It looks as if Universal’s Dark Universe will go forward with or without the success of The Mummy.
Universal’s The Mummy, meant to kick off its Avengers-style cinematic universe, tries to be both a horror film in the style of 1932’s Mummy and a lighthearted action-adventure like 1999’s Brendan Fraser-led version. As a result, it fails to be very good at either. The darker aspects, which involve mummy-infected zombies, rely too much on CGI and on the peril of characters that aren’t given enough background for us to care about them, while the moments of action and adventure feel tonally off, particularly as the majority of the script’s jokes fall painfully flat.
The best part of this new version is far and away the mummy herself, played by French-Algerian actress Sofia Boutella. Ahmanet has the regal look and manner of an ancient Egyptian ruler, and her backstory makes her both scary and relatable, rendering Boutella at least as effective as the many actors who have played on-screen mummies before. Those actors, which include Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Tom Tyler, Arnold Vosloo, Jet Li and Dwayne Johnson, have generally played their mummy with wide-eyed rage. This Mummy’s Ahmanet is strong and powerful but also rightly aggrieved after her pharaoh dad sires a son, which in sexist Ancient Egypt robs her of her birthright of becoming pharaoh herself. After selling her soul to the Egyptian god Set, she murders her father, his wife and their baby son, but she’s caught before she is able to sacrifice her own lover and welcome Set into the mortal world to rule alongside her.
Flash forward 5,000 years and roguish smuggler Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) unearths Ahmanet’s tomb after stealing a map from beautiful archaeologist Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) following a night of passion. Morton, played by Cruise as a less intelligent, more irritating version of Indiana Jones, ends up as the object of the resurrected Ahmanet’s affection, and the driving force of the film is her desire to use a ancient bejeweled dagger to turn Morton’s body into a vessel for Set. ¬¬
The film’s portrayal of women stretches beyond tone-deaf and into near-comic implausibility. The audience is asked to believe that two beautiful, smart and powerful women—one a living archaeologist and the other a 5,000 year-old undead queen—would fight over a rude, middle-aged man with an inflated ego and obvious drinking problem. Worse, the “twist” here, which will presumably allow Cruise’s character to take part in future entries of Universal’s proposed “Dark Universe,” results from an act of undead-on-undead sexual assault during a fight that is so obviously comparable to a scene of domestic violence that its inclusion is offensive and in incredibly poor taste. The Mummy’s sexism is particularly noticeable coming on the heels of Patty Jenkins’ excellent Wonder Woman, and is comparable to Ridley Scott’s recent Alien: Covenant in that it takes a brand that previously featured excellent female characters (Rachel Weisz’s spunky Evelyn was a great co-lead in 1999’s The Mummy and its first sequel) and suddenly, inexplicably silences and tortures them.
This poor treatment of women is particularly shocking from director Alex Kurtzman, who served as a writer and producer on the female-led TV series “Xena: Warrior Princess,” “Alias” and “Fringe.” And it is especially egregious as it is the women who are doing the best work here. Boutella deserved a much better movie for her character. Her movement is suitably villainous, but her eyes and face are torn between sadness and anger, creating depths in Ahmanet that outshine the script. And the role of Jenny was obviously written to serve as little more than a source of expository mummy info and a love interest for Cruise, but Wallis infuses her underwritten role with such intelligence and physical gravitas that she outshines him in every scene they share.
It looks as if Universal’s Dark Universe will go forward with or without the success of The Mummy, as Johnny Depp is already lined up to play the Invisible Man, Javier Bardem is set as Frankenstein’s monster and Bill Condon is slated to direct a new version of Bride of Frankenstein. And, of course, Russell Crowe plays a large supporting role in this film as Dr. Jekyll. One hopes that as they move forward, the minds behind this shared universe will create films appropriate for our times and not relics, like The Mummy, that feel more out of date than their source material.