A Dark Universe, Indeed


The superhero cinema I wrote of in my Wonder Woman review is as much a result of appropriation patterns as it is a result of hard economics. If superhero cinema is contemporary Hollywood cinema, then so is the economic model it makes use of: thus enters the “Dark Universe,” Universal Studio’s answer to the superhero economic model without the superhero, the beginning of a siege of monster movies drawn from the same pool of intellectual property and narratively arranged within the same overlapping framework. Scheduled for releases years in advance, the new wave is inaugurated with The Mummy, a Tom Cruise-led endeavor into the mediocre mode of genre storytelling we can come to expect for the next decade. The film is so openly lazy and nakedly economic that Hollywood’s insidious ideology rockets to the fore, laying bare the thoughtless malice in producing another iteration in an endless sea of dominant ideology performing for itself.

Tom Cruise stars as Nick Morton, a military man who releases an ancient Egyptian curse wrought by the eponymous Mummy, played by Sofia Boutella. The curse does curse-y stuff, like you know spooky zombies and rats and things, and in the meantime Nick falls in love with a blonde named Jennifer Halsey, has a goofy sidekick (Jake Johnson as Chris Vail) and also Russel Crowe is Dr. Henry Jekyll.

The acting is adequate. Cruise and Crowe deliver performances expected from seasoned stars, Jake Johnson is insultingly underused (his comic chops made well known on New Girl), Halsey is so goddamn bland it’s kind of a bummer, and the Mummy is a mummy. She does mummy things.

What could have been an interesting exercise in schlocky-but-effective horror was reduced into a forgettable foray into generic action with negligible dramaturgical tension, replete with homogenous characters and heart-slowing exposition, in an effort to crudely lay out the narrative beats necessary to justify the conspicuous economics behind the movie’s inception.

The Mummy is at the heart of mainstream media’s sly communication of dominant ideology. Likely reactions to this and other critiques include who cares, it’s just a dumb B-movie, it doesn’t invite such analysis. This is the clever work of Hollywood, couching politics within low-grade material that encourage thoughtlessness and shroud the conscious choices on screen.

The essential premise behind The Mummy (and the countless Hollywood films like it) is that other, unfamiliar cultures are dangerous (scary brown people) and we need white American corn-fed men like Tom Cruise to save us. It’s no mistake that a story centered around fear of the Middle Eastern-other was produced in a time where the geographical locus of American anxiety is in the same war-torn territory. It’s no mistake that every character central to the film’s narrative is white, straight, and cisgender (other than of course our scary brown antagonist). It’s no mistake that the film consciously positions Cruise’s body as the “ideal” vessel of scary-brown-evil’s reemergence. This is politics. This is ideology. Don’t be seduced by the veil of lazy genre. Don’t makes excuses for the assumed thoughtlessness of its creators. Every choice is consciously economic in films of this capital magnitude.

This is the insidiousness of stupid filmmaking, symptomatic of the dominant ideology’s myth-making habit. As Roland Barthes put it in “Myth Today,” the work of naturalizing speech springs from the pointed use of familiar signifiers, a deeply effective method of convincing an audience that such an ideology simply is so, natural, inevitable. The Mummy is not only a dumb, lazy genre flick about a fight against evil, it is itself the quintessence of ideological evil, deserving of resistance.




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