The “Marvel effect” continues to influence the way movies are made. The latest case-in-point is Universal’s Dark Universe. If you haven’t already heard, this will be the Universal Monster’s answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU); one where the likes of the Mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, etc., all exist in an interconnected movie universe full of standalone adventures and, of course, cross-overs and team-ups. I still find it fascinating that studios think they can just declare this sort of thing is going to happen even before they release one successful film in said movie universe. As Warner Bros. and DC is learning; it’s not as easy as it looks to replicate the success of the MCU. However, the MCU makes veritable mountains of money, thus every studio has to at least try to get in on that action; hence things like Dark Universe. Kicking things off for the Dark Universe is The Mummy, a somewhat creepy, action-packed, and surprisingly funny adventure that’s burdened with not only telling its own story, but with laying all the ground work for this new cinematic universe, and the fact is, that’s too much to ask of for just one movie.
The problem is in trying to replicate the success of the MCU, everyone wants to just jump in to the later stages of it. Marvel laid the groundwork for the MCU through several movies; building it bit by bit, piece by piece. In order to catch up, most of the upcoming cinematic universes are trying to skip some of those initial steps, or at least condense them. That hasn’t worked out thus for DC, and if The Mummy is any indication, it may not work out so well for Universal either. Interestingly, the problem here isn’t so much that there’s a lot of exposition to try and establish the universe this movie exists in (and there is), or that its delivered in a rather clunky, inelegant fashions (and it is), but more that even though we get the big exposition dump in this universe-establishing film, it doesn’t really give us a firm grasp of why any of it is necessary. In the early stages of the MCU we knew that there was an effort to gather together people with unique abilities in order to help protect the world from threats that otherwise couldn’t be defended against. Granted, there was a lot of mystery in how all of that was going to come together and what those “threats” really were, but it was a simple and elegant plot thread that at least gave the audience an idea of where all of this is going. In The Mummy, we have a version of SHIELD; a group called Prodigium, which we’re helpfully told comes from a Latin phrase that has something to do with gods and monsters. However, what exactly Prodigium is and what it does is less clear; something to do with tracking, containing, and studying monsters. There are vague hints that it might take monsters to fight other monsters, and attempts at building mystery and intrigue, but for the most part, all of this exposition and attempts at “universe building” while tossing in some teases about what else might be out in this new cinematic universe while at the same time not giving away too much all just bogs down what movies used to be about; telling a good story.
And the fact is, there is a pretty good story lurking within The Mummy; we get to see it in fits and starts. It’s a slightly creepy adventure with lots of humor and plenty of action. It has some interesting twists on expectations, but the important thing is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously and it’s not afraid just to have some fun. The story does make the same mistake as the overall Dark Universe does; that is, it tries to skips some crucial steps to get to the “good stuff.” There are some key relationship elements to this story which should give it more heart and sympathetic sense of tragedy, but the process of building those relationships had large chunks of it take place previously and off-screen. The tragic payoff at the end doesn’t resonate the way it should because we don’t see these characters grow to care for each other, we’re just told that they do because of other stuff that happened that we don’t see. Despite this misstep, it’s clear that everyone had a blast making a classic monster movie, and that fun and energy fills the screen. The plot is briskly paced (in truth, maybe too brisk as sometimes it seems just to jump around to scenes without explaining how they got there aside from “something supernatural happened”), and except for when it’s trying to do its “universe building,” never lingers too long but continues to push ahead with the adventure. In fact, I was surprised but pleased to see that the film clocked in at under two hours; such a refreshing change of pace for a movie to know that it doesn’t have to be some two-and-a-half hour epic blockbuster to be fun.
If there’s one area that I wish the movie would have delved deeper, it was in some of its philosophical explorations of the nature of good and evil. There are some interesting, but brief discussion about what that means and the roles gods and monsters have to play in it. One of the most fascinating ideas presented is that if evil is a disease or a curse, then it can be inoculated against or cured. In short, if there’s evil in the world, then what the world needs is a cure. Funny thing is, the Bible couldn’t agree more. There is evil in the world, and what the world desperately needed was a cure. That cure was the grace of God, presented to the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross breaks the curse of sin and death, and makes a way for people to choose a better path than the destiny the curse of evil imposes on us all. Romans puts it this way; “for the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:23 ESV). Sin, death, evil—it all has a cure; Jesus Christ. Perhaps what’s most fascinating about The Mummy is that while it hints and toys with these ideas, it also puts forth the idea that while sacrifice may be what’s necessary to fight and cure evil, it may also be necessary to fight and cure evil with evil; a different kind of evil, granted, but sometimes it takes a monster to fight a monster. Really? Does that even make sense? Who knows, but it should make for some great cross-overs.
The Mummy is a slight film with a heavy burden. At times it feels almost as if there wasn’t quite enough story for a full movie, but since it has to get things rolling for the Dark Universe, that can take up the rest of the running time. The film practically trips over itself to get all of the “universe building exposition” out of the way, to the point it where it feel like they forgot that this movie needs to tell a pretty good story of its own; it can’t just all be a prologue for what’s really going to happen later. It’s a bummer too, because I think somewhere in here is a movie that could have been just as even, and maybe even better (or at least more interesting) then the last time the Mummy graced theater screens back in the late nineties. As it is, we get an undercooked adventure with an over-developed burden of making Universal’s own cinematic universe of money making, intertwined movies a reality. It does neither really well, but doesn’t really completely fail at them either.
Score: 4 of 7 – The Mummy can skew pretty dark and creepy, and delves into some troubling spirituality issues as well. Plus, there’s a smattering of innuendo (can there be such a thing as a “sexy Mummy?”) along with all kinds of action. In short, not really a kid friendly kind of PG-13 movie.