When Russell Crowe’s character meets Tom Cruise’s in the new “The Mummy,” Crowe’s explains that he is older than Cruise’s. This instantly makes one pause. Sure, we have already seen Cruise without a shirt in the film and it isn’t just Cruise’s face that is well-preserved, he is in spectacular shape. Crowe certainly looks older, but there remains that feeling at the back of one’s head that there’s something not quite right about the statement and, according to IMDb, Crowe is in fact two years younger than Cruise.

That ought not be a big surprise to learn. Certainly they are of the same generation and any age difference one way or the other would have to be relatively negligible. So, why is the line there in the script? Is it germane to the story or is it because Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise and can pass for a man 20 years younger? Having watched the Alex Kurtzman directed start of Universal’s shared monster universe (the “Dark Universe”), I still don’t know.

This is just one of a myriad of questions with which I find myself having seen “The Mummy.” Other questions I have, in no particular order, include: is this a horror movie, is it an action movie, is this even a full movie by itself or just a small piece of a larger work, and why is it so loud. Having thought about these for a while, I think the answers, respectively, are: not really but it’s at its best when it is, mostly, not so much, and oh wow.

Starting off with the most disappointing aspects of the movie first – “The Mummy” feels almost afraid of being a horror film, it is constantly shying away from horror moments in place of generic action sequences. Early in the film, Cruise’s Nick Morton and Jake Johnson’s Chris Vail are in Iraq, being shot at by insurgents for no particular reason germane to the film itself.

Later, there’s a plane crash which may be started by supernatural forces, but that part of it is quickly forgotten about as the need to escape the plan arises.  While that is undoubtedly a natural transition, the film still falters.  What we are treated to could be a wonderful shot of the folks inside the plane as the rapidly descending metal tube does flips, but the shakiness of the camera proves so disorienting that rather than the audience being able to marvel at what is taking place on screen, our time is spent simply trying to figure it out through the shakes.

The mummy herself, played by Sofia Boutella, is almost an afterthought in this world. We know why she did what she did to be cursed many centuries ago, but too little of the movie is spent on what she is doing now, why, and how she views things. Our focus is on the dynamic Nick, a too-smooth-for-his-own-good thief/soldier. His quest, after finding Boutella’s Ahmanet, is to work out why he’s having visions of her and her history, but it’s regularly about his view of what is taking place as opposed to hers.

As Nick quickly discovers, Ahmanet can sometimes influence his actions, but not always and not when it’s important that she do so. Why her power waxes and wanes is unclear, it is just another mystery in which the film isn’t interested. In fact, it isn’t completely unfair to say that “The Mummy” is often not very concerned with the mummy.

Part of this is because may result from the fact that far too much of the film exists in order to set up the larger shared universe, with Crowe taking on a role analogous to Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury in the MCU. Crowe is the secretive leader of a hidden organization known as Prodigium, a group which ferrets out monsters and the supernatural. The scenes with Crowe, even if he’s interacting with other characters in the film, including Nick and Annabelle Wallis’ Jenny Halsey (who is on the trail of the mummy with Nick), do not serve a significant part of this individual film’s plot. The moments all feel like winks and nods towards what is to come. It is even unclear whether the identity of Crowe’s character—whom you’ll note I haven’t named here—is supposed to be a surprise. The name has certainly been publicized, but the movie treats it as a big reveal.

That said, these parts of the film are certainly successful in whetting the appetite for “Bride of Frankenstein,” “Invisible Man,” “The Wolf Man,” and the rest, but this movie is about Nick and Ahmanet and that relationship. When it stops to be about Crowe’s character and Prodigium, it loses something (just as it does when it shies away from being a horror movie).

Finally, even though its best moments are horror-based, there is plenty of horror that doesn’t work. One potentially tense scene occurs in a London Underground tunnel with a member of the undead coming for our heroes. This ought to be terrifying, but between the noise and camera angles and cuts, it loses some of that fear. Then, rather than building, “The Mummy” shifts to a scene happening elsewhere before returning to the Underground. By that time, any tension in the tunnel is lost.

On the good side of things, Tom Cruise is still dynamic enough to keep things going and to keep the audience invested. Russell Crowe and this Prodigium certainly leave people wanting to see more of what the rest of the Dark Universe has to offer. Jake Johnson is funny, Annabelle Wallis’s Jenny starts off as an interesting figure, but is given far too little to do. And Boutella’s Ahmanet is mysterious and engrossing, but never explored to the extent required.

It is an inauspicious start to the Dark Universe, but there are enough good bits and pieces that hopefully Universal can work it out and deliver a new golden age of monsters. They just can’t be scared of them.

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photo credit: Universal Pictures