Thursday, June 20, 2024

What Went Wrong With ‘The Mummy’ (2017)

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Alex Kurtzman’s 2017 The Mummy should’ve been the Fury Road of Universal horror; the kind of film that electrifies a genre and an audience. It would have been a vehicle for some of the best practical special effects in years, and a storyline that would have feminists penning screeds of praise. Instead, it falls apart and fails on every level. But the shining, glimmering pieces are too tantalizing to not attempt to explore.

It’s impossible to explain what’s wrong with the 2017 movie without discussing the 1999 classic with Rachel Weisz and Brendan Frasier. The 1999 Mummy was effervescent, charming, occasionally terrifying, hilariously funny, chock-full of compelling special effects, and perceptibly racist upon rewatch. It’s a classic of the action/adventure genre. The remake tries to capture all these qualities, and then graft two more stories on top: a horror film in the tradition of classic Universal films, and a new “Dark Universe” that they were trying to get off the ground. The result is bad. None of the pieces really gel together. There’s a perceptible sense of whiplash between the humor and the terror and the odd exposition that’s meant to tie in the greater universe. (I’d like to take a moment to remind everyone that Marvel built their extended universe with blink-and-you’ll-miss it background Easter Eggs and sixty-second post-credit scenes. You really don’t need to have someone monologue at the camera).

The Mummy is always a story about women, or about a man’s obsession with a woman. Both the 1932 original and the 1999 remake have a central plot device of The Mummy, Imhotep, seeking the reincarnation of his love Anck-Su-Namun, a pretty standard “monster loves the pretty girl” storyline. The 2017 movie, in a very good choice, flips that on its head. The Mummy is a woman, Princess Ahmanet, played by Sofia Boutella. Ahmanet, thousands of years ago, was the Princess and sole heir to the Egyptian throne. When her father had a son, however, she knew she would be supplanted. Unwilling to give up her kingdom, she forms a dark bargain with the God of Death, Set. Infused with power beyond human comprehension, she murders her father, stepmother, and infant half-brother. Then, to fulfill the bargain, she attempts to summon Set into a human form by stabbing a man in the heart with a special dagger with a special stone (while riding him in cowgirl, the movie is only PG-13 but it’s sex, it’s definitely sex). The ritual is interrupted, and she is entombed, hopefully to never rise again. Later found during the US’s endless war in the Middle East,  she is unearthed by Nick Morton (Cruise), an American soldier who’s looting in Iraq and selling the antiquities he finds illegally and for profit; and Jenny Halsey, an archeologist.

AnckSuNamun played by Patricia Velásquez from The Mummy and The Mummy Returns.

This is the foundation for a film with profound social commentary. Horror is a genre that lends itself especially well to metaphor and exploration of disturbing ideas and themes. We have patriarchy, war, murder, colonialism, exploitation, and contemporary politics in a heady mix. And none of it is ever used. The movie side-steps even the most remote attempt to make a comment. 

So, what was the potential?

The Mummy herself. Boutella’s Ahmanet is outstanding. Boutella was a dancer and rhythmic gymnast, and it’s clear that she understands how a body moves in space. Whether she’s ominously walking down a hallway or spider-crawling along a wall, you want to watch her hold the room. Ahmanet, in contrast to the 1999 Anuck-su-namun, is not especially titillating in her flashback “alive” outfit nor her current “magical dead mummy” look (this is not to insult the costuming of the 1999 movie). Ahmanet is rotted. Even when she’s restored, she still has bluish, dead-looking skin and tattoos. In a small, but smart bit of costuming, she never wears heels, instead relying on her presence to be the intimidation. She is visibly shorter than most of the other actors in the film, but there’s no doubt that she is more powerful than they are. Ahmanet should have been this film’s Furiosa—the emotional grounding of the film. (Ironically, the same year, Sofia Boutella starred alongside Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde).

Ahmanet played by Sofia Boutella from the The Mummy (2017).

This is where all the potential for the film lives–Ahmanet’s character and her place in the world. Her tomb is found by American soldiers who are in the act of carelessly destroying and looting Iraq almost fifteen years into a real-life war.

In flashbacks we see that Ahmanet is a proficient fighter and clearly her father takes pride in her. And she is instantly replaced by an infant male, and her entitlement to the throne leads her to murder and self-destruction. This is filled with storytelling potential and tragedy. And it is never examined, not in the rest of the film, in any kind of detail. She’s simply evil.

Ahmanet’s coffin is airlifted to London, despite being an Iraqi artifact. Her sacred knife needed for the ritual was obtained by the Crusaders in their own looting centuries ago, and has been broken into two pieces and hidden in a Church reliquary and a hidden Crusader tomb. This is a story based in religious war and looting, and again, the potential to reflect on history, and how it affects modern-day people, is completely unexplored. There is, apparently, nothing interesting to be explored here. Marvel’s Black Panther created a scene to happen in a museum to comment on this kind of Imperial acquisition, but not here.

Where they lost the thread

Nick Morton, played by Tom Cruise at his very worst. Cruise’s “vibe” is to be charming, clever, and a little bit of a jerk. The problem is that Nick is one of the worst human beings that has ever been attempted to be sold as a likable protagonist. Nick is an American soldier who uses his deployment as a cover to loot Iraqi artifacts. Our first introduction to Nick is destroying his friend Chris Vail’s (Jake Johnson) water pouch in the Iraqi desert. Why? Chris thinks is too dangerous to plunder a nearby village filled with insurgents, and this action means Chris has to enter the village or risk dying of thirst. This not a joke. Nick tries to kill his friend as punishment for not wanting to commit international crimes and shoot strangers. This is treated as though it is “mischievous” and “funny”. Then there’s a gunfight scene, as the local village is, in fact, filled with insurgents, with Nick and Chris killing several, and then calling in an airstrike that bombs the village and exposes the tomb of Ahmanet. Nick is scolded for this by a superior officer, who is well aware that Nick is looting and lying about his whereabouts. There are no consequences for his actions. We meet the archeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabel Wallace) who reveals Nick seduced her and stole a map from her, in order to steal more things. There are no consequences for Nick. Everyone knows he is a thief and a criminal, and they act like it’s a minor annoyance.

