Becoming a film critic tends to change one’s viewing habits. That’s certainly been my experience. In 2014, which is around the time I started taking criticism seriously, I saw over 500 films – including almost 200 new releases. Unless you’re a full-time critic (I most certainly am not), that’s probably unsustainable. That’s been my experience, too. We’re almost halfway through 2017 and I’ve seen a much more modest 130 films, skipping many of this year’s new releases.
That’s a reflection partly of film fatigue, but more realistically it can be credited to the limits of work/life balance. Having started in a new role at my day job (spoilers – film criticism doesn’t pay a living wage), I’m finding film viewing slipping further and further down my list of priorities. It’s not just a time issue, though; it’s also that intellectually challenging, ambitiously artistic cinema becomes a whole lot harder to appreciate when you’re stressing about this, that and the other. Increasingly, I’ve found myself watching more big budget, unapologetically formulaic films at the expense of the arthouse. If box office receipts are anything to go by, I’m anything but alone in this.
Which brings us to The Mummy. It’s an easy film to hate, and you don’t have to look far on the internet to see critics’ knives out for Universal’s ill-advised attempt to launch a monster-centric “Dark Universe” film franchise. Indiewire’s headline sums it up: “The Mummy Is The Worst Tom Cruise Movie Ever”. I can’t make a judgement on that; I haven’t seen all of Tom Cruise’s movies. But, yeah, The Mummy is pretty bad. But it’s hard for me to generate the kind of enraged vitriol defining the film’s critical reaction.
The Mummy is more ‘eh’ than awful, mashing up movies you’ve seen and liked – a bit of Indiana Jones here, some ‘90s action movies (including, of course, the Brendan Fraser Mummy) there, spiced up with 2010s tropes: villains breaking out of secure confinement, denouements intended only to springboard a half-dozen sequels – into something at once familiar and forgettable. This is a movie where things happen one after the other because that’s how things happen in movies. Tom Cruise is a surprisingly-old infantryman turned craven treasure hunter one moment, then a selfless hero the next. Annabelle Wallis (who?) takes charge of an exposed tomb in war-torn Iraq because … well, that’s what needs to happen to get to the next scene. Every secondary character’s role description seems to be ‘deliverer of exposition.’ There are a lot of lines that you can recognise are intended to be jokey banter but consistently fail to elicit laughs. But it’s mindless and there’s a thrilling plane crash and under two hours later it’s finished.
I know, I know, I’m supposed to offer a little more than a film critic as “well thankfully it’s under 120 minutes.” Still, after seeing the latest Pirates movie last week, at least this doesn’t have you checking your watch and pondering the plot holes every 15 minutes. The special effects are grotesque, the actors are committed; it’s on the wrong side of mediocre, but that’s about as passionate I can get about the whole affair.
What’s more interesting than The Mummy’s mediocrity is what it represents in the current cinematic marketplace. As you’re likely already aware, The Mummy is intended to launch a film franchise built around the fact that Universal holds the rights to a bunch of classic movie monsters: including Frankenstein’s Monster (set to be played by Javier Bardem) and The Invisible Man (Johnny Depp). Time will tell if this scheme is successful; the underwhelming takings of The Mummy thus far would suggest that the producers might consider rethinking their plans, at the very least.
What is about the so-called “Dark Universe” that’s supposed to get audiences into cinemas, though? Like many other franchises, it’s shamelessly emulating the model of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: cast big name (or, at least, charismatic) actors, establish an interconnected, if not precisely serialised storyline that motivates you to see every film, and spend enough money that people feel like they’re getting bang for their buck at the theatre. There are flaws in this plan, of course. The MCU felt organic (it wasn’t, really, but it felt that way for a while); The Dark Universe is being shoved down our throats. The MCU films were fresh and entertaining (they were – again, for a while); The Dark Universe feels like a sutured-together corpse of better films. (I would much prefer a monster universe spun off from the far more interesting Dracula Untold.) In terms of branding, movie monsters don’t have as much cut through as superheroes … though, to be fair, how many people cared about Iron Man before Robert Downey Jr got in the suit?
The real challenge for Dark Universe goes beyond these factors. While The Mummy is decidedly unmemorable, I’m not convinced a moderately better version of the film would make much difference to the success or failure of the franchise. The simple fact is that the market is becoming saturated with big budget, franchise films. People will go and see the next Marvel film because they have an emotional commitment to the franchise, because they have positive connotations to the brand, because they think they’ll enjoy it, because they can justify forking out the ludicrous amounts of money you have to spend at the multiplex nowadays. But will they do that on the following weekend for DC, then the following weekend for the new Pirates film, then the following weekend for the new X-Men film, then the following weekend for Frankenstein Boogaloo? With purse strings tightening, I’m not so sure.
The Mummy isn’t a travesty. It’s just Red Rooster. There’s nothing especially wrong with Red Rooster, but everyone’s already at KFC or McDonalds.