The whole idea of a shared cinematic universe is getting sort of out of hand. Marvel kicked it off – and at least it’s working there; DC are desperate to make theirs work. But it’s not just your classic comic book superheroes who are buddying up for adventures, Hollywood’s at it as a whole.
The latest comes in the form of the Dark Universe – Universal’s attempt to build a sprawling interconnected stable of blockbuster movies. The hope is to unite some of film’s most iconic gods and monsters in one, well, dark universe. Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and The Invisible Man are all due to appear, but this spooktacular (sigh) synergy of IPs kicks off with The Mummy – essentially a reboot of a long-running franchise that last graced the big screen with a trilogy of Brendan Fraser-starring popcorn flicks, only this time it’s darker, a lot darker.
There are still the hijinks and quips you’ve come to expect from summer flicks of this ilk, most of which come from main man Nick Morton, a military reconnaissance operative who occasionally likes to plunder antiquities from whatever Middle Eastern location he’s been sent to scout out. He’s joined by Jake Johnson’s Chris Vail who is literally any other Jake Johnson character you’ve seen in the last five years. He and Charlie Day basically have the short, loudmouth friend role locked down.
It’s all Uncharted fun and games until they, along with archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), stumble across an ancient tomb buried in the Iraqi desert, and because Nick has the mentality of a curious five-year-old he just can’t help but disturb the tomb of, you guessed it, a mummy. Naturally, chaos ensues as the mummy herself – Sofia Boutella’s Princess Ahmanet – clings to Nick’s tracks as she sets out to unite an ancient dagger and an ancient jewel to form the ultimate McGuffin – a McGuffin so powerful that it can resurrect the god of death who, she hopes, will inhabit Mr Cruise’s disturbingly-well-toned-for-a-54-year-old’s body.
The movie’s been bashed left, right and centre by critics and that’s entirely undeserving. It’s the most archetypal three-star film you can get and if you go in with lowered expectations, you’ll likely find yourself enjoying the vast majority of its 110-minute run. Director Alex Kurtzmann’s no slouch when it comes to big budget action; his work as a writer on the rebooted Star Trek films and upcoming Discovery TV show are clear to see as Nick and company bound, leap and vault around the place as the looming threat of Ahmanet lingers just behind them like a larger version of the beastie from It Follows.
That’s not to say The Mummy’s without its flaws – there are many. There are great chunks of exposition, which regularly, unsurprisingly for Hollywood, come in the form of monotone monologues from Dr Jenny, who is perhaps the epitome of a one-dimensional female character. And the less said about Russell Crowe’s Dr Jekyll, the better. Cruise vs Crowe should be a cinematic treat, instead, it’s a mundane experience as Aussie Crowe swings between a well-spoken Jekyll and his cockerney alter ego while a bewildered Cruise looks on.
But where The Mummy does triumph over its rivals – and to which Universal should attach its Dark Universe wagon – is in its elements of horror and perhaps most importantly, its villain.
In an era where the majority of blockbusters fall flat in the third act purely because the chief villain is a carbon copy of every other baddie who’s come before them, Boutella’s Ahmanet is a revelation. For anyone who’s seen Kingsman: The Secret Service or Star Trek Beyond, you’ll know that Boutella brings a physicality to her performances unlike any other actress working in Hollywood right now.
It’s perfect for Ahmanet, an ancient Egyptian princess who knows exactly how to use her seductive movement alongside unrivalled physical strength to bend mere mortals to her will. And it all builds to form a character who oozes dread and brings the horror aspect that Universal is clearly searching for. Some critics might say that the film’s not scary enough, but one sequence, in which Ahmanet finally returns to her physical form after being broken free from her tomb, is – and there’s no other word for it – creepy, and definitely deserving of the film’s 15 rating.
If Universal can produce villains in the same vein as Ahmanet for the likes of Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man while adding some variety to location, easing off on the exposition and bringing in supporting characters with more life and purpose, then maybe, just maybe, the Dark Universe can be the shared world that Universal so desperately want it to be.