Jekyll, surrounded by a facility that stands as a testament to decades of careful research and planning that go into confronting evil, decides that the best course of action to rid the world of Ahmanet would be to let her carry out her plan, turn Nick into the living god of death, then kill Set after the god takes his physical form. It takes a full half-hour for someone to work out that inviting a god into the physical realm is probably more trouble than it’s worth and to suggest simply breaking the dagger’s accompanying enchanted stone to end the curse.
As much as The Mummy’s early scenes draw inspiration from the spirit of old Universal monster movies, the film’s clearest touchstone is the 1999 reboot. These films show how completely the blockbuster system has changed in two decades: Stephen Sommers’s 1999 film, itself an exploitation of a preexisting Universal property, had a breezy quality reflective of lower expectations, whereas Kurtzman’s film succumbs to the pressure of needing to re-launch an entire franchise of films. Too much is at stake throughout, leading to formulaic plot filler and exposition that snuff out the spark of the early scenes. To top it all off, the universe being erected here ultimately feels hollow, suggesting shared connections with future monsters only insofar as they all would exist on Earth. The most dominant force here is the studio mandate to wring 10 films out of one idea. It’s a foundation built on sand, one that looks as if it will collapse as more and more properties are added on top, a fitting mess for a film about the perils of recklessly reviving the dead for material gain.