DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. "The Mummy," which stars Tom Cruise as a soldier who accidentally uncovers the tomb of an evil Egyptian princess, opened last week in the U.S. to generally poor reviews and is widely regarded as a flop. Film critic David Edelstein has these thoughts on the movie and what its release says about the current movie industry.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The most important bad movie of the year is "The Mummy," which opened June 9 and made around $30 million in the U.S., which sounds like a lot but not when your budget is reported to be $125 million. Although, some analysts say that figure is too low. It did better overseas where its star, Tom Cruise, is more popular. So the studio Universal has announced plans to make more like it, which is scarier than anything in the movie itself.
"The Mummy" isn't bad because it misses its marks. It's everything its studio wanted it to be. It was manufactured according to plan. What no one could have guessed is that it would feel so uninvolving. Here's why. "The Mummy" isn't meant as a self-contained horror thriller or even to launch a, quote, "franchise," a word I put in quotes because when I grew up, franchises were Burger Kings and mobile stations.
"The Mummy" isn't a tent-pole either, the term for a franchise that holds up the studio, like "Harry Potter." "The Mummy" is a would-be universe. A universe is the mother lode. It's Marvel superheroes, DC superheroes, Star Wars Jedi knights. A universe runs by Hamiltonian, not Jeffersonian laws, by which I mean that every meaningful decision emanates from a single executive source instead of individual artists making individual creative choices.
"The Mummy" is the first product of something Universal has labeled Dark Universe, which takes monsters from Universal horror classics such as "Frankenstein," "Dracula" and "The Mummy" and updates them. It also introduces a sort of "Mission Impossible" monster-hunting team headed by Dr. Henry Jekyll, played by Russell Crowe, and Jenny Halsey, played by Annabelle Wallis.
Two-thirds into "The Mummy," Jekyll shows off his operation center to Cruise's Nick Morton, a conniving U.S. soldier who liberated the mummified Princess Ahmanet and has a psychic link with her. The unwrapped mummy, who comes on like the Terminator, was caught and is chained nearby, glowering.
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RUSSELL CROWE: (As Jekyll) Welcome to Prodigium, Mr. Morton, from the Latin monstrum vel prodigium, a warning of monsters. Forgive the state of things. We have very little time to prepare for our guest and only the information Jennifer provided to go on. In truth, she works for us. It's not an exact science this business.
TOM CRUISE: (As Morton) And the business being...
CROWE: (As Jekyll) Evil, Mr. Morton - recognize, contain, examine, destroy. She is by far the most ancient we've ever encountered.
EDELSTEIN: As the mummy, Sofia Boutella is a frightening sight, her body bound and pretzel. You can feel her angry, compacted energy on the brink of busting out. But Russell Crowe looks as bored as only a major actor can be when he's gone to seed and taken a role so far beneath him.
Tom Cruise, meanwhile, is playing up the comedy, which means he winces broadly with each injury as opposed to wincing subtly, as in the "Mission Impossible" series, or not wincing because he's a stoic in the "Jack Reacher" series. He looks great for a man in his 50s and has a nude scene, so we'll register his over-muscled physique. His trapezius is so huge, he looks like the Hulk's mini-me.
But the lousiness of "The Mummy" isn't the star's fault. It's the storytelling. The film has three opening sequences and takes too long to get to the mummy's emergence. So there's barely time for a second act in which the characters show different sides of themselves. Instead there's one mini-climax after another with no one able to get from point A to point B without some inessential, calamity - a chase, a building collapse, a sandstorm, a zombie attack, Jekyll turning in to Hyde, all of it impersonally staged by director Alex Kurtzman with so much computer-generated imagery the movie feels prefab.
I'm convinced that the heavy-hitting screenwriters David Koepp and Christopher McQuarrie know how to tell stories. The problem is that studios' new priorities have crippled storytelling. I don't like exulting in a movie's failure. But with "The Mummy," I'll make an exception because this is a new Hollywood model. The thinking behind it is why most of the films I care about don't originate in studios and why so many studio movies, even the moderately enjoyable ones, are so overblown with signposts for other movies that they leave you wanting less.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Monday on FRESH AIR, we talk with Roxane Gay, author of "Bad Feminist." Her new memoir, "Hunger," is about her life being hundreds of pounds overweight. Gay says she started gaining weight after being gang-raped when she was 12. She writes that she thought if she made herself repulsive, she could keep men away. Join us.
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BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. John Sheehan directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.