Universal set the ball rolling on their extended cinematic universe full of monsters with the release of 'The Mummy', but the 'Dark Universe', as they're calling it, arrives not with monstrous roar but a musty death rattle.
Universal, without a superhero franchise to exploit, decided that they could cash-in on the current trend of extended cinematic universes through their amazing archive of monsters. Basing their universe on the cinematic classics like Dracula, the creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein's monster and the invisible man, these characters are to be woven into a tapestry of interconnected films until audiences are themselves mummified.
Before 'The Mummy' had even opened in cinemas, the film's director Alex Kurtzman was already confirming the plans for more monsters to be added to the Dark Universe slate. We as an audience had to be prepared, whether we liked 'The Mummy' or not, that this was the beginning of a series. Ironically in a press conference, Kurtzman was quoted as saying: "I believe strongly that the only way you can build a universe is not to start by trying to build a universe."
Unfortunately for Kutzman and the Dark Universe, 'The Mummy' is spectacularly average. It's not bad enough to be entertaining and isn't an interesting enough beginning to this universe, and it's made all the more underwhelming by its own marketing materials. Several trailers and featurettes were released in the lead-up to the film's opening and with each new glimpse at the story, more and more of the mystery was simply handed to us before we even had to buy a ticket.
Essentially, if you've seen the trailers for 'The Mummy', you've seen the entire film.
That's not an exaggeration -- every surprise and twist of the film is almost entirely laid out in most of the film's trailers. Tom Cruise plays Nick Morton, a man who should probably be tried for war profiteering. As we already know, Morton unwittingly releases an ancient Egyptian princess, Ahmanet, from her prison tomb and then all hell breaks loose.
Morton dies in a plane crash. We know this because they shot the plane scene in zero gravity. It was a huge part of the early publicity for the film. They shot the plane crash scene, and in the trailer we see Morton as the plane hurtles toward the ground. Then we see him waking up in a morgue. He's in a body bag. He's fine.
The same reluctance to save reveals for the actual movie-going experience is even better exemplified with Russell Crowe's character. The film released an entire featurette about Crowe's character and the "mysterious organisation" he works for. "I'm a doctor," Crowe says in the clip, "My name is Jekyll," he says practically elbowing the viewer in the ribs. "DOCTOR HENRY JEKYLL" he says, bludgeoning the viewer with a table full of surgical instruments. Get it? He's that guy!
The clip then shows Crowe hulking out, transforming into his alter-ego Mr Hyde because we as an audience can't be trusted to put two and two together after all the subtle hints that have been dropped. We're too busy Googling vitamin E creams to help the bruising from Crowe's dialogue. There's no need to spoil this reveal before the film. In fact, doing so disempowers it to the point of apathy.
Meanwhile the two female leads, Sofia Boutella as Ahmanet and Annabelle Wallis as "female woman", are given even less to do than the audience. Boutella's mummy is psychically linked to Morton after she brings him back from the dead, which gives her the ability to show up in every scene when it's most expected. Prior to the premiere, Kurtzman told the Sydney audience, "Sofia is going to scare the sh*t out of you". And she will, if one of your biggest fears is a character who slowly walks into a scene at the precise moment you expect. Terrifying in her punctuality.
On the back of her starring role as "the blonde woman" in the box office disaster 'King Arthur', Wallis' character is an attempt to give Cruise something to do, but for some reason their relationship seems to be missing a chapter. This is more a flaw in the casting of Cruise more than Wallis, as his roguish character seemed to be written for someone a tad younger who could pull off a charming anti-hero. Unlike Chris Pratt's Star Lord from the 'Guardians of the Galaxy' films, Cruise's thieving Casanova never feels fully formed. He's great at running away from explosions, though!
A lack of fully-formed characters is partly why 'The Mummy' feels so empty, but the real failure is the film's soullessness. It gives away all its surprises early because it is in itself simply a trailer for something bigger. "There's going to be more than this," it keeps reminding you. "Cinematic universe", it whispers to you as you try and sleep through the slower bits of the film. "Cinematic universe," Tom Cruise says on the publicity trail, with the same reluctant conviction of someone saying "hangover fun run".
'The Mummy' isn't the beginning of the Dark Universe, it's the sizzle reel. A constant edging of the audience toward what will be, rather than allowing us to revel in what is and that, like Kurtzman himself said, is no way to build a cinematic universe.
'The Mummy' is in cinemas now, and... it's OK. But nothing more.
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