In the land of blinding sunshine, the high priests have used the dark unguents of the embalmer to preserve the ancient bodies of the royals in an uncanny state of youthful freshness. Which is why, I guess, Tom Cruise still looks boyish at 54 in the latest reincarnation of The Mummy. As for the movie, it’s not very good but I enjoyed it anyway. These eyes have seen a lot of summer blockbusters, yet never before, I think, have they taken in a gaggle of swimming zombie Crusaders. The director, Alex Kurtzman, jolly well keeps things moving, so that even when nothing in the film made much sense, I was reasonably caught up in the ridiculousness.
That Cruise, still a big star if no longer a bankable one, and Russell Crowe signed up for this project indicates we’re in a new era in which franchises are built around venerable characters, not movie stars, and the latter are clambering desperately aboard like so many hobos on a departing freight train. The Mummy inaugurates a (shaky) strategy by Universal Studios to do for its monster catalogue (including 1930s classics such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and the original Mummy, though all of the titular characters are now in the public domain) what Marvel and DC Comics are doing for superheroes: creating a series of interlocking movies in which each big-budget production serves as a trailer for the next and fans are conditioned not to miss a single episode in the saga. As a “Dark Universe” title, The Mummy links its ancient Egyptian villain with the re-emergence of a Victorian-era horror character, but I’ll let the film explain all that to you.
Cruise plays Nick Morton, perhaps the world’s oldest sergeant, a recon man serving in Iraq whose real interest is finding and stealing valuable artifacts together with his shrieking, cowardly sidekick Chris (Jake Johnson). Having stolen a map in Baghdad from the sultry Egyptologist Jenny (Annabelle Wallis), with whom he had a fling, he stumbles onto an ancient burial ground that functions as a prison for the spirit of the wicked Egyptian princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella). She killed her father the Pharoah and her little brother and was about to seal a pact with the god of death when she was mummified alive. Cruise’s Nick unwittingly resurrects her and frees her from her tomb, which inspires her to select him as the human body into which she will transfer the god of death. All that’s required is that she stab him with an ancient dagger, but first she needs the magical stone to top it. That jewel has just been found in a dig in London, where it was buried in the sarcophagus of a twelfth-century English Crusader. Meanwhile, Crowe plays a doctor running a secret lab where he is pursuing an investigation of evil in all its forms. For Nick to be killed and transmuted into malevolence incarnate suits him fine.
Like the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean movies, The Mummy puts the special-effects cart before the storytelling horse, so it isn’t a model of narrative clarity. Exactly how the various curses work, what their effects are, and how they might be undone is never quite made clear, but it’s still fun to see Nick pursued by such perils as the undead successor to Chris, who has become a zombie after a spider bite but is relatively good-natured about it. In London, the Mummy/Ahmanet, looking a bit like a goth Cher, pursues Nick for an erotic murder ceremony that recalls Cruise’s 1994 misadventure Interview with the Vampire,while using her sorcery to dish out all sorts of delightful havoc — including the requisite desert windstorm, this time in the center of London. Sure, her zombie minions have a tendency to crumble to dust if you so much as administer them a vigorous elbowing in the ribs, so they’re not very interesting. But there’s so much going on — from supernaturally induced plane crashes to torture via intravenous mercury injections to those surprisingly buoyant zombie knights pursuing Nick underwater — that I was happy just to marvel at it all. I laughed, too, especially at lines that weren’t meant to be funny. “You killed your father,” Nick tells the Mummy. “You killed his wife, her child.” “They were different times,” she replies. Hey, people make mistakes. Who are we to get on our high horse?
If you’re looking for a movie with heart, look elsewhere: Kurtzman and his motley band of screenwriters want us to think of Nick as a kind of cognate to Bogart in Casablanca, a guy who might make a noble sacrifice if he thinks nobody is looking, but the effort is never convincing. The supposed tingle of repulsed attraction between Nick and Jenny doesn’t quite register, either, and their banter is as stiff as a tombstone. But what did you expect from a Tom Cruise movie? By this time, it ought to be clear that the only human being to whom Cruise can ever truly show devotion is himself. That moment where he manfully dukes it out with his own doppelgänger in 2013’s cloning flick Oblivion is probably the most heartfelt love scene he’ll ever pull off.