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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

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