Tom Cruise is an analog man in a digital world. A master showman, he seems to understand better than almost all of his peers that no amount of computer-generated imagery can replace the simple thrill an audience gets seeing a real person do something incredible. For over 100 years, this has been one of the fundamental appeals of cinema: Watching an actor perform an impossible (and sometimes stupidly dangerous) physical act. There is no length Cruise won’t go to for our entertainment. Even when his movies are bad, Cruise still gives 110 percent, still provides at least a few mind-boggling stunts to enjoy.

That’s fortunate, because Tom Cruise’s new movie, The Mummy, is pretty bad. The latest reinvention of this old Universal horror series sees our analog hero overwhelmed by a particularly unconvincing and visually unappealing digital world full of bugs, rats, and zombies. There are a few typically gonzo Cruise set-pieces, but despite the star’s best efforts this is a very ominous debut for Universal’s appropriately titled “Dark Universe,” a collection of interconnected franchises for monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Creature From the Black Lagoon.

A lengthy prologue narrated by Russell Crowe’s Dr. Henry Jekyll explains the title character’s backstory: An Egyptian princess (Sofia Boutella) hungers for power and decides, as Jekyll puts it, to “embrace evil” by partnering with Set, the god of death. Before she can fulfill her end of their bargain though, she is captured, mummified, and buried alive for thousands of years. Smash cut to modern day Northern Iraq, where Cruise’s reconnaissance officer Nick Morton is on a treasure hunt with his sidekick Chris (Jake Johnson). A skirmish with insurgents who want to destroy priceless antiquities leads to a cool stunt where Cruise and Johnson leap off a collapsing building, and the revelation of a hidden tomb hiding Boutella’s mummified Princess Amunet.

Reckless Nick uncovers the mummy’s sarcophagus and hauls it onto a cargo plane for transport back to England for study by Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), some kind of expert in these sorts of priceless artifacts. But removing Amunet’s corpse also awakens her, and the cargo plane carrying Nick, Jenny, Chris, and Amunet’s coffin gets taken down by a giant swarm of birds in a bravura, gravity-bending sequence that’s The Mummy’s undeniable highlight.

Aaaaaand then there’s another hour and 15 minutes of movie. Nick somehow survives the plane crash without so much as a scratch; it seems he has become psychically tethered to Amunet, who escapes her casket and starts sucking the life essence out of people, which slowly restores her youth and beauty and turns her victims into braindead zombies. After a dim and incoherent chase scene set at dawn’s first light, all of these players make their way to Jekyll’s facility where we learn, in another painfully expository scene, that he leads a group named Prodigium, which is tasked with protecting the world from monsters.

Even with all the time The Mummy’s second act wastes on establishing this group and its mission (supposedly Prodigium will be the thread that connects every Dark Universe film), the group hardly makes any sense. As you are no doubt aware, Dr. Jekyll has a violent alter ego, which he keeps in check in this film with regular injections of a mysterious serum. Which raises a question: Who would put a sociopath with literature’s most famous case of multiple personality disorder in charge of the group that supposedly protects mankind from evil? This seems like a very misguided choice.

That’s a nitpick, but the scenes with Jekyll and Prodigium are a disaster from top to bottom, grinding a reasonably entertaining thriller to a halt and soaking up valuable screentime that director Alex Kurtzman really needed to beef up Cruise’s character, who is supposedly on a journey of redemption that we never see, and to flesh out his relationship with his “best friend” Chris, who he kind of seems to hate, and his attraction to Wallis, which is supposedly strong enough to motivate him to make a huge decision in the third act.

Instead of fleshing out any of these people, we get a go-nowhere subplot about a vague military group and the Easter eggs they keep on prominent display in their headquarters solely to motivate future movies. The Mummy is the sort of film that feels like four different stories written by ten different people (and, sure enough, the script and story are credited to six different writers, including Kurtzman, David Koepp, and Christopher McQuarrie).

The nonsensical story would matter less if The Mummy would get out of Cruise’s way and let him do what he does best. Instead, it buries him beneath punishing dialogue scenes and surrounds him with unconvincing and unoriginal special effects; one of the centerpiece action scenes, with Cruise trying to outrun a sandstorm as it engulfs London, is a rehash of a similar (not to mention better-looking) beat in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol.

At least The Mummy gave us the great scene with the plane, where the characters bang around in zero gravity in a long take captured in real-time on a real diving plane. As Cruise flopped in circles around the cargo hold, it occurred to me that this is his version of Fred Astaire dancing around the room in Royal Wedding, defying gravity in this ecstatic, magical moment of pure cinema. But even Tom Cruise cannot outrun this movie’s problems.

Additional Thoughts:
-The final fight between Cruise and Boutella boils down to his character deciding whether or not to use this mystic MacGuffin. The movie does such a poor job explaining what this thing does that I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to want Nick to use this thing, or why.

-That scene where a sandstorm slams (and seemingly destroys) London? After it’s over, it’s never seen, mentioned, or even alluded to again. Is the city completely destroyed? Is it buried under millions of tons of sand? Was it all a hallucination? Who knows!


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