No one over the age of 10 ever confused them with good movies, but the “Mummy” franchise that kicked off in 1999 had a joyously sinister and farfetched eye-candy pizzazz. Basically, these were movies that pelted you with CGI — scuttling scarabs, swarms of skeletons in moldy rags — and mixed the cheesy/awesome visual onslaught with a handful of actors (Brendan Fraser, Dwayne Johnson) who seemed just as lightweight at the FX. So “The Mummy,” starring Tom Cruise, raises a key aesthetic question: How, exactly, do you reboot empty-calorie creature-feature superficiality?
The new “Mummy,” you may be surprised to hear, doesn’t have a whole lot of show-stopping visual flimflam up its sleeve. Instead, it’s built around a chancy big trick. I’ll herald this with a major spoiler alert (if you don’t want to know what happens in “The Mummy,” please stop reading), though it’s really the essential premise of the movie. Cruise, who is cast as Nick Morton, a freelance raider of artifacts he sells on the black market, isn’t just fighting evil — his character gets inhabited by evil. He is taken over by the spirit of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), an ancient Egyptian princess who murdered her father, the Pharaoh, and his infant son, all so that she could lay claim to the throne. For her crime, she was mummified and buried alive. (Yes, she’s pissed off.)
The way her spirit merges with Nick’s remains a little vague, since it’s not as if Cruise turns into a frothing bad guy. He deals with the fact that he’s got evil inside him by treating it in a highly practical and energized fashion — as a problem to be solved. He’s Tom Cruise, dammit, and he’s not just going to stand by! He’s going to attack the issue. He’s going to fight it, debate it, stare it down, put it in its place, kick its ass, out-think it and out-run it, out-punch it and out-underwater-swim it.
All of which turns out to be a lot less fun than the stupid zappy “Mummy” movies of the ’00s. It’s not as if this one is all that smart, what with a plot that somehow squashes together the First Dynasty of Egypt, the Crusades, and the looting of Iraqi antiquities. Yet it does seem to be trying for something, and so, if you’re a Cruise fan (as I very much am), you roll with it. The flashes of Egyptian backstory are photographed (by Ben Seresin) with a yummy desert glow, and the Algerian actress Sofia Boutella, in black bangs and vertical rows of tattooed facial hieroglyphs, makes Ahmanet exotic in all the right ways, like something out of a Rihanna video. Then she shows up in contemporary London, along with Nick and Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), the comely archeologist who Nick slept with and whose life he saved. Ahmanet is now a mottled, gray-skinned mummy who gains energy by putting civilians in a lip-lock and literally sucking the life out of them, which reduces them to skeletal zombies who exist to do her bidding.
It’s here that you begin to divine the film’s basic strategy: It will grab ideas, motifs, and effects from almost any genre and jam them together, palming off its grab-bag quality as “originality.” Scene for scene, “The Mummy” has been competently staged by director Alex Kurtzman, who has one previous feature to his credit (the minor 2012 Chris Pine heart-tugger “People Like Us”) and has never made a special-effects film before. He knows how to visualize a spectacular plane crash, or how to play up the Dagger of Set — a mystical weapon of death that needs a giant ruby to complete it — so that it doesn’t seem as chintzy as something out of a “National Treasure” movie (which is basically what it is). Yet competence isn’t the same thing as style or vision. “The Mummy” is a literal-minded, bumptious monster mash of a movie. It keeps throwing things at you, and the more you learn about the ersatz intricacy of its “universe,” the less compelling it becomes.
Russell Crowe, cultivating an air of pompous malevolence, shows up in the opening scene, but it isn’t until later that we learn he’s playing Dr. Henry Jekyll — yes, that Henry Jekyll. Jekyll, it turns out, has to keep injecting his damaged hand with a regimen of drugs to avoid turning into Mr. Hyde, but watching all this the audience may be thinking: Whose bright idea was it to mix “The Mummy” with an entirely different formative horror story, as if the two could be cross-bred like some Famous Monsters of Filmland version of the Justice League?
The answer wouldn’t matter if “The Mummy” had the courage of its convictions…or the fun of its nonsense. But it falls right into a nether zone in between. The problem at its heart is that the reality of what the movie is — a Tom Cruise vehicle — is at war with the material. The actor, at 54, is still playing that old Cruise trope, the selfish cocky semi-scoundrel who has to grow up. Will Nick give in to Ahmanet, the malevolent temptress in her Bettie Page Egyptian hair? Or will he stay true to Jenny, the brainy angel of light? The trouble is that Cruise, at least in a high-powered potboiler like this one, is so devoted to maintaining his image as a clear and wholesome hero that his flirtation with the dark side is almost entirely theoretical. As Universal’s new “Dark Universe” (of which “The Mummy” is the first installment) unfolds, I wouldn’t hold my breath over which side is going to win, or how many more films it will take to play that out. It’s not just that there isn’t enough at stake (though there isn’t). It’s that the movie doesn’t seem to know how little at stake there is.