Tom Cruise’s new film barely qualifies as a film at all. The studio behind it, Universal, is planning to copy Marvel by establishing a ‘shared universe’ of interlinked blockbusters. But instead of being about superheroes, the so-called ‘Dark Universe’ movies will be about The Invisible Man, The Wolfman and the other classic monsters from Universal’s back catalogue.

This film deserves to be shut inside a pyramid for several millennia

The Mummy has the job of getting the franchise started. Rather than telling a self-contained story, then, it commits much of its running time to introducing concepts and settings that will crop up in future Dark Universe instalments. And it finishes with such a shameless non-ending that there might as well have been a caption on screen saying “To Be Continued”. It’s passable if you view it as a trailer, or as the pilot episode of a television series, but as a film in its own right it deserves to be shut inside a pyramid for several millennia.

Even if The Mummy hadn’t had to lay the groundwork for the Dark Universe, it would still be a shambles. A mish-mash of wildly varying tones and plot strands, Alex Kurtzman’s perplexing horror-comedy-sci-fi-espionage-disaster thriller is stuffed with characters whose beliefs and abilities change minute by minute, and punctuated by murkily lit action sequences which don’t show how those characters get from one location to the next. Maybe part of the problem is that there are six credited screenwriters. I wouldn’t be surprised if they wrote 20 pages each without ever glancing at what the other five had come up with.

To give you some idea of just how convoluted it is, The Mummy is a film about an Ancient Egyptian sorceress, and yet its opening scene features a bunch of Crusaders in 12th Century England. It then jumps to the present day, when those Crusaders’ catacombs are discovered beneath the streets of London. This discovery is, somehow, the cue for a portly, smirking professor (Russell Crowe) to stride in and narrate the legend of the aforementioned Ancient Egyptian sorceress. Later on, someone else mentions that the legend has been “erased from the history books”, so it’s quite impressive that he knows it in such detail.

Undead on arrival

It’s only after the prof has completed his exposition dump that the film hops to a desert in Iraq, and at last we meet Cruise’s Nick Morton, a US Army sergeant who loots antiquities to sell on the black market. He is, in short, an obnoxious crook, but, like the many other cocky, self-centred rogues Cruise has ever played, he is supposedly forgivable because a) he keeps taking his shirt off, b) he’s good at sprinting, and c) he learns to be a decent person by the end of the film. It’s a shame that, at 53, the actor is a decade or two too old for the role. If someone is still cheating, stealing and bullying as blithely as Morton is in his sixth decade, it’s hard not to feel that he is, fundamentally, a scumbag.

The narrative would be easier to follow if it were written in hieroglyphics

Eventually, he and a blonde archaeologist/love interest (Annabelle Wallis, who is, of course, 20 years younger than her co-star) stumble upon a cavernous but not very spectacular tomb, and accidentally bring a pharaoh’s cursed daughter, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), back to the land of the living. (It’s Morton’s fault, and it results in catastrophic death and destruction, but no one ever blames him.) Wrapped in just enough bandages to remind us that she’s a mummy, but not enough to cover up the doodles tattooed all over her, Ahmanet embarks on some sort of vengeful quest involving a magical dagger. 

None of it makes sense. The film delivers all the chases, explosions, zombies and ghosts you could ask for, and there are a few amusing lines and creepy moments, but, between the headache-inducing flashbacks and hallucinations, the narrative would be easier to follow if it were written in hieroglyphics. At one point, for instance, a crowd of zombies disintegrates into computer-generated dust, and the film doesn’t bother to explain why or how it happened. It’s no wonder that even the superhumanly confident Cruise appears dazed and confused half the time. When, in the closing minutes, Morton bleats, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” it sounds like a cry for help.

It’s something of a relief when he reaches the professor’s secret monster-hunting headquarters in London, and The Mummy gets on with spelling out its Dark Universe mythos. At least this section has a sense of purpose. Crowe – trying out not one but two painful English accents – drones on about the evil creatures stalking the earth, and while his pulpy scenes seem to have been lifted straight from The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, they’re ludicrous enough to be enjoyable. Maybe Universal’s multi-movie monster mash-up won’t be so terrible, after all. But don’t get too excited. If the Dark Universe is ever going to be anywhere near as lucrative as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, its subsequent films will have to be much, much better than this one.

★☆☆☆☆

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