One of the most critically-reviled films of 2017 was Tom Cruise’s reboot of 1999’s The Mummy. Directed by Alex Kurtzman and intended to be the first chapter in Universal’s Dark Universe, it made its budget back but was panned by critics and fans alike, with many believing it has derailed this cinematic universe. Far more worthy of recognition is the aforementioned original (excluding the 1932 film it is loosely based on), which manages to be an enjoyable adventure epic almost two decades on.
The Mummy succeeds most in translating the clear vision of director Stephen Sommers (Van Helsing) onto the screen. Visually, this film is an absolute treat, from the visceral and convincing 1923 setting to the design of Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) and his minions. Sommers commits to this early 20th-century time period – something which Cruise’s version failed to do – and it pays off, creating a fascinating environment for the action to take place. The variety of sets is commendable, especially the tombs in which O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and co explore, boiling down to strong CGI, especially for this primitive period for the technology, and very convincing props.
That said, the CGI is one of The Mummy‘s more hit-or-miss elements: in some cases, such as the first few appearances of the eponymous mummy, it’s really strong, painting Imhotep as this inhuman threat, but at other times the video game-esque quality proves jarring. The action works well when combining digital and visual effects, but is at its best when CGI is entirely discarded. Two of the film’s best set pieces – one battle on a ferry and one atop a car – are very conservative with their use of CGI, and it works to the film’s benefit by allowing the action to appear realistic.
Realism is, of course, tossed out the window in The Mummy, which is generally acceptable in terms of the plot. Sommers’ screenplay is as fleshed-out as his direction, telling a sprawling and unique story that spans centuries. Unlike most blockbuster action movies, every set piece happens for a reason and contributes to furthering the plot, rather than maintaining the attention of audiences, and although there are plenty of action scenes, the film is paced well enough that they never become suffocating, building towards a grand-scale climax that still impresses to this day.
What is less successful is the script’s treatment of characters: no single member of the cast is particularly fleshed-out, and the motivations of certain characters are either unmentioned or glossed over through expository dialogue. One of the worst culprits here is Brendan Fraser’s O’Connell, whose background and motivations are hardly outlined past an admiration for Rachel Weisz’s Evie, whose own reasoning for exploring Hamunaptra is questioned, but never stated. Aside from these issues, the script relies far too heavily on exposition to establish characters and motivations, particularly using Evie’s knowledge as a device to blurt out answers in a tell-not-show fashion.
Watching The Mummy, it is almost impossible to guess that it holds a 15 certificate in the UK, which can be blamed solely on the inconsistent tone that really bogs the film down. At times it goes for Alien-esque horror, with jumpscares sprinkled throughout and some atmospheric, menacing moments, but at other points it appears to be going for a kid audience. Characters such as Kevin J. O’Connor’s Beni exist solely for comic relief, but many of The Mummy‘s tenser, more violent moments are torn apart by a poorly-judged joke or childish gag destroying the atmosphere. There’s a clear identity crisis here, which is a shame because The Mummy works far better as a moody pseudo-horror than a family adventure.
Without a disappointing tonal inconsistency, The Mummy has the potential to be a genuinely thrilling and sprawling, if slightly shallow, genre film. Strong visuals, intense and well-choreographed action and a genuinely unique plot can’t outweigh the indiscrepancies of the script in its handling of character motivations and tone. It’ll be far more enjoyable on repeat viewings once these problems can be glanced over, but this exact identity crisis is what prevents The Mummy from being an important late-20th century action adventure.