Skip to main content

This just keeps gettin' better and better.


The Mummy
(1999)

If The Matrix was the zeitgeist-defining event of the summer of 1999, having a surplus of vitality and resonance that left The Phantom Menace looking bloated  and stranded, there was another pretender to the blockbuster crown that no one expected to be a sizable hit. One might argue that The Matrix captured something of the “never seen before” quality of the first Star Wars film. If it did, The Mummy was merely content to fill the gap in the audience’s desire for an Indiana Jones knock-off. Any knock-off would do, which goes some way to explaining how such an average film became the third biggest genre movie that wasn’t The Sixth Sense that season.

It ended up in eighth place in for the year (sixth worldwide) and guaranteed a quickly thrown-together sequel (that looked shoddy even by its director’s slipshod standards). Curiously, while that film was bigger in the US, international audiences seemed aware of its inferiority and it didn’t do so well. But still, this was a successful franchise and surprisingly it took another seven years before a third installment arrived. In the same year that it’s true inspiration (Indy, rather than the horror series that bequeathed the title and, loosely, the subject matter) made a lacklustre return to the screen.

Make no mistake, The Mummy is a family action movie. What trappings of horror there are, are so diluted by their CGI presentation as to be nigh on inconsequential; this is as scary as Scooby Doo. Universal’s plan to relaunch of one of its major monsters had gone through a number of directors over the previous decade, including Clive Barker, George Romero and Joe Dante. All of whom would surely have brought something more interesting to the screen that Stephen Sommers’ reheated leftovers.

Yes, Stephen Sommers. Who would go on to such resounding failure with the rest of the studio’s creatures in the overblown disaster that is Van Helsing. With the success of The Adventure s of Huck Finn and The Jungle Book (and the failure of the surprisingly good fun Deep Rising) behind him, Sommers had sufficient clout to demand a significant budget (previous plans had been to spend as little as feasible, one of the reasons, horror content being an other, that so many filmmakers exited the project).

There are no less than six credited writers attached to the screenplay (including John L Balderston’s for the 1932 original), but you wouldn’t have guessed. This comes across as a typically Sommers-like first draft affair, incoherent of structure and crassly witless of dialogue. There isn’t much you’d think could go wrong; the prologue introduces High Priest Imhotep reasonably well, before leaping to 1926 and Rick O’Connell’s (Brendan Fraser) encounter with supernatural forces at the site of his tomb. A few years later he leads an expedition back there, including Rachel Weisz and John Hannah’s brother and sister duo, some fellow Americans and dodgy comedy Arab Beni Gabor (Kevin J O’Connor).

But Sommers fluffs the plot logic every step of the way. Rather than killing or expelling them, the Medjai who guard the tomb give the group 24 hours to leave. Which, of course, is more than enough time to unleash Imhotep’s evil upon the world. Later, we suddenly leap back to Cairo for more frenetic carnage. When the tone is so shallow and the pace so furious, there’s no time for character or the building up of atmosphere.  If Indiana Jones added layers and depth to the classic Republic serials, The Mummy is closer to the strained gag fests of Abbot and Costello meet… (the broad tone – everything in this film is broad – is set from the outset in an excruciatingly elaborate gag where clumsy librarian Weisz causes the domino toppling of a series of bookcases).

It’s also a problem when the menace in your film as is an onslaught of very obvious CGI. This would reach a nadir in the sequel, but the scares amount to a bug-eyed mummy with a stretchy jaw, furious sandstorms and swarms of scarabs cascading over everything in their path. Maybe an undiscerning nipper would be bothered (although, this was a 12/PG-13, so a tot isn’t the target audience). None of its is very tangible, even given the creepiness of some of the ideas (creepy crawlies getting under your skin is very potent, but has little impact on screen). Arnold Vosloo has an imperious presence, but his villainy is undercooked and not really very interesting.

The trio of Fraser, Weisz and Hannah are agreeable, however. Fraser has sufficient sense of humour to embrace a part like this, even if he lacks any edge as an actor (can anyone recall a memorable role for him since, say, Looney Tunes?) Hannah follows the line of less-than-admirable Brits that Terry-Thomas excelled at; it’s just a shame that the writing isn’t up to snuff. Weisz suffers most obviously from a role that runs the gamut from B to B in development, playing the plucky gal who swoons for the adventurer hero (no wonder she didn’t return for the third movie).  As for Connor’s Beni, he’s clearly having enormous fun and it’s certainly a scene-stealer. But it’s closer to Jar Jar Binks as a treasure trove of laughs than anything approaching great comic villainy.

