Rewatching: The Mummy

Dominic Corry responds on behalf of Letterboxd to an impassioned plea to bump up the average rating of the 1999 version of The Mummy—and asks: where is the next great action adventure coming from?

We recently received the following email regarding the Stephen Sommers blockbuster The Mummy:

To whom it may concern,

I am writing to you on behalf of the nation, if not the entire globe, who frankly deserve better than this after months of suffering with the Covid pandemic.

I was recently made aware that the rating of The Mummy on your platform only stands at 3.3 stars out of five. … This, as I’m sure you’re aware, is simply unacceptable. The Mummy is, as a statement of fact, the greatest film ever made. It is simply fallacious that anyone should claim otherwise, or that the rating should fail to reflect this. This oversight cannot be allowed to stand.

I have my suspicions that this rating has been falsely allocated due to people with personal axes to grind against The Mummy, most likely other directors who are simply jealous that their own artistic oeuvres will never attain the zenith of perfection, nor indeed come close to approaching the quality or the cultural influence of The Mummy. There is, quite frankly, no other explanation. The Mummy is, objectively speaking, a five-star film (… I would argue that it in fact transcends the rating sytem used by us mere mortals). It would only be proper, as a matter of urgency, to remove all fake ratings (i.e. any ratings [below] five stars) and allow The Mummy’s rating to stand, as it should, at five stars, or perhaps to replace the rating altogether with a simple banner which reads “the greatest film of all time, objectively speaking”. I look forward to this grievous error being remedied.

Best,
Anwen

Which of course: no, we would never do that. But the vigor Anwen expresses in her letter impressed us (we checked: she’s real, though is mostly a Letterboxd lurker due to a busy day-job in television production, “so finding time to watch anything that isn’t The Mummy is, frankly, impossible… not that there’s ever any need to watch anything else, of course.”).

So Letterboxd put me, Stephen Sommers fan, on the job of paying homage to the last great old-school action-adventure blockbuster, a film that straddles the end of one cinematic era and the beginning of the next one. And also to ask: where’s the next great action adventure coming from?

Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz and John Hannah in The Mummy (1999).
Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz and John Hannah in The Mummy (1999).

When you delve into the Letterboxd reviews of The Mummy, it quickly becomes clear how widely beloved the film is, 3.3 average notwithstanding. Of more concern to the less youthful among us is how quaintly it is perceived, as if it harkens back to the dawn of cinema or something. “God, I miss good old-fashioned adventure movies,” bemoans Holly-Beth. “I have so many fond memories of watching this on TV with my family countless times growing up,” recalls Jess. “A childhood classic,” notes Simon.

As alarming as it is to see such wistful nostalgia for what was a cutting-edge, special-effects-laden contemporary popcorn hit, it has been twenty-one years since the film was released, so anyone currently in their early 30s would’ve encountered the film at just the right age for it to imprint deeply in their hearts. This has helped make it a Raiders of the Lost Ark for a specific Letterboxd demographic.

Sommers took plenty of inspiration from the Indiana Jones series for his take on The Mummy (the original 1932 film, also with a 3.3 average, is famously sedate), but for ten-year-olds in 1999, it may have been their only exposure to such pulpy derring-do. And when you consider that popcorn cinema would soon be taken over by interconnected on-screen universes populated by spandex-clad superheroes, the idea that The Mummy is an old-fashioned movie is easier to comprehend.

However, for all its throwbackiness, beholding The Mummy from the perspective of 2020 reveals it to have more to say about the future of cinema than the past. 1999 was a big year for movies, often considered one of the all-time best, but the legacy of The Mummy ties it most directly to two of that year’s other biggest hits: Star Wars: Episode One—The Phantom Menace and The Matrix. These three blockbusters represented a turning point for the biggest technological advancement to hit the cinematic art-form since the introduction of sound: computer-generated imagery, aka CGI. The technique had been widely used from 1989’s The Abyss onwards, and took significant leaps forward with movies such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Jurassic Park (1993) and Starship Troopers (1997), but the three 1999 films mentioned above signified a move into the era when blockbusters began to be defined by their CGI.

A year before The Mummy, Sommers had creatively utilised CGI in his criminally underrated sci-fi action thriller Deep Rising (another film that deserves a higher average Letterboxd rating, just sayin’), and he took this approach to the next level with The Mummy. While some of the CGI in The Mummy doesn’t hold up as well as the technopunk visuals presented in The Matrix, The Mummy showed how effective the technique could be in an historical setting—the expansiveness of ancient Egypt depicted in the movie is magnificent, and the iconic rendering of Imhotep’s face in the sand storm proved to be an enduringly creepy image. Not to mention those scuttling scarab beetles.

George Lucas wanted to test the boundaries of the technique with his insanely anticipated new Star Wars film after dipping his toe in the digital water with the special editions of the original trilogy. Beyond set expansions and environments, a bunch of big creatures and cool spaceships, his biggest gambit was Jar Jar Binks, a major character rendered entirely through CGI. And we all know how that turned out.