The movie (and Cruise) really, really want Nick to be some kind of immature rogue, charming and cute. The problem is Cruise is 50 and, although well-kept, looks like the full adult he is. Nick’s antics get people killed, including very nearly himself and his friend. He’s not desperately trying to survive on the edges of a war–he’s a soldier in an invading army, and one of the msot powerful ones in the world at that. His motivations, throughout the entire film, are greed, narcissism, and self-indulgence, to the very end. There’s nothing wrong with having a spiteful jerk as the leading man, but trying to sell him as a little boy that needs to learn not to (checks notes) destroy foreign nations and murder people is just bizarre.

To compare and contrast, Ahmanet is a villain who has done terrible things, with terrible consequences. Nick does terrible things, and has zero consequences, and is a hero. A perfect encapsulation is when the Ahmanet, bound and captured, speaks with Nick. Horrified, he asks her how she could kill her family, and with genuine emotion, she simply says, “it was a different time”. She wanted her father’s love, but she also wanted his throne, and she did what she had to do. Ahmanet is explicitly aware that her choices have led her to being the monster that she is, and she asks for neither pity nor forgiveness. Nick, on the other hand, seems to have entirely forgotten the people he’s killed, including his friend, Chris, whom he shot three times after Chris fell under Ahmanet’s mystical control.

The capture scene is especially disturbing. The Mummy is held in a giant, dingy room, chained to her knees with her arms twisted behind her back and IVs pumping mercury into her veins. At several points, she screams in agony, and none of her captors acknowledge or respond to her pain. They view her as a thing–not an enemy to subdue, but an object to abuse and control. And I may be projecting too much, but the image of a person bound in the middle of an empty room will always conjure images of the Abu Graib photos. The only people to react are Jenny, a fellow woman and archaeologist worried about losing the ancient knowledge Ahmanet contains, and Nick, who is psychically connected to the Mummy and can feel her pain. For a moment, something seems to be happening, in terms of commentary, something about exploitation and cruelty, of empires and culture. Then the camera focuses on Nick’s face, as he confesses he’s never attempted to help or save another person. Nick, in his 50s, has finally figured out he’s kind of an asshole. We hear the Mummy intermittently making agony noises in the background, but this is all about Nick. 

Where it falls completely apart and maybe someone should have been fired

The ending, of course, continues doggedly on the path of “never considering a possible metaphor”. Jenny drowns trying to escape the Mummy, and Nick, realizing that Set has the power to resurrect the dead, stabs himself with the mystical dagger, and fights Ahmanet with his newly-gained mystical powers. Now, the mechanisms of how/why any of this works is unclear and at odds with other suggested information in the movie, but deus ex machina endings are a dime a dozen in action/adventure blockbusters, so I can’t call this film out for that failure, specifically.

What I will complain about, however, is the (hopefully accidental) “rape is justified when she’s a horrible bitch” metaphor. In order to have her Chosen possessed by Set, Ahmanet sits on his chest and stabs him. The flashback scenes with her first Chosen are romantic, in a bedroom, and clearly indicate a sexual and consensual ritual (to literally bring Hell on Earth, but still). Ahmanet repeatedly tells Nick he is her Chosen/King/Paramour, whether he likes it or not, and alternatively tries to cajole him and force him to accept this role. But her sincerity is not in doubt.

The “final battle” between the newly empowered Nick and the Eyptian immortal end with Nick pinning Ahmanet down by the throat on her back on a sarcophagus, powerless, as she screams in rage. Then he violently kisses her, sucking out all her magical powers and her restored life. The camera shows her feet frantically kicking as she claws at him. When he finally lets her go, she falls off sarcophagus, and curls into a fetal position as the life leaves her body, finally her lips curling over her mouth leaving an echoing, eternal scream. Ahmanet, who had her birthright stolen by her brother, now has magic and her life stolen by a man. 

Whoever approved that scene should be slapped. Twice. Hard.

The movie frames this as Nick has made a truly great sacrifice–sacrificing his mortality and humanity for the power to save Jenny’s life and bring her back from the dead. For perspective, Ahmanet needed to kill her family and then agree to a deal with an evil god for this power. Nick did none of that. Apparently having the power of an evil god is kind of weird and scary, and since Nick is now uncomfortable, he is a hero. For gaining the power over Death itself, which is, in this world, very sad for him.

The very ending moments show Nick, with his resurrected friend, Chris, riding in the desert, presumably in search of a way for him to rid himself of the curse of being partially possessed by an evil God that makes him immortal and capable of bringing back the dead. He literally ends exactly where he began, doing exactly what he did when the movie started. And the music swells.

Final Thoughts

I have been told I have a bad habit of creating a better movie in my head that exists in the text, of over-reading into potential stories. But I do not think I am doing this here. I truly feel that somebody, somewhere, had a deliberate intention of trying to say something with this film, and I think Sofia Boutella had an inkling of what that was. I see what could have been, and it breaks my heart that movie doesn’t seem to exist, anywhere, at all.

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