Though not the opening scene of the film, the most revealing section of Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy, is the movie’s first major action sequence. In it, military contractors-turned-blackmarket antiquity dealers Nick Morton and Sergeant Chris Vail, (played by Tom Cruise and Jake Johnson, respectively), find themselves surrounded on all sides by hordes of nameless, Hollywood backlot-caliber terrorists, attempting to escape a decimated Iraqi village after a spur-of-the-moment artifact heist goes terribly wrong. In shot after shot, Morton and Vail are able to find the time to make hilarious quips at each other’s expense while narrowly avoiding death at every turn. Be it avoiding gunfire, airstrikes, collapsing buildings or enormous, undiscovered Egyptian sinkholes, the two men prove themselves to be irritatingly un-killable.
Like any random scene found in many contemporary action movies, this beautifully shot, ambitiously staged set piece features ostensibly human characters so clearly immune to the mere possibility of death that even the highest of production values can not rescue the narrative from a deafening lack of tension or consequence. The Mummy is so shamelessly aware of how low the stakes are for the characters, that, when Morton says to Vail, “I think we’re gonna die here,” the line is played for laughs, as if being stranded on a dilapidated rooftop surrounded by armed militia members in the middle of the Iraqi desert is something you would joke about with your best bros.
Now, of course, no one goes to see The Mummy and expects Tom Cruise to be killed at the end of his first scene. And, it’s also reasonable to think that a PG-13 action/horror movie like this one would try to temper its more realistically violent moments with a light dusting of devil-may-care banter and camaraderie between its leads. The problem at the core of The Mummy, though, is that for a movie ostensibly focused on chilling horror tropes of death, resurrection, decomposition and the plight of the undead, the movie treats actual death with such off-putting indifference that are no plot points of any consequence for viewers to invest themselves in. Of the five main characters who have on-screen deaths, four of them are resurrected by the end of the movie. In The Mummy, everyone dies but no one dies. The audience is left to wonder why they should care about characters who spend an entire movie running from something that, even when it catches them, has zero effect on the proceedings.
(Though to be fair, on the topic of running, The Mummy does feature some excellent arguments in support of Tom Cruise’s well-documented ambition to be seen at the greatest runner in all of cinematic history. Peruse these histories for more detail on the matter.)
Cynics will view this bordeom-inducing lack of dramatic tension as a by-product of The Mummy‘s ignoble duty to serve as the first entry in Universal’s Dark Universe, a burgeoning, interconnected, cross-property movie franchise earnestly devoted to rebooting several of Universal’s most well-known classic monster movie IP holdings. One would have to assume that when starting a new movie universe, it’s probably ill-advised to kill off any new characters, for risk of them being rendered unavailable for eventual cameos in later films.
Because if this need to serve as an opening act, The Mummy, though filled with fun performances and thoughtful visual designs, is forced to only hint at its more interesting ideas, (things like there being an evil, superpowered Tom Cruise or the fact that Russel Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll is willing to kill humans in order to gain better understanding of the supernatural), because it would seem those better ideas must be saved for the sequels. Rather than be allowed to tell its own story, with all of the change, drama, consequence and emotional release that would entail, The Mummy is forced to forgo forward progress in order to spend its entire runtime establishing the status quo for other movies’ stories.
But, there may be a less cynical interpretation. When looking back through the history of Kurtzman’s work as both a director and a writer, there are many examples of stories that break the function of death in storytelling. While the ending of Star Trek Into Darkness is probably the clearest example of this, other work of his, such as Transformers, Mission Impossible III and Fringe, all in various ways, treat death as a something other than a final stage exit. Kurtzman’s work seems to be interested in exploring ways in which concurring death effects the views, relationships and moral direction of his characters.
If one is being charitable, it’s possible to see why this willingness to blatantly ignore the narrative constraints and singular focus of death might have made Kurtzman an ideal choice to tackle a project like The Mummy. A story with a villain made possible through resurrection and eternal non-life does require a storyteller willing to take certain liberties with the terrifying, inevitable truth that lies within the foundations of human motivation. However, when those liberties are taken with every character at every turn, all for the sake of keeping things alive so that they may live again in the glory of multi-picture deal, what could have been a chilling and exhilarating reimagining of a classic horror icon becomes just another in an ever-extending line of competent productions, but ultimately forgettable, corporatized cultural rehashes.
Robert James Algeo is a Philadelphia native cartoonist, web developer and Nic Cage enthusiast currently living and working in southeastern Minnesota.