In his decades-long career, Tom Cruise has appeared in plenty of star vehicles, but never anything quite like what he finds himself in with The Mummy. We’ve become accustomed to the sort of film the 54-year-old actor prefers—action flicks that allow him to run with great zest while performing harrowing stunts with boundless intensity—but Universal’s attempt to kick-start a movie-monster cinematic universe puts Cruise in an unusual (and unflattering) position. Whereas he’s usually the main attraction, in The Mummy it’s the franchise-building, the special effects and the mummy herself that are the real stars. As a commentary on the modern blockbuster, the movie’s fascinating. But as an actual movie, it’s fairly disheartening.
In its portentous opening, the film explains that the ancient Egyptian princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), feeling betrayed that she will not inherit her father’s kingdom because she’s a woman, unleashed an evil force across the land, her punishment to be mummified and buried alive. Cut to contemporary Iraq, where roguish soldier of fortune Nick Morton (Cruise) and his equally roguish, wise-cracking partner Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) stumble upon a secret Egyptian tomb—which is odd, since Egypt is hundred of miles away. With the help of brilliant, beautiful archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), who Nick slept with and then abandoned, they realize this is the missing crypt of Ahmanet—and that her jailers wanted to bury her far away from her home to protect themselves.
Directed by Alex Kurtzman, who as a writer had a hand in Transformers, Mission: Impossible and Star Trek films, The Mummy is an action-horror movie in which the scares are built into suspense sequences involving car chases, plane crashes and the inevitable final showdown between good and evil.
Kurtzman may not have a particularly lively directorial style, but he knows how to slam together effective action set pieces. As Nick and his team transport the coffin by cargo plane, The Mummy gives us our first sense of Ahmanet’s horrific powers as she uses her voodoo to control Chris and summon a squadron of blackbirds to bring down their aircraft. This gripping sequence, like others in The Mummy, is entirely dependent on impressive technical work and visceral editing—especially because, as characters, Nick and the others aren’t particularly compelling. Eventually, we’ll learn that Ahmanet has the ability to drain her victims of their life force by kissing them, turning them into pliable zombies willing to do her bidding. It’s a sad irony of this film that they’re only slightly less inert than our main characters.
It’s trite to observe that, where once movie stars drove audiences to the theater, now brand-name franchises are the selling point. (How depressing it is to live in an age in which entertainment journalists talk about studios’ intellectual properties with the same fevered enthusiasm that they used to discuss a breakout actor.) Cruise was one of the last A-listers to withstand this franchise glut, reliably churning out Mission: Impossible films but also taking chances on original ideas like Knight & Day, Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow. Alas, he now seems to have grasped that even superstars need the security of familiar properties to maintain their cultural relevance. First, he dipped his toe into the world of Jack Reacher, a moderately well-known book series, but with The Mummy he’s fully embracing Hollywood’s obsession with supersizing its movies into multi-film installments.
Although The Mummy is mostly a standalone film, you’d be able to pick up on Universal’s ambitions even if you didn’t read the trades. The appearance of Russell Crowe as Dr. Henry Jekyll, the mysterious leader of an underground organization tasked with tracking the world’s monsters, demonstrates that The Mummy is meant to be the opening salvo in an upcoming group of movies about different horror characters. (Frankenstein and Invisible Man films are in the works already.) And like so many franchise-setup films, The Mummy bears the telltale signs of an anonymous, big-budgeted production that is largely concerned with establishing a tone, creating a cinematic universe and, most importantly, not screwing anything up so that lucrative future chapters can flourish.
As a result, this may be the first Tom Cruise movie that you’ll forget Cruise was in. It’s not that he’s bad in the film—although as the arrogant Nick who must learn to care about other people, it’s a pretty forgettable character that he can’t save with his charisma and vigor. Still, Cruise does seem oddly superfluous in his own film, as if he’s been hired mostly to ensure safe passage for Universal’s commercial interests. In the past, studios would hire respected actors’ actors, rising newcomers or reliable second-tier stars to babysit their properties. But in our current blockbuster climate, The Mummy plays like a shrewd business decision for all involved—and who cares if anybody in the audience is remotely engaged with what’s happening on a story level?
To be fair, The Mummy’s six credited writers do throw out a few fun twists. After selflessly giving Jenny the last parachute so she can escape while he goes down with the cargo plane, Nick wakes up in the morgue, shocked and confused that he’s not dead. He’ll find out that he’s actually been cursed, placed in a strange limbo state where he can communicate with the deceased and see flashes of Ahmanet’s past, all the while suspecting that she has a nefarious plan in store for him.
In comparison to the ultra-confident characters he portrays in Mission: Impossible and Jack Reacher, there’s something faintly enjoyable in watching him play a jerk who doesn’t quite know what’s happening to him. But whether it’s the forced love story—Cruise and Wallis have little chemistry—or the character’s supposedly poignant self-sacrifice at the conclusion, The Mummy is less about people than it is about the bloodless pushing around of franchise chess pieces, getting us ready for sequels and spinoffs that will presumably build on the momentum this movie tries to create.
Kurtzman does solid work as an action filmmaker, and he plays on several phobias, attacking our anxieties about drowning, rats, spiders, suffocation, being pursued by zombies and falling from great heights. But the twinkle that’s usually in Cruise’s eye—that infectious love of blockbuster showmanship—gets snuffed out by a self-serious franchise starter that’s as inspired and lively as a corporation’s stock portfolio. For generations, we’ve lived vicariously through the exploits of our action stars, admiring their bravery and physical prowess while thrilling at their adventures. Movies like The Mummy feel like a dispiriting new direction. Cruise has made his name outrunning the bad guys. But for once, he’s found a foe he can’t elude—the triumph of intellectual-property maintenance.
Director: Alex Kurtzman
Writers: David Koepp and Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman (screenplay); Jon Spaihts and Alex Kurtzman & Jenny Lumet (screen story)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Marwan Kenzari, Russell Crowe
Release Date: June 9, 2017
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.