Tom Cruise is back with a summer blockbuster. The last of the Hollywood stars is trying hard to navigate a world in which franchises and sequels have replaced the Romanticism and elegance of yesteryear. “The Mummy” is nowhere near as good “Jack Reacher” was, nor “Edge of tomorrow.” But compared to its summer or blockbuster competition, it fares quite well. It’s certainly far more thoughtful.
Blockbusters are what they are in our generation because they severed their connection with comedy. Instead, they are always circling the problem of evil and what could justify suffering and what redemption there might be for people in a cruel or indifferent world. Like it or not, entertainment is far more moralistic than it used to be and it only rarely achieves any moral depth or any insight into what might be evil about being who we are.
“Mummy” does have something to contribute to this, and its ancients vs. moderns structure and Americans vs. monsters plot are reliable allies. Director Alex Kurtzmann, with a fairly impressive resume for success, is unfortunately rampantly mediocre. Writer Chris McQuarrie is the real asset on the movie-making side. He once enjoyed Oscar prestige for “The Usual Suspects,” a film both overrated and misunderstood.
In the last decade, he’s written for, directed, and produced five Tom Cruise movies including this one, with another one upcoming. Their partnership is about the only thing there is to be said for the serious claims of popular movies. A cinematic style, something almost forbidden in Hollywood, they certainly have going for them.
But they also find ways to work out strange insights that start from banal observations. First, “The Mummy” deals with a story caught somewhere in-between ancient mystery and horror. Well, this time, the mummy is a woman who murdered her royal family. What that is supposed to teach is that a certain kind of love—a desire to be approved and to be admired—can turn against the very people who stir it.
The mummy in this sense is sterile individualism, which is derivative without knowing itself to be so. The very principle of giving birth is destroyed in this ancient mystery. The kind of love discussed turns out to be a death cult, really. In trying to move from the possible perpetuation of the species to the immortality of the individual, in trying to turn a beautiful image into a being powerful enough to be eternal, monsters are created.
‘The Mummy’ Bridges The Ancient And The Modern
This “Mummy” is like the Greek story about the man on whom eternal life is bestowed without the powers of youth. But it is far more than a warning story. “The Mummy” forces a comparison of modern scientific politics with the ancient science of Egypt. It explicitly compares the realism by which science rules our politics—who really believes the health imperative and the fear of death will be stopped when it comes to cloning human beings, for example?—with human sacrifices in ancient politics.
It makes sense to sacrifice people when you’re looking for power over life and death. But we tell ourselves our hands are clean both individually and as political communities. And if you think mummies gone for millennia are somehow a joke, well, how many tech-scientific prodigies in Silicon Valley, the princes of America, are freezing their own bodies cryogenically in hope of a future life? Not so funny when you think how much the two situations have in common… Maybe abandoning Christianity is a bad idea, you see…
The ground of our modernity is really Christianity. This is always rehearsed in movies about sacrificial salvation, redemptive acts, and attempts to put an end to the cycle of violence in nature and politics. Life has to be understood providentially to be anything but tragic. Hence the continuous competition in this story, and so many others, between a Christian and a pre-Christian view of immortality or divinity. In that sense, this kind of blockbuster does well to remind people of the moral stakes in heroism, which is not mere fun for Americans—just like it was not merely a good story for the Greeks thousands of years ago.
Our Love For The All-American Hero
One element of the story is all-American. Everyone learns young from blockbusters what Tocqueville taught: In America, the head may fail, but the heart won’t falter. When reason would surrender to chaos, faith will carry Americans forward, even if seemingly against their better judgment. Tom Cruise is a star in part because of his rare ability to speak up for democracy and inspire it—he’s always telling sidekicks it’s going to be okay, and he tries his hardest. His action movies are a model of stylish striving that’s not barbaric or insane.
The problem here is political. The story starts with a view of the overriding principles of the American military in Iraq. Looting on the one hand, saving a culture on the other. These are standings for realism and idealism and about as stuck in caricature as American foreign policy debates. But they do show a failure to think about America beyond an ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances. Giving a good account of striving at the national level is simply beyond Hollywood in our times.
The solution to this problem, this failure of political imagination, is the other element of the story: its romanticism. Tom Cruise is handsome enough to evoke that, even at 50. Whereas his democratic insistence on acting together with the other actors, as I mentioned above, tends to move the discussion from idolizing to idealizing, his beautiful face tends to distract people from the crisis of the action.
For the same reason, people become invested in his suffering and travails in an unusual way. He is a star in part because he is the only action movie guy who has a nearly inexhaustible attraction for the audience. He is a beloved, not a lover. The resolution of the plot is almost always going to be a turning around of the character from receiving love to offering love—in saving the day, he’s returning the love of the audience. It goes without saying, this is remarkably rare in Hollywood, where beauty is more flattery than anything else.
Why We Need Tom Cruise Films
Romanticism is supposed to offer a halfway house between the modern rationalism of the beginning, which has a counterpart in the monstrous rationalism of Dr. Jekyll—evil is a disease to be cured scientifically—and the irrationalism of ancient splendor, which hides horrors like politics by human sacrifice. A mythology of sacrificial love will justify individuality while giving scope to powers simply dormant, if not endangered in the scientific-bureaucratic world we live in, which is incredibly safe and so incredibly boring that audiences flock to shows of chaos and destruction.
We need Tom Cruise, really, for that reason. We are tempted as audiences to turn to fascination with evil as a reaction to the world-hospital in which we, at some level, live. He helps audiences back away from the temptation to turn love into a death cult or dissatisfaction with our world into political paranoia. Love and war are still possible and make sense morally in this kind of story.
This is not to say “The Mummy” is not as much of a failure as more or less any blockbuster these days. People find it almost unacceptable to produce expensive movies with intelligent plotting, in fear that audiences wouldn’t tolerate it. It sometimes seems that the way audiences declare their love for bad writing and thinking is a defiance of better stuff—when audiences throw billions at rampant mediocrity, is there anyone who dares risk good writing and bet lots of money on it? But that does not do away with the insights into the audience of the blockbusters, and the fairly healthy pleasures this movie has to offer.
One hopes that the kind of talent one sees in front and behind the camera will see better use in their next collaboration on yet another “Mission Impossible” movie. That’s a series which attempts to bring a kind of reasonableness to political intrigue—as this movie attempts to make mysteries a bit more reasonable. But that’s a discussion for next year.