(2017) Horror (Universal) Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Marwan Kenzari, Simon Atherton, Stephen Thompson, James Arama, Matthew Wilkas, Sohm Kapila, Sean Cameron Mitchell, Rez Kempton, Erol Ismail, Selva Rasalingam, Shanina Shaik, Javier Botet, Hadrian Howard, Dylan Smith, Parker Sawyers, Bella Georgiou. Directed by Alex Kurtzman
Given that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a license to print money for Disney, it’s no wonder that shared universes are all the rage in Hollywood. A shared universe differs from a franchise in that whereas franchise films feature the same characters appearing in different films that are literal sequels, a shared universe has different characters appearing in different films that share a common background and often different characters appear in the films of other characters.
Universal has decided to throw their hat into the ring with the Dark Universe, a shared cinematic universe featuring their classic monsters which if you ask me is a tip-top idea; back in the heyday of Universal monster movies, the studio made big bucks when they would have films with three or four of their monsters sharing screen time in the same movie so in a way they have already done the shared universe thing. Can they it work in the 21st century?
Nick Morton (Cruise) is a U.S. Army officer who moonlights as a soldier of fortune “liberating” ancient artifacts from the various countries he serves in and selling them on the black market. Nick is not so much amoral as he is self-serving and his sidekick Vail (Johnson) knows it. When they are ambushed by insurgents during a long reconnaissance in Iraq, Nick calls in an airstrike which in turn reveals an ancient Egyptian tomb.
Nick’s superior Colonel Greenway (Vance) enlists archaeologist Jennifer Halsey (Wallis) to examine the tomb which she reports is more like a prison. Nick discovers a sarcophagus inside a pool of mercury and raises it. With the insurgents returning, Greenway orders the sarcophagus put on an army transport plane and sent to England for further study.
What Nick doesn’t know is that the tomb is that of Ahmanet (Boutella), an ambitious Egyptian princess in line for the throne until one of Pharaoh’s concubines gives birth to a son. Knowing this will relegate her to the sidelines, she slaughters her entire family and prepares her lover to be sacrificed so that the spirit of the evil god Set can take over his body but the pharaoh’s guards discover what she is up to and for her awful crimes she is sentenced to be mummified alive.
What Nick also doesn’t know is that his pal Vail has been bitten by a camel spider which was controlled by the evil princess and is now controlled by Ahmanet. On board the transport he goes on a rampage in an effort to free the mummy but is killed; Ahmanet instead sends a massive flock of crows to bring the plane down. Nick at the last moment puts a parachute on Jennifer and sends her out the door. He is apparently killed in the plane crash.
The thing is, he’s not quite dead yet. He wakes up and nobody is more mystified than he as to why he’s still alive. However, Vail’s ghost informs him (in a conceit right out of American Werewolf in London) that Nick has been marked by Ahmanet to be the new vessel for Set, completing her bargain with the god and giving her unlimited power on Earth. However, in order to do that she’s is going to have to find two relics – a ruby and a dagger – that are hidden in England.
Nick finds out that Jennifer is an employee of a company called Prodigium which was created to fight supernatural enemies on Earth by a man named Henry Jekyll (Crowe), a brilliant scientist who harbors a secret that pretty much everybody knows he won’t be able to Hyde. Stopping Ahmanet is job one at the moment. However, Ahmanet has been busy. She’s been regenerating by feeding on the living and her powers to control the dead are growing. Nick knows he can run but he can’t hide – he and Ahmanet have a psychic connection now. How do you fight against a monster that has virtually unlimited power?
Most people are going to compare this to the 1999 version of The Mummy. Do yourself a favor and don’t, as hard as it is not to have that film in your head when watching this one. The Brendan Fraser version is a rollicking roller coaster ride that is sheer entertainment from beginning to end. This one is far more ponderous. Kurtzman, a veteran writer, has penned some big movies for some big franchises and who has been placed in creative control of the Dark Universe. He’s indulging in some world building here and that might be understandable but the problem is that he’s really cramming way too much into a single movie. Things get convoluted and while the Prodigium stuff is fascinating, the ancient Egyptian backstory is not. This feels less fun and more of a chore to get through so that the other movies can come along and fit in to the sandbox Kurtzman and his fellow writers are constructing. That’s not how you want to feel coming out of a big summer tentpole movie, particularly one in which you want to establish a billion dollar franchise. This has the feel of a movie-by-committee.
Cruise is beginning to show some signs of middle age but he still has the smile wattage and the screen presence to pull this off. Crowe makes Jekyll an enigma who you want to learn more about; both of these performances bode well for future ventures. Boutella also makes a pretty decent movie monster. She’s sexy AND scary, a nice combination. Wallis is less memorable although I think that’s more a function of the writing and less of her performance.
The CGI is less than sparkling; it’s not that it is out and out bad, it’s just not exciting. These days the CGI has to dazzle to a certain degree and here it merely fills in the gaps. I will say that the plane crash sequence here is flat-out amazing; it’s truly the highlight of the film and is a scene I wouldn’t mind seeing again. Not enough to want to buy the movie though.
Kurtzman is packing too many elements in here. We see bits of Indiana Jones, of the aforementioned American Werewolf and even Aliens. The whole movie feels ponderous and derivative where it should be fun and exciting, or at least scary as hell. The movie ends up being not so much boring as unimaginative and lacking in any reason to want to see the scheduled follow-up Bride of Frankenstein (which has since been yanked from the Universal release schedule – something tells me some major re-tooling is underway). When you’re trying to establish a new cinematic universe, that’s the opposite of the effect you want your movie to have on your audience.
REASONS TO GO: The character of Henry Jekyll and the Prodigium backstory have potential.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many elements borrowed liberally from much better films make this less of a thrill ride than the 1999 version.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence, action and scary images; there’s also a smattering of sexually suggestive material including some brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With this film and his starring role in American Made, this is the first time since 2012 that Cruise has starred in more than one film in the same calendar year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
FINAL RATING: 5/10
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