Nostalgia Review: The Mummy (1999)

It’s very appropriate that a final film in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was released a week before The Mummy receives its long-time-coming reboot. In my previous nostalgia review on the original Pirates movie, I briefly mentioned that the original Mummy movie helped spark the 2nd Golden Age of Adventure Flicks. In fact, many adventure films of this short-lived period took a lot of inspiration from this film, even though it doesn’t actually have that much to offer as far as quality is concerned. The humorous dialogue, supernatural elements, and swashbuckling action found in this movie are nearly identical to the ones you see in Pirates, but dialed up to 11. If I might quote myself:

“There is nothing particularly special about this movie. In fact, it’s a pretty shameless rip of Indiana Jones; if you replaced Fraser with Ford, nobody would bat an eye if it were called ‘Indiana Jones and The Mummy’”

So, what is special about it? Director/Writer Stephen Sommers certainly has not had a storied career following this film; he wrote and directed its sequel, The Mummy Returns, as well as Van Helsing (which I would argue is a hidden gem on his resume, but that’s a conversation for later in the future when Universal’s new “Monster-verse” kicks into full gear) and the first film in the failed G.I. Joe series. Sommers got his start with a film called Catch Me If You Can (not to be confused with the film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks of the same name), The Adventures of Huck Finn, and an old live-action Jungle Book film that I can only imagine is 10 times worse than the one we got last year. Despite his sub-par track record with Disney, Universal Studios must have seen something in Sommers, because he was their pick to direct this very risky project, which (they hoped) would give a new face to one of Universal’s most critically acclaimed classic horror films from 1932.

Still Image from the 1932 film, The Mummy
Still Image from the 1932 film, The Mummy

It’s more than safe to now say that Sommers succeeded. The film grossed over $400 million on an $80 million budget. On top of the market value, the film also changed our cultural perception of “mummy.” Prior to this film, Americans conjured up images of Boris Karloff wrapped up in toilet paper while walking sinisterly slow toward a screaming Zita Johann when they thought of the word “mummy.” Now, we think of Arnold Vosloo’s huge CGI mouth, sandstorms, and plagues of flesh-eating beetles.

With that, let’s get into this review:

Writing: 5.2/10

I’ll start with the good. It’s a lot of fun… If you need me to be more specific then I’ll try my best. The characters really stand out in this film. This movie is more action-driven than character, so there are no true character arcs, but each main character is written so that their dialogue and personality is unique from one another. Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) is a no-nonsense, yet highly sarcastic mercenary that feels like he’s the only one able to think rationally. Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) is the naively curious historian who wants some excitement in her life. The exception to this would be Jonathan Carnahan (John Hannah), who is a greedy spoiled twerp, and Beni (Kevin J. O’Connor), who is also a greedy little weasel… they’re basically the same character except one is on his sister’s side and one is not. The point is that because each character brings something unique to the table, it results in dialogue that is both humorous and relatable; they seem like real people, which will always help with humor and more emotional scenes (though, there are very little of the latter).

The first bad is a catch-22; the story does its best to introduce aspects of Egyptian Mythology, of which, most Americans are grossly unaware of compared to their familiarity to Greek and even Nordic mythology… which I guess we have Disney to thank for. This brief, jumbled, and also inaccurate introduction requires a ton of expositional dialogue and characters whose sole purpose is to either explain things to the protagonists or get them from one place to another. There’s even one character, Winston, who is introduced, flies a plane for the heroes, and then immediately dies once they reach their destination.

The other thing that stands out for nearly every character at some point in the film is simply… why? Why do you keep shooting that resurrected super-zombie when it clearly does absolutely nothing and he even makes fun of you for it on occasion? Why do you feel the need to open every single discovery when you’ve seen that they’re all either booby-trapped or cursed? Why do you always let someone shouting stop you from killing/capturing someone? Why do you not carry around satchels full of cats if he is deathly afraid of them? Why was this obvious bad guy ceremoniously buried by his enemies in such a way that he might one day have the chance to come back and wreak havoc on the world? If your story-processor is critical in any way, then you’ll probably have just as many questions.

Acting: 5.6/10

The best you’ll ever get out of me for the performances in this film is “meh.”

Visuals: 5.5/10

This is the hardest section to score. If you watch this nearly 20-year-old film now, the CGI looks obviously bad, but I’ll never score an “older” film in comparison to our current expectations for big-budget CGI. The reason it still has a low score is because of how it holds its own against films that were made around roughly the same time; spoiler alert, it doesn’t. This film was made in 1999 alongside visual masterpieces such as The Matrix and the entirety of The Lord of the Rings series, both of which still hold their own in a modern cinema that has been engulfed by CGI. While it may be unfair to compare it to two masterpieces, it’s worth noting that the sequel, made two years later, is made fun of for having some of the worst CGI of all time, and that’s with an even bigger budget. Video games have looked better than this film for more than ten years now.

The only positive behind the visuals is the art direction which was able to create some very iconic imagery. Though the CGI behind the art direction needs work, it’s hard to dispute that everyone remembers Imhotep’s face in the sandstorm or the steps in his evolution from juicy zombie to full Vosloo. Credit for these memorable scenes should go to the artists’ visions rather than the actual animation process.

Music: 6.2/10

While the music does well to immerse us in the film’s setting, it does not do the same amount of work that other scores for similar films accomplish. Nearly everyone can hum the tune for Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone that can hum the tune for The Mummy. Ultimately, the score ends up being forgettable if you haven’t watched the film recently.

X-Factor: 7/10, for being less than mediocre and still finding a way to be fun

Overall: 5.9/10

The Mummy played an important role in setting the stage for the 2nd Golden Age of Adventure Flicks, but it ultimately ends up playing the role of the sacrificial lamb for the rest of the films. While it is still somewhat fun, it is without a doubt the most mediocre film of the early 2000s adventure flicks. Films proceeding this one only needed to put in more work in a few departments to make themselves better than this one. The evidence is there too; take a look at the franchises that were born in the following years and compare their long-term success to this one. What this movie ends up being is a testament to not cutting corners. The franchises born in this film’s wake did not take shortcuts. Pirates made sure to create more versatile and unique characters, The Philosopher’s Stone managed to be a much better story despite its heavy reliance on inexperienced child actors, and of course, The Fellowship of the Ring went all out on every aspect of the film – from costumes and casting, to scoring and story [FYI: in case you haven’t noticed, this series of “Nostalgia Reviews” is not only timely due to sequels and reboots, it is also leading up to a Lord of the Rings review]. The Mummy helped us get back to having action-adventure flicks that were fun instead of dark and brooding, but that’s about it. I’ll close with this quote from the late Roger Ebert’s review of the film:

“There is hardly a thing I can say in its favor, except that I was cheered by nearly every minute of it. I cannot argue for the script, the direction, the acting or even the mummy, but I can say that I was not bored and sometimes I was unreasonably pleased.”

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