Where motion pictures are concerned, these are the days of the multi-installment film franchises. Unlike conventional film sequel formats, which try to maintain a central theme for every new movie that comes out, the franchise films tend to highlight world-building, moving from one main character to another (with a few odd sequels featuring the same characters in between) while maintaining the feel of a “shared universe” where all these separate stories take place, and occasionally interact. Disney has the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Warner Brothers has the DC Extended Universe. Legendary Entertainment has begun its own “Monster-verse” featuring the likes of (King) Kong and Godzilla.
Now Universal is trying to hop onto the bandwagon with their “Dark Universe” franchise, essentially a 21st-Century reboot of all the classic monster movies their studio has had a hand in producing since the Golden Age of Cinema from the 1920s on to the 50s. These include such iconic luminaries of old-school monster horror like Frankenstein, the Werewolf/Wolf Man, the Invisible Man, and even Count Dracula himself as immortally portrayed by Bela Lugosi. One other scary creature that Universal has had a hand in is the wrapped-up wonder from ancient Egypt, none other than the Mummy which had six films attributed to it in the classic Universal Monster years (with said role given life by horror big-shots like Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr.)
The “Mummy” franchise was popular enough then that Universal gave it its own reboot in the 90s and 2000s, the more “high adventurous” film series starring Brendan Fraser and Arnold Vosloo as the bandaged abomination. With fond memories of that franchise, Universal decided that, going into the development of their “Dark Universe” films, the inaugural movie will be about a mummy (after discounting 2014’s “Dracula Untold” with Luke Evans as a starting point).
Returning the atmosphere of the mummy to horror, Universal then took the subversive bold step of changing the monster’s gender. Rather than a mummified Egyptian priest named either Imhotep or Kharis, the monster of the film is the sultry yet sinister Princess Ahmanet, played to scary sexiness by Sofia Boutella. Mummified alive after selling her soul to the Egyptian god Set in a bid to seize the throe of Egypt, her sarcophagus is found in modern-day Iraq (with a grim reference to the archaeological destruction wrought by ISIS) and recovered by American military officer/relic hunter Nick Morton, a role that is rather ably take up by older-than-he-looks superstar Tom Cruise.
Viewers can at least easily believe that Cruise is portraying a character that is a decade or two younger than his 54 years, thanks to that uncanny face and the action sequences he gets into for this film. All his time spent on “Mission: Impossible” and its oodles of sequels certainly paid off. And in a way he does make for a pair with Boutella as Ahmanet, who does make for a darkly seductive force whenever she appears to him in visions as her non-mummified self. She seeks to make him, who found her resting place, into a vessel for Set as part of her plan to rule the world like any god-like monster that was once human would.
Theirs isn’t the only storyline running through this movie however. If Ahmanet is trying to lead Morton into a dark path, there is archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) who is trying to keep him from falling into perdition. Never mind that the only meaningful interaction they had in backstory was a one-night stand where Morton steals her map to Ahmanet’s tomb.
And then there’s the unwieldy introduction of a common thread that must serve to tie up the Dark Universe films the way SHIELD did to the early-stage MCU. The Prodigium is a secret agency that hunts down monsters and evil entities in the world (with shout-outs to Universal monsters that will be rebooted for this franchise). Said agency is led by a minor Universal Monster in Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), the brilliant doctor-scientist with the twisted and superhuman alter-ego.
This new “Mummy” film does somehow manage to deliver seat-jumping scares at key points all the way from the Middle East to England, thanks to some effective CG work. But the unwieldy middle portion and the shoehorning of the monster-hunters of Prodigium makes the already bare-bones plot thread concerning Morton and Ahmanet (with Jenny as a heroic third wheel). At times the pacing of the story is more a transition from one action set piece to another, with phoned-in info-dumps inserted in some quiet portions.
One can appreciate the steps Universal undertook to build a foundation for a multi-film franchise of their own. However the unevenness of the execution will come across as an elephant in the room for more critical moviegoers. They can thank their lucky stars that the box office is a bit more positive in their regard for the movie, but Universal really needs to step up its game for the next segment of their Dark Universe, if it is to have any chance of becoming a movie-verse at all.
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