What’s that classic pop culture saying? “You either die a hero or live long enough to become a shared universe”? If it’s the summer and there are blockbusters afoot, chances seem to be almost better than half that what you’ll see is part of some grander scheme of connected intellectual property, the product of nearly a decade of Marvel dominance at the box office. It makes sense with superheroes. They’re essentially just moving the comics model of crossover after crossover to the big screen. But things get a little more craven when you hear about the “Dark Universe,” Universal Pictures’ attempt to stitch together their stable of classic movie monsters into a shared universe with the release of a rebooted and reimagined The Mummy. Gone are the days of Brendan Fraser mugging his way through the desert. This is serious. There’s money to be made here, dammit.
Tom Cruise seems to think as much, at least. He plays Nick Morton, a thief and grave robber who’s basically Ethan Hunt but kind of a dick about it. He does some stuff in Iraq and unearths a 5,000 year old evil mummy (Sofia Boutella) who decides Nick is going to be her vessel for rebirthing ultimate evil into the world. Nick isn’t super on board with this plan, and tries to extricate himself from becoming a sacrificial lamb with the help of the fetching Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) and a shadowy organization led by Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe). And yes, Dr. Jekyll seems to have a bit of a temper problem. Just in case you were wondering.
It all sounds rather silly, which on its face should be fine. Mummies and ancient curses and armies of skeletons can only be so serious in this day and age, but apparently no one told Universal, writers David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman, or director Alex Kurtzman this. There are quips and jibes, for this is a Tom Cruise action movie and such things are compulsory, but the underlying tone is as grave as a tomb. It’s easy enough to see where things go wrong, be it Jake Johnson’s forced, off-putting portrayal of Nick’s wacky sidekick or the film’s complete reliance on CGI zombies and creepy crawlies that makes it look and feel like the theme park ride it will inevitably become. But the main problem lies in the aforementioned Dark Universe, rolled out with a red carpet and its own logo, and the organization destined to unite it. Prodigium, with Jekyll at its center, becomes of the dominant setting for the film’s thoroughly dull second half, and while Crowe seems game to be this series’ Nick Fury (and the paycheck that surely comes with it), the whole enterprise is so interminable and cynical, weighed down by titanic sand dunes of exposition and winking nods to monster movies of old (that skull...has fangs!) that is grinds a film that already had no momentum to an egregious halt. At least when they were exploring tombs and crypts and hidden mausoleums, there was some sense of scale.
It doesn’t help that so much of the support cast doesn’t appear up to the job. Wallis has absolutely nothing to do here; her character amounts to little more than a sexy archaeologist for Cruise and the camera to lust after. Cruise is fine, and it’s at least a little interesting that his character is a bit of a cad, but that was far more interesting in, say, Edge of Tomorrow than it is here. Feel bad for Sofia Boutella, an undeniably magnetic actress and physical screen presence. She does what she can, striking and bold in flashback sequences only to be buried under CGI and body paint and dual-pupil eyes that Kurtzman loves to zoom in on, reduced to little more than a bondage model for too much of the film for it to be remotely comfortable. She’s a mummy in all the classic ways, with the bugs and the raising of the dead and the cursing and the sandstorms that turn into her face, but there’s no heart. There’s no teeth. It’s perfunctory. There are a few nicely framed shots and sequences, but on balance it’s utterly devoid of ambition. So, of course, there’s going to be more of it.
You could make a Universal Monster Movie shared universe. But not like this. These are characters from a bygone era, too quaint for today’s film market, too resistant to the sort of mythological gobbledygook needed to forge all of these disparate parts together. Universal could have embraced the camp and done something different with this, something to differentiate them from the rest of the summer blockbuster market, but if The Mummy is any indication, the opposite is clearly where the studio thinks the money is. This is a phenomenally dumb, low effort film that takes itself far too seriously, hoping to stay afloat by the star power of Tom Cruise and the promise of more to come in the future. It’s hard to tell who this movie is for, lacking the charm of both the 1930’s original and the visceral action horror of modern creature features. It feels focus grouped to hell and back, a pile of vague ideas that don’t coalesce. Time will tell if the Dark Universe manages to sustain itself, but running directly into a brick wall on its first venture probably isn’t the best way to start things off.