The problem with the movie, and his directorial efforts in general, is Sommers just doesn’t care about anything that isn’t in aid of the deliriously giddy momentum he’s pursuing. He’s like the sugar rush kid in need of a fix; that The Mummy is decidedly subdued in comparison to subsequent films tells you all you need to know about his appetite for bigger, broader, emptier. The period trappings have none of the weight of the Indy films because the director’s sensibility is entirely contemporary; that’s how he shoots the film, writes the dialogue and directs the actors. All of which means that The Mummy is an effective-enough crowd-pleaser but it’s not something you’ll feel the need to revisit (which beckons the question of why I did!)

**1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

He’s probably paranoid, high-strung, doesn’t like daylight. You know, has a lot of crumbs in his beard, if he has a beard.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (SPOILERS) I’d like to report I had a blast with Godzilla vs. Kong . It’s lighter on its oversized, city-stomping feet than its slog of a MonsterVerse predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters , and there are flashes of visual inspiration along with several engaging core ideas (which, to be fair, the series had already laid the seeds for). But this sequel still stumbles in its chief task: assembling an engaging, lively story that successfully integrates both tiny humans and towering titans.

You stink, my friend.

Mulan (2020) (SPOILERS) Let that be a lesson to Disney. It’s a fool’s errand to try and beat the Chinese at their own game, no matter how painstakingly respectful – or rather, pandering – you are. Indeed, Mulan ’s abysmal $40m box office take in the country – where it did get a proper release, so no plandemic excuses can be cited – feels like a direct rebuke; don’t try and tell us how to suck eggs. There’s an additional explanation too, of course. That Mulan sucks.

Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations.

The X-Files 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig (2021) (SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “ fiction ”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig , as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.

By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man (1956) (SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

UFO IN MOSSINGHAM?

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2020) (SPOILERS) One might reasonably suggest the recourse of the ailing or desperate franchise is to resort, seemingly out of nowhere, to space aliens. Even Police Academy didn’t go that far (to Moscow, yes, but not to space). Perhaps animators think kids have no skills of discernment and will swallow any old sugar-coated crap. Perhaps they don’t, and they will. Ice Age had been enjoying absurd success until Collision Course sent Scrat spinning into the cosmos and grosses tumbled. Shaun the Sheep has been around for a quarter of a century, but this is only his second movie outing and already he’s pulling an E.T. on us. Of course, this may all be part of the grand scheme, and Nick Park is simply doing his bit to familiarise the tots in time for Project Blue Beam.

Careful how much boat you’re eating.

Onward (2020) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s Bright , or thereabouts. The interesting thing – perhaps the only interesting thing – about Onward is that it’s almost indiscernible from a DreamWorks Animation effort, where once they cocked a snook at such cheap-seats fare, seeing themselves as better class of animation house altogether. Just about everything in Onward is shamelessly derivative, from the Harry Potter /fantasy genre cash-in to the use of the standard Pixar formula whereby any scenario remotely eccentric or exotic is buried beneath the banal signifiers of modern society: because anything you can imagine must be dragged down to tangible everyday reference points or kids won’t be able to assimilate it. And then there’s the choice of lead voices, in-Disney star-slaves Chris Pratt and Tom Holland.

Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) (SPOILERS) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II ’s on YouTube , and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.

A subterranean Loch Ness Monster?

Doctor Who The Silurians No, I’m not going to refer to The Silurians as Doctor Who and the Silurians . I’m going to refer to it as Doctor Who and the Eocenes . The Silurians plays a blinder. Because both this and Inferno know the secret of an extended – some might say overlong – story is to keep the plot moving, they barely drag at all and are consequently much fleeter of foot than many a four parter. Unlike Malcolm Hulke’s sequel The Sea Devils , The Silurians has more than enough plot and deals it out judiciously (the plague, when it comes, kicks the story up a gear at the precarious burn-out stage of a typical four-plus parter). What’s most notable, though, is how engaging those first four episodes are, building the story slowly but absorbingly and with persuasive confidence.

The Reverend Thomas says you wet his trousers.

Double Bunk (1961) (SPOILERS) In casting terms, Double Bunk could be a sequel to the previous year’s magnificent School for Scoundrels . This time, Ian Carmichael and Janette Scott (he still almost twice her age) are wedded, and the former continues to make dumb choices. Despite being an unlikely mechanic, Carmichael allows himself to be sold a lemon of a houseboat; last time it was the Nifty Nine. And Dennis Price is once again on hand, trying to fleece him in various ways. Indeed, the screenplay might not be a patch on School for Scoundrels , but with Sid James and the fabulous Liz Fraser also on board, the casting can’t be faulted.