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The Mummy says more about its stars and its franchise than anything mummy-related

This movie is an absolute mess that is kind of funny if you think about it for a while.

The Mummy
She did the mash. She did the monster mash.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

For its first 40 minutes or so, The Mummy isn’t a great movie, but it’s a basically okay monster movie. Do we need another one of those things? Nah. But you probably could guess the movie was about a killer mummy from the title, so it’s not going to make you ask for your money back.

But then the movie takes a hard right turn into a Hollywood executive suite. Russell Crowe is there, and he wants to tell us all about the exciting franchise opportunities inherent to movies about monsters and those who hunt monsters (who are also sometimes monsters, he assures us).

Right as he’s finished assuring us this particular franchise will offer numerous opportunities for theme park rides, merchandising, and ancillary revenues, the killer mummy pops back up, and we can conclude the movie the first act set up, only without the benefit of a second act at all. (Remember: We needed that second act to function as a really dull TV show pilot for “Monsters: The Franchise!”)

This means The Mummy doesn’t have anywhere near enough adequate bits to get people excited for its own third act — which unfurls in a gigantic maelstrom of computerized effects — much less a whole franchise. But Universal is gonna try anyway! The Dark Universe! Coming to a theater near you! Johnny Depp will be in it for some reason!

This leaves The Mummy as a curiously airless artifact of a movie — more interesting for the things we can understand about the culture that created it than for the actual movie itself. And yet if you blow the dust off this movie and read its hieroglyphs, you’ll realize it’s actually kind of a brilliantly cutting subtweet of nearly all of its stars. Observe!

Tom Cruise stars as “Ageless Asshole Everybody Keeps Insisting Is a Good Person, Despite All Evidence to the Contrary”

The Mummy
Don’t worry, everyone. Tom Cruise is here.

My friend David Sims of the Atlantic has a theory that as Tom Cruise has moved past the PR nightmare he endured in 2005 — you may remember Cruise from such talk show appearances as “jumping on Oprah’s couch” — he’s leaned into his slightly unstable public persona, choosing roles that underline how we’re not sure what to think of him anymore.

The later Mission: Impossible films have largely been about how only Cruise’s character would be crazy enough to climb buildings or hang off an airplane. His best movie in this period, 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, is about a guy who feigns bravado but is actually a mild-mannered quisling. And so on.

And viewed in that light, The Mummy is sort of a masterstroke. Cruise plays Nick, who’s kind of like Indiana Jones if Indiana Jones’s main point of reference for dealing with ancient burial sites was having watched all of the Indiana Jones movies. Despite the fact that he doesn’t seem to fit the description at all, however, other characters keep describing him as a “good man.” When Nick and his pals “accidentally” unleash the ancient mummy Ahmanet (more on her in a moment), she decides she simply must turn Nick into her immortal lover, possessed by Set, the Egyptian god of the dead. Sure!

This means that Cruise spends a lot of the movie getting distracted by the contents of his own head, as Ahmanet tries to lure him to her, which only makes him seem all the more unstable to the people around him. And it also, hilariously, means that he will survive car crashes and plane crashes and even sliding all the way through a crashing bus out to the other side without a scratch on him. Ahmanet needs him spotless for when he becomes her companion, so he remains ridiculously buff and handsome even as everybody else is falling apart around him.

If director Alex Kurtzman and the movie’s fleet of screenwriters, or even Cruise himself, understood how funny it is to have the 50-something Cruise, who’s trying desperately to look like he’s about 37, playing this role, The Mummy might have turned into something.

Russell Crowe stars as “Basically Jovial Middle-Aged Man Who Sometimes Has a Wicked Temper”

When Universal announced its monster franchise plans, some greeted those plans with trepidation because they featured Cruise, Crowe, and Depp, three men who’ve been at the center of more than a few terrible news stories.

But watching Crowe in this movie made me think that a better version of the franchise could actually lean into this issue. See, Crowe is playing Dr. Henry Jekyll, who will be sort of the Nick Fury of the so-called “Dark Universe,” uniting characters to go out and tackle all of the famous, public-domain creatures of horror’s past.