A CGI-enhanced Arnold Vosloo as Imhotep.
A CGI-enhanced Arnold Vosloo as Imhotep.

Sommers arguably presented a much more effective CGI character in the slowly regenerating resurrected Imhotep. Jar Jar’s design was “bigger” than the actor playing him on set, Ahmed Best. Which is to say, Jar Jar took up more space on screen than Best. But with the zombie-ish Imhotep, Sommers (ably assisted by Industrial Light & Magic, who also worked on the Star Wars films) used CGI to create negative space, an effect impossible to achieve with practical make-up—large parts of the character were missing. It was an indelible visual concept that has been recreated many times since, but Sommers pioneered its usage here, and it contributed greatly to the popcorn horror threat posed by the character.

Sommers, generally an unfairly overlooked master of fun popcorn spectacle (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is good, guys), deserves more credit for how he creatively utilized CGI to elevate the storytelling in The Mummy. But CGI isn’t the main reason the film works—it’s a spry, light-on-its-feet adventure that presents an iconic horror property in an entertaining and adventurous new light. And it happens to feature a ridiculously attractive cast all captured just as their pulchritudinous powers were peaking.

Meme-worthy: “My sexual orientation is the cast of The Mummy (1999).”
Meme-worthy: “My sexual orientation is the cast of The Mummy (1999).”

A rising star at the time, Brendan Fraser was mostly known for comedic performances, and although he’d proven himself very capable with his shirt off in George of the Jungle (1997), he wasn’t necessarily at the top of anyone’s list for action-hero roles. But he is superlatively charming as dashing American adventurer Rick O’Connell. His fizzy chemistry with Weisz, playing the brilliant-but-clumsy Egyptologist Evie Carnahan, makes the film a legitimate romantic caper. The role proved to be a breakout for Weisz, then perhaps best known for playing opposite Keanu Reeves in the trouble-plagued action flop Chain Reaction, or for her supporting role in the Liv Tyler vehicle Stealing Beauty.

“90s Brendan Fraser is what Chris Pratt wishes he was,” argues Holly-Beth. “Please come back to us, Brendaddy. We need you.” begs Joshhh. “I’d like to thank Rachel Weisz for playing an integral role in my sexual awakening,” offers Sree.

Then there’s Oded Fehr as Ardeth Bey, a member of the Medjai, a sect dedicated to preventing Imhotep’s tomb from being discovered, and Patricia Velásquez as Anck-su-namun, Imhotep’s cursed lover. Both stupidly good-looking. Heck, Imhotep himself (South African Arnold Vosloo, coming across as Billy Zane’s more rugged brother), is one of the hottest horror villains in the history of cinema.

“Remember when studio movies were sexy?” laments Colin McLaughlin. We do Colin, we do.

Sommers directed a somewhat bloated sequel, The Mummy Returns, in 2001, which featured the cinematic debut of one Dwayne Johnson. His character got a spin-off movie the following year (The Scorpion King), which generated a bunch of DTV sequels of its own, and is now the subject of a Johnson-produced reboot. Brendan Fraser came back for a third film in 2008, the Rob Cohen-directed The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Weisz declined to participate, and was replaced by Maria Bello.

Despite all the follow-ups, and the enduring love for the first Sommers film, there has been a sadly significant dearth of movies along these lines in the two decades since it was released. The less said about 2017 reboot The Mummy (which was supposed to kick-off a new Universal Monster shared cinematic universe, and took a contemporary, action-heavy approach to the property), the better.

The Rock in The Mummy Returns (2001).
The Rock in The Mummy Returns (2001).

For a long time, adventure films were Hollywood’s bread and butter, but they’re surprisingly thin on the ground these days. So it makes a certain amount of sense that nostalgia for the 1999 The Mummy continues to grow. You could argue that many of the superhero films that dominate multiplexes count as adventure movies, but nobody really sees them that way—they are their own genre.

There are, however, a couple of films on the horizon that could help bring back old-school cinematic adventure. One is the long-planned—and finally actually shot—adaptation of the Uncharted video-game franchise, starring Tom Holland. The games borrow a lot from the Indiana Jones films, and it’ll be interesting to see how much that manifests in the adaptation.

Then there’s Letterboxd favorite David Lowery’s forever-upcoming medieval adventure drama The Green Knight, starring Dev Patel and Alicia Vikander (who herself recently rebooted another video-game icon, Lara Croft). Plus they are still threatening to make another Indiana Jones movie, even if it no longer looks like Steven Spielberg will direct it.

While these are all exciting projects—and notwithstanding the current crisis in the multiplexes—it can’t help but feel like we may never again get a movie quite like The Mummy, with its unlikely combination of eye-popping CGI, old-fashioned adventure tropes and a once-in-a-lifetime ensemble of overflowing hotness. Long may love for it reign on Letterboxd—let’s see if we can’t get that average rating up, the old fashioned way. For Anwen.

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