By Shawn StJean
It seems as if Universal Studios’ inauguration of their “Dark Universe” franchise, beginning with The Mummy, should have monster-genre fans everywhere uncovering easter-eggs and salivating, in werewolf-fashion, for future installments. What’s next? Creature from the Black Lagoon? Dracula? Frankenstein? Given the success of Marvel Studios and its web of interconnected sagas, and the generosity of audiences even toward the far-less compelling DC Comics movie adaptations, this seems a logical gamble in the Hollywood and Pinewood of 2017 and beyond. More interesting to me, as I combine a sort of hit-and-run mini-review here with a broader, deconstructive cultural analysis, is how the real villains of The Mummy are not the title character and the soulless zombies she creates from humans by draining their life-force (souls) to revivify herself.
The film itself makes a dubious beginning to re-introduce the Dark Universe into the 21st century, relying as it often does on relentlessly flat jokes, and worse, convoluted exposition in favor of any attempt at plot or characterization. One could call Tom Cruise merely miscast, if his part weren’t so deplorably underwritten: supposedly a profiteering soldier who steals Mideastern relics, he mostly blinks his eyes and shakes his head through the bulk of the narrative, eventually alerting the audience for the dozenth time that the Mummy has a telepathic entry to “inside his head.” Rather, it’s Russell Crowe, playing Cruise’s antagonist Dr. Henry Jekyll, and his minions, who warrant our serious attention here.
Jekyll, keeping his nefarious Hyde persona barely at bay with regular injections, leads a secret society of monster-hunters with the self-appointed mission to rid the world of evil. He’s willing to go so far as to facilitate the Mummy’s obsession with her “Chosen,” Cruise, allowing him to be killed with a sacrificial dagger and incarnate the Egyptian god of Death, Set, so that he can then be “obliterated” under controlled conditions, “a sacrifice for the greater good.” I’ve discussed human sacrifice at length previously in this series, but here it points us back to the deep motivations of Jekyll, our modern-day crusader. Edward Hyde, grappling with Cruise, points out “It’s Jekyll who wants to kill you,” whereas he wants a partnership with the sergeant.
The archetype of the crusader, not one that springs to mind immediately, nevertheless forms part of the canon of recurring iconic figures in myth. Self-adorned in the garb and acoutrements of a White Knight, the Crusader’s single-minded pursuit–a holy mission–brings him/her repeatedly into a death-struggle with what s/he imagines to be incarnated evil (but which is only a projection of the knight’s own private sin,) and may even suffer a savior/God complex, as here. Think Ahab: the white whale represents, to him, the sum total of all evil–not coincidentally having deprived the Captain of his own leg in a previous encounter. In order to slay Moby-Dick, Ahab will sacrifice his ship and the lives of his entire crew, yet rationalizes this insane quest just as Jekyll here: keep an eye on the big picture, fellas.
The film has great potential in this regard, but squanders several opportunities to fully realize its themes. Cruise is called a thief and mercenary on the surface with the soul of a good man attempting to emerge, whereas Crowe is a respectable doctor and leader hiding a soul of evil and “chaos” just beneath his respectable exterior. His three-piece suit is the shield and cloak and sword-oath of a crusader, 900 years later, working ostensibly in a righteous cause, while committing atrocities along the way. The capture and subsequent torture of the Mummy should help us realize this, but the film has buried any sympathy we might have had for the title character under its unnecessary agenda of portraying her as wholly evil. And the contrast between Crowe and Cruise is never made direct enough; the yin and yang never bleed into each other. Crowe’s Jekyll does indeed have the final words: “it takes a monster to fight a monster,” but it echoes too much like sequel-pimping. We haven’t been shown the knights of the second Crusade desecrating Mesopotamian and Egyptian crypts, only told. The crusader-knights turned to zombies, a refreshing turn from the usual T-virus, should help. The mummy has reanimated their corpses to continue the mission they had in life–mindlessly carrying out someone else’s political agenda. But the film is neither so subtle as to emphasize this impressionistically, nor so obvious as to have someone shout it out. And honestly, as for sequels, I’d be happy never to see Cruise’s character again.
A crusader, like any soldier drafted into a foreign war, has to believe in the worth of the cause. And yet, the deep disillusionment in the face of true horror in and around battlefields transforms the idealistic campaigner into a monster. The cycle of post-Vietnam movies imported the process to American cinemas. The best of the protagonists become world-weary and learn to hate the crusade itself; of course, since Universal is hoping to kick off a franchise, Jekyll can experience no such awakening. We saw it most explicitly in Oliver Stone’s Platoon, but it may have been Sean Connery in 1976s British Robin and Marian who expressed it most succinctly: “I keep thinking of all the death I’ve seen. I’ve hardly lost a battle, and I don’t know what I’ve won. ‘The day is ours, Robin,’ you used to say, and then it was tomorrow. But where did the day go?” Perhaps only coincidentally premiering during the year of America’s bicentennial and following the final withdraw from Vietnam, the film nevertheless carried the message of counterculture from an empire whose sun had finally set on ocean slicks of blood.
And thus Cruise and his army cronies import the crusade against “insurgents” into modern-day Iraq. The ruins and crypts and mass graves and the walking dead are what empires leave behind in their quest of manifest destiny. See, Egypt hadn’t much taste for expansion–the film stretches noticeably to bury the mummy in the Persian gulf, ancient Mesopotamia, seeming to want us to make the connection to the global political stage of modern day, to function as social criticism against American Empire–yet it can’t resist the weight, or rather lack of it, of its special effects, star power, and declared identity as traditional, if updated “monster movie.” Essentially, it sells out.
What’s missing from the narrative of The Mummy, failing a major rewrite, is for Cruise to have a genuine epiphany, whether accomplished through his psychic connection or whatever silly device: it’s men exactly like Jekyll, in complicity with men like himself, that create the mummies of the world in the first place. The civilians, the displaced farmers, the maimed and burned children, the revengers all haunting the wasted landscape. But this would bring him and Crowe’s character into an irreconcilable conflict. Instead, Universal seems to want to move them into formation of some half-assed Scooby Gang.
One final note: it’s perhaps a curious feature that the Mummy made her way to London, but watch for that motif as the series progresses: Stoker’s Dracula and Shelley’s Frankenstein both relied upon the device, which goes back at least as far as Beowulf. A curse earned abroad must always, whether in the diseased persons of returning soldiers, or in boxes of stolen treasure, or in the more amorphous forms of displaced, refugee souls, make its way home.