This means Crowe gets to play a rather mild-mannered, milquetoast British man who’s got lots of knowledge and is good at delivering exposition, until he starts to turn into his horrific alter ego Mr. Hyde (which happens about every five minutes — it’s a wonder he’s been given a major management position). Crowe playing a nice guy whose temper will flare up and turn him into one of the worst people to ever have lived? Again, if there were any indication that anybody involved with the movie understood what was amusing about this, The Mummy would have been a much better film.

Annabelle Wallis stars as “Pretty and British”

The Mummy
Annabelle Wallis is about to get sucked out of an airplane.

Cruise movies are often only as good as their female leads. Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation benefited from the electric Rebecca Ferguson, while Emily Blunt brought an ass-kicking straightforwardness to her work in Edge of Tomorrow. Not coincidentally, those are Cruise’s two most recent good films.

That’s … not the case with Annabelle Wallis as Jenny in The Mummy. Though I have liked Wallis in some of her TV work (on Pan Am and Peaky Blinders), she brings virtually nothing to the part of the woman Nick let get away (but obviously still carries a torch for), who just happens to work for Jekyll.

She is, in the very worst tradition of movie love interests, just there to assure us that Nick is a good man, even if he never, ever seems like it. She says this a bunch of times, sometimes in flashback, and I never once bought it. This isn’t Wallis’s fault — you can’t play a character who isn’t there — but The Mummy sure wastes a lot of time on Jenny, when it might have spent it on…

Sofia Boutella stars as “You’re Not From Around Here, Are You?”

The Mummy vaguely understands that a team of literal grave robbers bopping around the Middle East in 2017 might cause slightly more concern than they would have in the original 1932 film (or its period-set 1999 remake). So Ahmanet’s tomb becomes an extremely off-the-grid burial chamber that was constructed to keep her villainous spirit trapped, not buried.

Naturally, everybody gets in the way of this plan, and the mummy rises, played by Sofia Boutella, an Algerian actress asked to basically play a character who might as well be named “exotic.”

Boutella was a lot of fun in 2016’s Star Trek Beyond, and she probably gives my favorite performance here. But The Mummy leans heavily on her sex appeal, as opposed to any definable character traits. She’s just evil, and she wants to create an evil army of undead warriors to fight alongside her.

That might be fine if this were, again, just a killer mummy movie, but the film has aspirations of more, which means that it needs to set up Ahmanet as the other side of the coin from Jenny.

Both of them tempt Nick — Jenny with a normal family life (albeit one chasing monsters) and Ahmanet with, uh, becoming a living god — and I might be slightly more troubled by the movie setting up this dichotomy between a pretty blonde white woman and a raven-haired, olive-skinned woman whose ethnicity the movie merrily checks off as “Egyptian or something,” but, as we’ve established, nobody making The Mummy thought at all about what they were doing, so it’s hard to get too mad.

Jake Johnson stars as “Chris Pratt”

The Mummy
Jake Johnson is here too!

Boy, I love Jake Johnson, the silver-tongued secret comedy weapon of TV’s New Girl. He makes me laugh so much on that show, and I keep waiting for Hollywood to try to turn him into the next Chris Pratt.

Based on The Mummy, where he plays the goofy sidekick (as Pratt often did pre-Guardians of the Galaxy), that process has already begun in earnest.

Also based on The Mummy, Hollywood vastly misunderstands what makes Johnson work. He needs room to be a live wire, and The Mummy very quickly strands him in a plot cul de sac. But he does some funny stuff while he’s there.

Courtney B. Vance stars as “Expendable”

Courtney B. Vance is a tremendous actor. He just won an Emmy for a searing portrayal of Johnnie Cochran in The People v O.J. Simpson. He has mastered so, so many complicated roles, and even in roles that are beneath his talents, he sinks his teeth in and sometimes finds a rich meal.

He dies about 20 minutes into this movie.

The Mummy is playing nationwide. You would be better off watching the 1999 version, and I don’t even like that movie.