Like a franchise rising from the dead, The Mummy has returned, with Tom Cruise in the lead and Star Trek's Alex Kurtzman behind the wheel. The first trailer for the film arrived at the weekend, and we spoke to Kurtzman himself to dig a little deeper on the first entry in the Universal Monsters universe.
It's modern day
Alex Kurtzman’s reboot of that most universal of monsters, The Mummy, is the third Universal Studios movie to bear that name. The previous two – the 1932 original, directed by Karl Freund and starring Boris Karloff, and Stephen Sommers’ 1999 remake – were set in the 1930s and 1920s, respectively. There’s been a fair degree of speculation about the time period Kurtzman would choose for his stab at the sepulchral scoundrel, and the first shot of the trailer – an airplane in flight – confirms that it will be set in the present day. “Well, the Karloff movie was modern day for the time!” laughs Kurtzman. “We knew from the beginning that we wanted to do modern day. It was also very important to figure out a way to let the audience experience the Mummy’s story in a way that will allow us to taste what it was like for her five thousand years ago. There will be sections of the movie that take place in her time.”
Tom Cruise is Nick Morton
This version of The Mummy also has something that, with all due respect to Brendan Fraser, the Sommers version didn’t: an honest-to-goodness, dyed-in-the-wool, stick-that-on-your-poster megastar going toe-to-bandaged-toe with the title character. And that megastar is Tom Cruise as Nick Morton, a soldier seen here on the flight transporting a spooky-looking sarcophagus. “Nick is one in a long line of amazingly unique characters that only Tom Cruise can play,” says Kurtzman, “in that he’s an amoral, absolutely out-for-himself guy who is confronted with, in everything the Mummy ends up doing to him, the question of how much humanity is actually buried inside of him.”
Here, we see Morton separated from the other soldiers on the freight plane. “He’s having his own experience in that moment,” teases Kurtzman.
Annabelle Wallis is Jenny Halsey
Alongside Morton on the flight is Jenny Halsey, played by British actress Annabelle Wallis. “She’s an archaeologist who works for the UN’s Cultural Heritage division,” explains Kurtzman. “She goes around the world and does her best to protect, catalogue and inventory things that could easily be destroyed.” Including…
The Mummy clocks up the air miles
A coffin that is a) too big to fit in the overhead lockers and b) appears to contain the vengeful corpse of Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), a millennia-old spirit of immense power. Happens all the time. And when that spirit commands a flock of ravens to crash into the cockpit, the shit/fan interface begins.
The Cruiser has interesting recent form with planes on the big screen – in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back he spent half a flight punching fellow passengers, while he famously clung to the side of a plane as it took off in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. In The Mummy, the impact of the raven attack sends the plane into a plunge.
Naturally, Cruise wanted to film it for real. Or as close as you can get without needing a new Tom Cruise. “The first thing everybody said was, ‘we can’t do that, we’re never doing that,’” laughs Kurtzman. “That pretty much guarantees that you’re going to do it with Tom.”
For example, the free-fall section, where Morton, Jenny and others become weightless, was shot in a zero-g ‘vomit comet’, where cast and crew are placed into a real plane, and flown at different altitudes to induce 20-25 second periods of weightlessness. “There’s a huge amount of prep, probably eight months of prep,” says Kurtzman. “But when you go up in zero-g, you can’t control what’s happening. You’re going to float wherever you’re going to float. The randomness of each take is what’s great about it – there’s chaos in it.”
The sequence, which takes place fairly early in the movie, also called for the construction of a state-of-the-art revolving set which would flip the actors around. “It was utterly safe, but utterly terrifying,” recalls Kurtzman. “And it allowed me to put the camera in in a very smooth way and get shots you otherwise could not get.”
Nick to the rescue
As the plane plummets to the ground, with part of the fuselage ripped away and certain death for all seemingly imminent, Morton makes an interesting choice: he manages to strap Halsey into a parachute and sends her out of the plane, saving her life. “You’ll find out something about that choice later on that is unexpected and surprising,” teases Kurtzman. “But if you’re going to ask the audience to connect to a character like Nick Morton, who makes a lot of really bad choices in the first half of the movie, in that moment of life-or-death he makes a critical choice that makes you go, ‘oh, there’s hope for that guy.’” Well, there would be if he wasn’t in a plane that’s clearly about to crash. Farewell, Nick Morton, we hardly knew ye.
Edge Of Tomorrow: Mummy Boogaloo
Michael Mann did it. Harold Becker did it. Doug Liman did it about 82 times. And now Alex Kurtzman has joined the ranks of directors who’ve managed to off Tom Cruise. Like Liman, though, he’s also brought him back, as evidenced by the scene where a frankly discombobulated Morton wakes up in a morgue. What the hell is going on? “One of the tenets of a Mummy movie is the curse,” explains Kurtzman, as cryptically as a crypt-keeper who’s just completed a degree in cryptology. “In that scene, there may be a curse that’s beginning to take effect.”
