RETROSPECTIVE: 5 years on, The Mummy has aged like a rotting corpse

It failed as a reboot, as a starting point for a cinematic universe, and, of course, as a movie. Harry Gay revisits Universal Studios’ disastrous 2017 remake of The Mummy.

Last month marked the 5-year anniversary of Universal Studios’ failed Mummy reboot. The Tom Cruise-led film is notorious for its dismal marketing and its embarrassing attempt to kickstart a shared cinematic universe. Its mark made on Hollywood is still reverberating to this day, but not for the reasons intended.

The Mummy (2017) follows Nick Morton (Cruise) and his crew of tomb raiders as they plunder ancient artefacts and sell them to the highest bidder. Evils from beyond the grave soon wreak havoc on our cast of characters and the city of London, as a battle in the Middle East accidentally unearths an Egyptian princess hell bent on revenge.

The history of the film is arguably more interesting than the product itself. The film was an attempt to jumpstart a cinematic universe of Universal Studios’ beloved horror IPs, à la the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Dubbed the ‘Dark Universe’, The Mummy was to be the first in this new series, with the film featuring cameos and easter eggs for future instalments to come.

The most shoehorned element of the ‘Dark Universe’ in the film was Russell Crowe’s inclusion as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a Nick Fury-esque character who runs a secret organisation that keeps track of supernatural beings. Inside his lab are curios such as a human skull with vampire fangs and the fin of a certain creature from the black lagoon.

Much hype was built up for this new cinematic universe, as Universal Studios pre-emptively hedged all their bets that this would be a sure-fire hit. In the lead up to The Mummy, casting announcements were already made for their upcoming roster of films, including Javier Bardem as Dr Victor Frankenstein in a Bride of Frankenstein remake, along with Johnny Depp as The Invisible Man (sheesh).

In addition to their now infamous photoshoot heralding “the beginning of a #DarkUniverse” (later revealed to be photoshopped, as none of the people in the photo were actually in the same room together), they also accidentally released a trailer with missing audio tracks. An abysmal marketing failure, the unfinished trailer was up for hours before anyone realised the mistake that had been made. The trailer has since been memed to death, with Tom Cruise’s discordant, isolated screams still echoing in my mind to this day.

Speaking of trailers, Universal also released an EPIC TRAILER MUSIC remix of their classic monster lineup. The video featured excerpts from their older catalogue of films from the 1930s to 50s, accompanied by a blasting electric score that feels out of place and incongruent with the more understated, moody and quiet cinematography of a more antiquated time.

What this ‘Legacy Trailer’ really did was point out that we didn’t really need another remake of The Mummy, nor a monster movie cinematic universe, considering we already have these classic films to look back to. We might forget this, but Marvel was not the originator of the shared cinematic universe – it was Universal Studios that pioneered this formula.

Although Marvel fine tuned this idea and focused more on continuity, Universal Studios’ original run of monster movies with Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and later Creature from the Black Lagoon, were all part of the same universe, with crossover films happening all the time. House of Frankenstein saw Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula and the Wolf Man all sharing the silver screen. The same goes for House of Dracula, and also Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

British studio Hammer Film Productions also took a crack at remaking these classic horror films and connecting them into a shared universe in the mid-to-late 20th Century. Universal Studios themselves even remade The Mummy before its 2017 reboot, having kickstarted a Mummy franchise with Brendan Fraiser in the lead back in 1999, which spawned several sequels and spin-offs. Even today, when you look up ‘The Mummy, it is not the 1930s original or 2010s remake you get as the first result, but the 1999 action flick.

2017’s The Mummy is also not their first botched attempt at a modern day cinematic universe, having previously tried with a 2010 remake of The Wolfman  and a Dracula origin story in 2014’s Dracula: Untold. What Universal Studios failed to learn from these financial flops is that these films should be treated as HORROR films, and not what they were delivering, which was big-budget, tent pole action schlock.

At the same time, one of the biggest failures of The Mummy – besides its bad script, cringey attempts at setting up a franchise, lukewarm acting, terrible CGI and so on – is its lack of acknowledgement of the series’ deeply embedded racist, colonialist legacy. The whole conceit and concept of a ‘Mummy’ movie is inherently rooted in colonialism. The pillaging of Egyptian tombs, the transport of sacred burial rites across the ocean to be placed in British museums; as RedLetterMedia pointed out in their review of the 2017 film, the original was basically just a ‘freak show’ meant for Western white audiences to gawk at and be frightened of what is essentially just the practices of another culture. The embalmment of the dead and the rituals of ancient non-Western cultures, in our modern society, really has no need to be brought back for the sole purpose of terrifying or haunting our cinema screens.

