If you pay attention to pop culture, by now you have undoubtedly heard that Alex Kurtzman’s reboot of The Mummy is all curse, no gift. Currently, it has earned a pitiful 21 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. The nicest thing A.O. Scott can performatively muster in his New York Times review is this: “It is 110 minutes long. That is about 20 minutes shorter than Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, about which I had some unkind things to say a couple of weeks ago. Simple math will tell you how much better this movie is than that one. If you have no choice but to see it—a circumstance I have trouble imagining—you can start in on your drinking that much sooner.”
I’m sure what I’m about to say is contrary to the beliefs of the board of experts who want this movie to be seen by as many people as possible so they’ll then see future movies in the Dark Universe franchise featuring classic Universal monsters (Bride of Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon). Buuuuut: It didn’t have to be this way. Imagine if this movie had focused on the woman of color character it is ostensibly named after, exploring her dark yet considerable power—perhaps luxuriating in the gulf between badass and asshole that is dug out in her wake—instead of giving the lion’s share of its attention to the white dude (“the dummy”). (That’s my name for him, not the movie’s or his parents. His real name is Tom Cruise.)
Coming off the heels of Wonder Woman, whose narrative of female empowerment and woman director is impossible to untangle from its success as popcorn entertainment, if this hypothetical mummy-centered Mummy were merely competent, it could have been celebrated as another sign that the big-budget movie industry was tip-toeing toward equality/the right side of history. That would have been a nice win for all involved, even if the movie wasn’t very good.
But even if we put aside gestures of wokeness, be they cynical or sincere, telling the actual story of the mummy would plainly be more logical. The movie is, after all, called The Mummy. Also, the mummy (played by Sofia Boutella) is, objectively, the far richer character. Some things about her:
- She’s Egyptian royalty.
- She sold her soul to a god.
- She killed her father.
- She was killed.
- She became a mummy.
- Now she’s back.
- She has double irises in each eye.
- She’s thousands of years old.
- She can conjure bugs and corpses and they listen to what she says.
- She has lots of assorted superhuman powers, like teleportation, the ability to disorient those under her command, great strength, etc.
But she’s not the protagonist of The Mummy. She’s not even the anti-hero. I guess she’s the villain, but she’s barely that even. In fact, she spends a lot of the film in chains with mercury being pumped into her veins. Instead, we follow Nick Morton, and here are some things about him:
- He’s an “adventurer,” whatever that is.
- I guess he’s American (he has an American accent).
- Didn’t kill any members of his family.
- Has only one iris in each eye for the vast majority of the movie.
- He’s played by a 54-year-old man (Cruise) who strikes me as attempting to hold onto his youth in decided though subtle ways that I can best express my own perception of by saying... he’s not a daddy and the inability to make mummy/daddy jokes is yet another drag in a movie that’s all drags.
- He’s cursed but he’s, like, dealing with it? Able to choke back the brain fog that comes from being cursed and for the most part see clearly???
- He’s the kind of character who responds to an announced plan to murder him (thus curing the world of his curse) by saying, “That’s your plan?... Really, that’s your plan???” I think that’s a joke? (I guess the joke is that he’s emphatically incredulous.) I don’t know, I really think I was supposed to laugh at that and a lot of things presented to me by The Mummy. I think this is part comedy, but every attempt at humor was met unreciprocated by the screening audience I sat in earlier this week—the silence during the film’s brief pauses for laughter was savage.
It almost feels that The Mummy is allergic to being interesting. At one point, Annabelle, an archeologist played by Jenny Halsey, who accompanies Nick Morton to, I don’t know, manage the mummy’s tomb and give him a warm body to speak lines at, tries to make the case for Nick being a good person. To be fair, there is little indication as to why we are following him up until that point, other than the fact that he’s played by a movie star who showed up for work and did what he was told, nothing more nothing less. Annabelle references an earlier action scene, during which Nick gave her a parachute as their plane plummeted. She notes that he saved her life, and moreover that he put hers before his, since it was the only parachute on the plane. “I thought there was another one,” says Nick, refusing even the tiniest bit of shading on his crudely drawn character.
The Mummy smacks of a real conservative sensibility almost everywhere, not just its insistence on making the white guy the hero just cause that’s what white guys have been made out to be. There’s so much gunplay with automatic weapons, at times in a joking context (Sergeant Chris Vail lets off several rounds when a bunch of giant spiders attack, even though he has no chance of shooting them all) that it feels sponsored by the NRA. There’s a man-in-the-women’s-bathroom-joke when Nick... holes up in a women’s bathroom (and doesn’t let women use it while he talks to a zombie version of Chris). There’s more bloodless, gratuitous, PG-13 violence (including a full-on, life-ending stabbing) than I’ve ever seen in a movie. I don’t want to be dramatic by saying The Mummy is everything that’s bad about big-budget Hollywood franchise films, so I will say this: The Mummy is very nearly everything that’s bad about big-budget Hollywood franchise films. And it should have been about the mummy.