“Welcome to a new world of gods and monsters…”
As Morton tries to adjust to his new lease of life, we hear a rich British accent ominously declare, “welcome to a new world of gods and monsters”. It’s also the tagline on the film’s poster. “If you’re a fan of the Universal Monster movies, you’ll immediately recognise that line,” says Kurtzman. Indeed; it’s a line from James Whale’s Bride Of Frankenstein. And while some online commenters have scoffed at what they perceive as a misquote, it’s entirely deliberate, designed as a declaration that The Mummy will be the first in a planned new shared universe that will ultimately bring the classic Universal Monsters – Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolfman, the Mummy and The 40-Year-Old Virgin (ok, maybe not that one) – together, Marvel-style. Or, given that 1943’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man was the first movie to combine stars from different movies, perhaps that should be Universal-style. “This line was our way of saying we are not only paying homage to the classics, we’re actually doing them but in an updated, contemporary and new way.”
The Doctor is in
And nowhere is that better illustrated than by the presence of Russell Crowe, the man who says that line. Although Crowe’s suited, booted and bearded character isn’t named in the trailer, Kurtzman has confirmed a long-standing rumour: that he’s actually Dr. Henry Jekyll. Yes, Robert Louis Stevenson’s tortured doctor, who famously has something of an identity crisis. But thinking of him as merely the Nick Fury – or Furry – of this new franchise is not entirely accurate.
“He’s the voice that begins to tell us the history of monsters,” says Kurtzman. “He’s part of an organisation that’s been studying that. I’ll use ‘studying’ as a very loose term. They’ve been doing a lot of things in relation to monsters. One reason that he’s there is that the audience is going to need an introduction into this world, so who’s that going to be from?”
But there’s also bite to Jekyll’s bark. Again, not seen in the trailer but confirmed by Kurtzman is a fight scene between Morton and the doctor that took four days to shoot, while Jekyll’s movitations are fairly sketchy. “As a character, Nick has several paths he can go on – are you going to be the good version of yourself or the bad version? Are you going to be the human or the monster? That also describes Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde, so suddenly there was a reason for that character to exist in relation to Nick Morton. Henry Jekyll has been where Nick is going.”
And if Jekyll’s around, can we expect his alter-ego to make an appearance? Will Jekyll Hyde-out? “I would certainly hope so,” grins Kurtzman.
Much of the film takes place in London (several scenes were shot just around the corner from Empire Towers, fact fans), as you can tell from this scene where Nick is swallowed up by a number 25 bus. “London carries with it an unbelievable amount of history,” says Kurtzman. “It’s incredibly modern but it’s also incredibly ancient. And without revealing too much, during the Crusades, the Crusaders went to Egypt, sacked Egypt, and took a lot of plunder back to Europe. That may have some connection to our story as well…”
Going deeper underwater
Kurtzman’s research into London (along with credited screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Christopher McQuarrie) threw up interesting tidbits that directly influenced the movie. Example: in one brief shot, we see Nick underwater in what appears to be a tomb. “They ran out of places to bury bodies,” says Kurtzman. “So they started digging lime pits which are all over the place. Pretty much anywhere you go in London, you’re standing on a body somewhere. So you go, ‘ok, this is a movie where there could be some dead people rising. This is probably the perfect place to stage it…’” And your eyes do not deceive you: those dead people, floating out of their tombs, are moving of their own accord. Cruise has got problems…
The Mummy isn’t a bloke in bandages. Or a bloke.
Boris Karloff. Arnold Vosloo. Lon Chaney Jr. Christopher Lee. Previous big-screen Mummies have been exclusively daddies. And that was Kurtzman’s initial plan too. “We had done several drafts where the Mummy was a man,” he explains. “We had done some design work, it was fine, it was ok, but it wasn’t different enough. And I knew that this had to feel very, very different. This voice in my head had been saying ‘make it a woman, make it a woman’, and it opened up a huge world of possibilities, and allowed us to ask some very relevant questions. How different is it for a woman then, versus now? What would it be like for her to enter our world and see what’s become of five thousand years on this planet?”
Kurtzman only had one Mummy in mind
A fan of Sofia Boutella’s eye-catching appearance as razor-legged villain Gazelle in Kingsman: The Secret Service, Kurtzman only had one choice for his Mummy. And though her appearances as Princess Ahmanet in the trailer are clearly meant to inspire fear and terror, he has bolder plans for his take on the character. “I told Sofia, I promise you that I want the audience to feel deep affection for this character,” he reveals. “The great monster movies are the ones where you fear the monster and fear for the monster. She signed on and was fantastic.” Kurtzman admits that Boutella’s appearance will be CG-augmented before release, “but what you’ll see is Sofia under there. The only way the movie works is if you feel that.”
As for Ahmanet’s power level, a late-in-the-trailer shot of the Mummy apparently levelling the Houses of Parliament is quite the appetite-whetter. “Her powers evolve over the course of the movie,” says Kurtzman. “She doesn’t start that powerful.” Either way, Cruise is about to have some serious Mummy issues.
The Mummy is in cinemas in June 2017. Watch the full trailer here.