The first thing you see onscreen in The Mummy, apart from the obligatory Universal Pictures logo, is a fancy animation for the studio’s ambitious plan to reboot all its legendary monsters, the Dark Universe. This is an early indication of what kind of movie The Mummy will be; the extended universe comes first, and everything else is secondary. Unfortunately, this includes plot, character development, a resolution to the story, a story in general, or an overwhelming reason why this movie needed to be called The Mummy. Universal could have done itself a huge favor by calling it Dark Universe: Part 1 – The Mummy Briefly Appears and selling its audience on the film’s true intentions.

 

Tom Cruise headlines his umpteenth summer blockbuster as Nick Morton, a roguish military recon scout who is also a part-time black market dealer of stolen ancient artifacts. When he and his accomplice Chris (Jurassic World’s Jake Johnson) discover an ancient underground tomb, they’re forced to team up with stuffy archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) to extract their discoveries. When they find a sarcophagus being held underground by chains, submerged in a reservoir of mercury, and guarded by an army of angry spiders and crows, the team does the only logical thing: they dig it up and fly it to England. As you can imagine, this obviously cursed artifact turns out to be cursed, unleashing the vengeful Ahmanet (Kingsman’s Sofia Boutella), the titular evil mummy.

 

Boutella does well with what she’s given as Ahmanet, which consists of some flashback history on how she became a mummy and a few action scenes that are more than a little reminiscent of 1999’s Mummy reboot with Brendan Fraser and last summer’s X-Men: Apocalypse. What this movie is really about, though, is world-building, which is where we meet Russell Crowe’s Dr. Henry Jekyll, the Nick Fury of this fledgling universe. “Welcome to a new world of gods and monsters,” Jekyll tells Cruise. He may as well be addressing the camera directly. Through Jekyll and his organization Prodigium, we catch a glimpse of Universal’s production slate through the end of the decade. We also catch more than a glimpse of Jekyll’s alter-ego, a misstep that serves to both derail this movie and undermine later films by spoiling the reveal too early.

 

Tom Cruise remains one of Hollywood’s most dependable and energetic leading actors, and he gives The Mummy everything he has. The movie has different ideas, relegating his character to executing generic run-and-punch action or quizzically staring at the cinematic universe unfolding in front of him. Even Cruise’s trademark stunt sequences feel phoned-in, and while his attempts to inject charm into a largely dour and charmless movie are admirable, even the biggest movie star on the planet can flounder when he’s relegated to being just another cog in the machine. The film leaves the door open for him to return for further monster adventures, through a very complex mechanism too spoilery to reveal here, but it’s anyone’s guess if he’ll want to. The Mummy has far more important matters to worry about than Tom Cruise.

 

If The Mummy is any indication, Universal and the Dark Universe need to focus on, well, needing to focus. The Mummy tries so hard to be a mummy movie, a Tom Cruise movie, a horror movie, a Dark Universe movie, an action movie, a romance, and a buddy comedy that it succeeds at being none of them. None of the film’s disparate elements are given room to breathe, suffocating any real horror or momentum the movie has to offer. There is a scary, fun Tom Cruise mummy movie lurking somewhere in this jumble, but it stays largely buried. In order for an audience to care about a shared universe, it’s important that we care about the characters who inhabit it. The Mummy feels like an assigned primer and forgets to tell an actual story, and in a cinematic landscape full of far too many empty blockbusters, littered with the corpses of failed shared universes, audiences seem to be demanding more from the movies asking for their money. Nothing can stop the beginning of the Dark Universe, but moviegoers will decide how far it goes. Even in a world of gods and monsters, the only thing that really matters is dollars and cents.