“I have less and less respect for them [Hollywood]…I think they don’t even do what they do very well anymore.” – Maggie Renzi, The Story of Film

This quote truly encapsulates the hard truth that the corpse of Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy has laid bare, excavated from the tomb of Hollywood cinema itself like the intrepid (and insipid) characters of the film itself: When a £125,000,000 tent pole summer blockbuster staring one of the most commercial actors of the last 30 years can fail so hideously…you have to ask if something is inherently wrong systemically. However, even beyond this wider context, The Mummy stands alone for the sheer consistency and scale of its disappointment.

Reworking the classic 1932 version, The Mummy follows Nick Morton, a plucky hard headed solider with a penchant for raiding crypts and selling the antiquities on the black market (what would Indiana Jones say about that?!), who uncovers a lost tomb. However, the tomb holds an ancient evil, a malevolent Egyptian princess cursed and buried alive for her actions. Now freed, she seeks to complete a dark ritual that will bring forth the ultimate evil.

Tonally, the film is a crisis of clashing genre identities. At its simplest, the intention of the filmmakers seems to create a film that brings together the easy adventure of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the action and conspiracy of the Mission: Impossible series, the disaster scale of a Roland Emmerich movie, and a dash of classic Universal Monster movie horror. The result is utter confusion, as these styles aren’t blended with skilful writing and direction, but instead clash and scrape, dulling the effect and weighing down the film in the mire of misconceived hybridity. It’s too light for adults, but too dark for children…a muddy experience too afraid to pick a defined audience in the search for the biggest cross market box office return, and in the process, becomes awkwardly unappealing to both.

This misguided approach to tonal identity is shared in the lacklustre visual sensibilities of the film; indeed I would argue there are actual Egyptian mummies with more life and dynamism than The Mummy. The much publicised zero gravity plane sequence is perhaps the perfect example of Kurtzman’s poor execution and understanding of action direction. Foregrounded as the central set piece the film is built around, the set up offers multiple levels of motion on different axis, creating visual contrasts and, alongside editing, instil a sense of scale crucial to both visual spectacle and dramatic tension. However, what the audience receives isn’t simply formulaic or even lazy…it’s a display of action cinema illiteracy. Kurtzman shoots the majority of the sequence from one fixed camera point, the characters bouncing around the hull of the craft, and has the editor cut between this with CGI exterior shots of the plane falling, and close ups of Nick Morton and love interest/vacant preacher of exposition Jenny Halsey. That’s pretty much it…the rhythm of the editing delivers a stead build of pace, but the framing has no understanding of space or purpose, conveying no sense of drama, suspense and most critically, action itself. This isn’t some rejection of the equally frustrating frenetic style that has rendered many other modern action films visually undiscernible; but rather a display of the most banal logical progression…wide shot, exterior effect, wide shot, close up…repeat. The chronic lack of visual intelligence in this sequence is indicative of the approach throughout the film, whether it is running from a destructive wall of sand tearing through the streets of London or a fist fight with the mummy herself; It’s tedious and restrained by uninspired ideas and execution. The spectacle of Tom Cruise being dragged and battered across the frame like a crazed perma-grinned ragdoll isn’t enough to placate the fact that neither the action or narrative drive of the film are compelling in the slightest, but rather an experience in the shambolic and tiring. A film like The Mummy needed either true invention or a steady hand with genre experience (a la Martin Campbell’s return to Bond with Casino Royale), and unfortunately, Kurtzman’s inexperience and lack of vision mortally wounds the film.

One of the most interesting distinctions from the original version when the film was announced was the decision to focus on a female mummy villainess rather than return once more to the shambling bones of Imotep. With an opportunity to utilise this gendered space, there seemed a chance to play with a more fluid and playful awareness in comparison to the antiquated male hero/female damsel identities resplendent in the classic movie monster pictures. This new interpretation has her aggressive quest for attainment and the sexualisation of her threat (she has to suck the life out of her victims through their mouths, gaining strength for herself and rendering them husk like zombies) coded purely as monstrous; she must be destroyed for her transgressive desire and power in defiance of a male order, as she does for wanting to summon a world ending evil. However, even then she needs a man to accomplish this task, becoming a pawn rather than the imposing and iconic figure she could have been. Ultimately, she is woman who knows what she wants…but disappointingly what she basically wants is a shiny gem and Tom Cruise’s body. When the gender politics of the original film you are remaking 85 years later look progressive in comparison (and for anyone familiar with the original…oh boy are those politics not progressive) you are in serious trouble.

Strangely, my one level of confused enjoyment the film elicited from me came in the sudden realisation that (whether intended or not) the film feels almost spiritually referential to Tobe Hooper’s classic oddity Lifeforce (1985), sharing a bizarre similarity in narrative, setting and imagery…but crucially lacking any of the charm and sheer commitment to schlock of Hooper’s now cult artefact.  Oh and it wasn’t Suicide Squad. That’s literally the only other plus I can muster.

This is not a film that will live on in the cultish “so bad it’s good” territory, but rather it’s a film of such fascinating ineptitude that my only hope that it will serve an almost instructive legacy. This film is the perfect case study in the worst failings of modern Hollywood: coarse, uncoordinated and poorly conceived; it clings to generic cliché but deploys these codes with either a total lack of awareness or too little subtly, conveyed most frustratingly within the many easter eggs that tease the wider “Dark Universe” Universal are hoping to establish. They hang within the mise en scene of the film with no real clarity to their context due to the still embryonic state of this potential franchise, yet Kurtzman foregrounds all of them with persistent close ups that come across as gratingly disruptive in their obviousness rather than building a true mystique. This modern desire to build a universe comes at the expense of crafting an actual film, and it’s disappointing when you consider how much more effective a more insular and controlled take true to the origins of the Universal monster movies, gothic and bold, could have been. In spite of The Mummy’s failings, I truly hope this film doesn’t derail the opportunity for the “Dark Universe” concept to be explored at its fullest. Rather, this is the opportunity to readdress its goals and direction, moving away from the desecration that The Mummy blindly commits, and toward reverential or even, dare I say it, challenging interpretations from visionary minds given the chance to resurrect these horror greats to a new glory.

The Mummy is simply a failure. It’s clear the film has an ambition, but the sheer lack of that ambition translated on screen is more than just startling, it’s genuinely troubling. Overly concerned with passively hitting generic beats and laying down token universe building foundations, the film gets buried alive in the hollow casket of its own inept construction. If this film is anything, it stands as the perfect case study for the worst failings of the modern Hollywood blockbuster machine, and an omen for studios: you can only loot the tomb so many times before all you are left with is a withered old corpse. Maybe in this sense, there can be life after death for The Mummy after all.

 

Movie Review: The Mummy
1.5Overall Score
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About The Author

Matthew Hammond is a full time cinephile, specializing in cult, art house and 1980’s cinema. While film is his overwhelming passion, Matthew has been known to enjoy comic books, Sherlock Holmes stories and a good film related T-shirt. Feel free to email me with any questions or comments: mattpaul61@o2.co.uk