To call Alex Kurtzman’s 2017 reboot of the classic horror film — and latest attempt by Universal to establish a new franchise — The Mummy is to believe that the film actually gives a damn about its eponymous villain. In a film steeped in baffling creative decisions, stodgy storytelling and Russell Crowe doing a Cockney accent that will allow Dick Van Dyke to sleep soundly for the rest of his days, it may be the treatment of the mummy herself, Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), that grinds the most gears.
The movie, the first in the so-called Dark Universe, already had a mountain of cynicism to climb from prospective viewers with fond memories of the 1999 reboot starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. Early previews did little to fix that, as the action-focused centerpieces mostly ignored Boutella in favor of leading man Tom Cruise (along with a now-infamous IMAX preview with a few sound issues). Yet even after all that, few of us could have predicted just how shoddily the resulting film would be, and it’s in its treatment of Boutella’s character where the major failings lie. It may be called The Mummy, but one of cinema’s rising stars never gets her moment to shine in the title role.
Universal has spent decades trying to cash in on their iconic Monsters franchise. From the 1920s, the studio established themselves as the home of horror in the golden age of Hollywood, and they held onto that position well into the ’50s. Figures like Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera and Bela Lugosi’s Dracula changed the landscape of the genre, and their influence can still be found in cinema to this day.
While the studio has made attempts to revive those characters, none of them have really took off with audiences: Audiences had grown tired of vampires when they released the 1979 remake of Dracula, starring Frank Langella; Stephen Sommers’ shlocky blockbuster take on Van Helsing (2004), with Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale, did respectably at the box office but never left audiences hungry for more; and Dracula Untold (2014), the original foundation for their Dark Universe, was so dull that they’ve decided to pretend it never happened (sorry, Luke Evans).
Now, as the shared universe multi-film franchise model of film-making reigns supreme in Hollywood, from Marvel and DC to the extended Star Wars universe, every studio is scrambling to find a recognizable intellectual property that will allow them to use the same mould and thus ensure regular profits. The Mummy trilogy (1999-2008) remains Universal’s most successful attempt at having lightning strike twice, so it made sense to use that as the new jumping-off point for The Avengers with horror classics.
Where Universal’s Dark Universe differs from, say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in its emphasis on major A-List stars to entice potential audiences. The traditional model of stardom is dying in the industry, as the franchise becomes more bankable than the actor’s name above the title. As much as we love Chris Evans, he’s not the reason the Captain America movies make so much money. Benedict Cumberbatch has his avid fanbase, but they weren’t the reason Doctor Strange was one of the top 10 highest grossing films of 2016. This model has its benefits, allowing for lesser-known talent to enjoy the perks of blockbuster work that would have previously been denied to them because the movies are essentially review-proof.
For Universal, the return to the star model of years past is a selling point few studios are indulging in on this scale nowadays. Before The Mummy hit theaters, a cast photo was released showing the future stars of the franchise: Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s Monster; Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man. Sofia Boutella is the outlier here. Not only is she the only woman amongst the major players (the Bride of Frankenstein will apparently join the team at some point, although she is yet to be cast) and easily the youngest, she’s the only one who isn’t a household name. Her star is undoubtedly rising thanks to stand-out roles in Star Trek Beyond and Kingsman: The Secret Service, but her inclusion amongst some of the most acclaimed and bankable stars of the era stands out. Once you sit down and watch The Mummy, the why of that becomes immediately apparent.
Princess Ahmanet’s backstory is a pretty standard tale of a hunger for power, but it mostly stands as an excuse to center everything on the film’s true protagonist, Nick Morton, played by Tom Cruise. Ahmanet seeks power, and her deal with the god Set to claim it requires her to sacrifice a man with a special Macguffin dagger to transfer his spirit into a human form. She failed in this endeavor in her own time before being mummified alive and moved to Mesopotamia (now modern-day Iraq), but when Nick and his team discover her, she immediately fixates on him, cursing Nick to be the new vessel for Set. Her interactions with him are framed as part scary, part sexy, as she straddles him on a church altar and strokes him in preparation for her first attempt at sacrifice.
Clad only in deteriorating bandages, Ahmanet is consistently posited by the camera as a sex object, but one you’re supposed to be a little freaked out by, a trope Anita Sarkeesian referred to in her Tropes Versus Video Games series as the “sinister seductress.” It reduces a potentially interesting female villain to nothing more than another excuse for Tom Cruise to show that he’s still got it. Even her more visceral attacks only serve to remind the audience of sex, as she turns unsuspecting humans into her zombie minions by sucking their life-force out through a deadly kiss.
All of this stands in stark contrast to the motivations of Imhotep, the mummy in both the 1932 and 1999 versions. With both Boris Karloff and Arnold Vosloo’s take on the villain, the driving force behind his plans is rooted in love. First and foremost, these are tragic villains who will go to any lengths to be with the one they love. It’s no more complicated that Ahmanet’s story, but it’s given far more in the way of emotional investment, and the kind that’s still surprisingly rare in Hollywood storytelling – the man who pines for his love and will fight for it at any cost. Reversing the genders on a story like that will obviously change the dynamics – fiction is not short of stories of women moping over men – but Ahmanet’s tale is devoid of emotion. There’s nothing tangible for the audience to grab onto and root for or against.
This isn’t Boutella’s fault. She’s an immensely charismatic on-screen presence and is working as hard as she can with the slivers of material she has, but her co-star, who sucks up all the attention by merit of being Tom Cruise, also offers her little in the way of chemistry.
Reports from the trades alleged that Cruise had “excessive control” over production of The Mummy, dictating the film’s story, character choices and ultimate direction. For Boutella, this allegedly meant losing a significant portion of screen time. In an article by Variety, it is said that the original script gave equal time to Cruise and Boutella’s characters, which changed once the former brought in his own team and added the twist of Nick Morton becoming possessed by Ahmanet. Obviously, this is speculation, but if it’s true, it explains a lot.
By the end of the film, Ahmanet is discarded fully in favor of Morton, although it is hinted that she could return for a future instalment. Nick takes the dagger of Set and uses it to stab himself, thus ensuring that Set’s spirit enters his body and gives him immeasurable power. He immediately uses this to punish Ahmanet and suck the life from her in a scene that is tough to watch given the obvious connotations of a man forcing himself on a woman while she writhes underneath him in protest. After watching Ahmanet embody the tired cliché of the sinister seductress, sucking life from men like a succubus, seeing Nick do the same thing offers no satisfying conclusion or sense of justice. Instead, it inspires only discomfort.
As the film concludes, Boutella isn’t even the mummy anymore. Technically, still housing the spirit of Set, Nick is … and so the Dark Universe is established, devoid of anything that made the original story intriguing, entertaining or even Egyptian. Now, the mummy is part white savior, part gleeful predator, but all a manifestation of Tom Cruise’s ego. Sofia Boutella, one of the most unique and exciting leading women to emerge from this decade, is reduced to a prop for a leading man’s grandstanding. It’s no wonder North American audiences stayed away from the theaters in droves.
It remains to be seen if Universal’s lofty ambitions will pay off with the Dark Universe. The Mummy could lose the studio around $95m as international grosses kept the movie afloat but not enough to offset marketing costs. Perhaps if they had allowed the mummy herself a moment to shine, audiences would have been more willing to invest in this folly.
Fortunately for Sofia Boutella fans, she has a bright career ahead of her, with upcoming roles in Atomic Blonde and HBO’s planned adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. The Mummy may have denied her that time in the spotlight, but it seems that others in the industry are more willing to take that chance.