"I hope it scares the shit out of you!" declared both Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe at the Sydney premiere of The Mummy, confirming that this was indeed to be a darker, more adult take on the successful movie franchise – a horror film harking back to the heady days of Val Lewton and the 1930s Gothic monster flicks that helped put Universal Studios on the map.
Only...The Mummy is also peppered with comedic moments, meaning it's really better described as a horror comedy in the vein of Shaun of the Dead or Cabin in the Woods.
However, its leading man Nick Morton (Cruise) is also a special forces recon soldier whose opening scene sees him dropping hellfire missiles on Iraqi insurgents. So really it's a horror comedy action film. Also, right after that opening scene we meet Cruise's on again off again love interest and globe-trotting archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis). Horror comedy action romance?
Of course this all happens after we've already seen the Universal icon transform into the 'Dark Universe' logo, establishing The Mummy as the studio's opening salvo in the expansive, world-building game heretofore occupied by Marvel and DC. That makes this a horror comedy action romance franchise-founder. Ugh. No wonder it all gets a little lost in the details.
In short, The Mummy is a movie guilty of overreach. Whether by studio interference or filmmaker miscalculation, it tries to achieve an impossible number of simultaneous feats, peppering you with character cameos (Crowe plays Dr Henry Jekyll and the other guy as well) and breadcrumbs for future franchise instalments (Bride of Frankenstein is next in line, followed by The Invisible Man, Dracula, The Wolfman and all the other Gothic-era classics). All this, while also trying to tell a story of its own. That it feels like it happens in that order of priority is perhaps the movie's biggest problem, because on its own the actual mummy stuff is pretty darn solid.
In the title role we find this time a female mummy, Ahmanet, portrayed by the wonderful Sofia Boutella (Star Trek Beyond). After her assured reign over Egypt is suddenly wrenched from her by the birth of a baby brother, Ahmanet forms a pact with Set, the God of Death and embarks upon a killing spree before being entombed alive and erased from history. Erased, that is, until Cruise and his sidekick Chris (a clumsy, unnecessary turn by New Girl's Jake Johnson) stumble upon the sarcophagus and awaken the beast from her twenty centuries of stony sleep.
From that moment on, The Mummy is a film with an identity crisis. Its mummy affairs are entertaining, action-packed and even occasionally scary, particularly through the employment of zombie henchmen reanimated by Ahmanet after she's sucked out their life force. The comedy doesn't really fit with Cruise's performance, and he has zero chemistry with Wallis, but at least the film delivers engaging set-pieces – more so than, say, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2.
Unfortunately, the Dark Universe stuff proves far more problematic. So much is mentioned yet left unexplored, and not in a way that can simply be excused as foreshadowing. As the Marvel superhero movies have repeatedly demonstrated, a single 10 second shot at the end of a film's credit sequence can capably tease all that is to come in future films without detracting from the story being told in the present. Left to its own devices, The Mummy might well have soared as a classic monster movie from a bygone era. Instead, it's a confused jumble of scenes and characters that undermine and trip each other up at every possible turn.