In an attempt to alleviate these inherent tensions, the film paints Cruise’s Nick Morton (rightfully) as an asshole for destroying what is meant to be something culturally significant to. In a moment clearly meant to emphasise his lack of respect for colonised people, when our protagonists initially encounter the tomb of our eponymous Mummy, they note that there is a puzzle that needs solving in order for them to progress. Instead of using his brains, however, Morton uses his brawns – or at least, uses a gun – and shoots a rope, which sets off an elaborate set piece that gets them in more trouble than they needed. Predictably, he never has to reckon with his brazen disregard for other cultures, as he eventually becomes the hero of the film.

At the same time, the film attempts to delocalise the character of Princess Ahmanet, played by Sofia Boutella. Rather than being an Egyptian Mummy purely of Egyptian origin, the film spreads her origin story across the globe: mummified in Egypt, but then buried in Iraq. All the change to Ahmanet’s origin does is provide a thin covering for what is still a fear of ‘the other’.

There was an opportunity for The Mummy, to make its horror grounded less in the imagery of Egyptian culture, but rather in the terror and evils of colonialism itself. One need not imagine such a film, however. The Night of Counting the Years is a 1969 Egyptian film which is set in 1881and follows the desecration of Egyptian tombs as their artefacts are sold on the black market. One scene in particular sent chills up my spine, as we see our characters deep underground, stealing items from the deceased, with the flicker of torchlight accompanied by a howling score, evoking something unearthly and deeply wrong with what they’re doing. The final shot of the film, without spoiling it, is also a horrifying gut punch that leaves you shocked at the inhumanity of this world. It’s less about the horrors of Egypt, and more about the horrors of the West – an idea which The Mummy should have also run with.

The Mummy was plagued with a troubled production, even ignoring its cultural inappropriateness. Universal ran through several directors before settling on Alex Kurtzman, who previously wrote the screenplays for cinematic masterpieces such as The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Cowboys & Aliens, and others. Yikes. Additionally, Tom Cruise was reportedly difficult to work with. His contract allowed him excessive control over production, owed to the fact that he was also one of the producers, leading him to shadow-direct most of the project and make his role significantly larger than Sofia Boutella’s.

With a combined production and marketing cost of $345 million, the film only grossed $410 million at the box office. The Mummy ultimately cost the studio between $60-100 million dollars as they failed to break even, and the film was considered a financial and critical flop, being lambasted by critics and unable to draw the crowds they were hoping for.

Plans were quickly scrapped for the Dark Universe, and their social media accounts have remained dormant ever since. It was an embarrassing monument to their failure, having tripped at the starting gate, and leaving behind an Ozymandius-like epitaph that we were entering “a new world of gods and monsters”.

While The Mummy did not have a huge cultural impact, I believe that studios have since learnt from the mistakes of the past, rather than attempting to relive them. For instance, the trend of shared cinematic universes (that weren’t Marvel Studios’) pretty much ceased with the one-two death blow of The Mummy and Justice League, both released in 2017. Sony seems to still be kicking, however, with their ‘Venomverse’ striking some modicum of success at the box office.

Universal seems to have also learnt that horror properties should probably remain as horror properties. Teaming up with Blumhouse and bringing in Australian director Leigh Whannell of Saw and Upgrade fame, they took another crack at revitalising their horror catalogue with a stripped down remake of The Invisible Man in 2020. The film was a huge success, as it was shot on a minimal budget, drew on Elizabeth Moss’s Handmaid’s Tale clout (despite her dodgy scientology beliefs) and also achieved what The Mummy didn’t by  modernising the property to address the concerns and fears of our current era. The film looked at an old H.G. Wells’ book and 1930s film about the horrors of greed, avarice and science gone too far, and updated it to be a parable about domestic violence, gaslighting and surveillance: all prevalent fears and culturally impactful topics of our modern day.

Invisible Man’s success is, as well, an indicator that audiences have been craving horror all along. Horror has always been a guaranteed money maker, and in our modern sanitised superhero landscape, the last thing we need is another action adventure flick with none of the horror but all of the overzealous CGI. Universal seems to have recognised this, and has stated that they are going to be continuing in this trajectory of stripped back, metaphorical horror remakes in collaboration with Blumhouse, who has made this sort of thing their bread and butter since Get Out. Hopefully we might see A24 get in on this too.

Though Tom Cruise has returned to his beloved ‘Mission: Impossible franchise following The Mummy, others who were involved in this stinker sadly haven’t had the same safety net of another blockbuster franchise. Kurtzman went back to making Star Trek shows, Boutella starred in the epic Climax, and Crowe has been keeping himself busy in various projects while being spotted around Sydney by various members of the USyd community entering clothing stores with his much younger girlfriend.

When initially venturing to write this retrospective review, I did not think there would be much to say about a film that is essentially a fart in the wind. It came, it went, and people rarely discuss it. But its history, its production and its lasting impact is one that won’t soon be forgotten. The Mummy is at its most interesting when you’re not discussing the film at all, but rather everything around it. Like an archeologist or tomb raider, I ended up chipping away at all the dirt, grime and dust around the coffin itself, barely touching what’s inside. But this is one relic I don’t think is deserving of opening up anytime soon.

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