Retro Reviews are frequent looks back at films I've already seen to conclude whether or not they still hold up, taking into consideration both the time period and circumstances during which they were made and how they work in the modern day to offer a more in-depth exploration of the film itself than those found in my standard first-time reviews.
It’s easy to complain about the seemingly endless number of remakes nowadays, but it’s not as though it’s a new trend. So long as cinema exists, remakes will, too, as they have for decades, good and bad. That’s not to suggest that every film can or even should be remade, but sometimes there’s a film whose ideas, themes, or imagery barely scratched the surface the first time around, leaving behind something for a new filmmaker to come along and find, dust off, and do more with those assets than just merely reassemble them in the same exact fashion as before.
Take, for instance, a film like David Cronenberg’s The Fly, a distinct, classic horror work that people love and respect for what it did within the genre despite being a remake of the 1958 film with the same name. It took the original’s core idea and blossomed into something grotesque and beautiful, offering something wholly new in the process. Compare that to, say, Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchock’s iconic Psycho, an absolute bomb that skipped out on bringing anything innovative to the table in favor of merely recreating Hitchcock’s classic shot for shot, resulting in a hollow husk of a film no one asked for and no one needed.
The best remakes take something we know - and may even be against seeing remade - and give us something we didn’t realize we wanted until we have it. And yet, sometimes, there are things that will never die no matter how many times they’re exploited, like the iconic monsters of old that frightened audiences long before characters like Freddy Krueger or the Alien or Michael Myers took center stage. The tales of Dracula, Frankenstein and his monster, the Wolf Man, and all the rest have been recounted and reimagined in every way one can possibly think of over the years to the point it would take something truly unique to have an impact anymore, though no matter how many times these characters are brought to life all over again, their most iconic cinematic forms will always be tied to the Universal horror films.
It’s really no surprise that in this day and age where the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has motivated studios to chase after ways to see their properties turned into connected universes, Universal has elected to go back to their well of horror icons - who once provided the company with their own crossover universe long before Marvel made it chic - to bring them to the modern age. But this isn’t, obviously, anything new for the company, who has frequently dabbled with their icons to varying success, their most notable remake being, of course, 1999’s The Mummy. (See, I was getting there eventually.)
The original Boris Karloff-led film released all the way back in 1932, and to this day still drips in dusty, mysterious atmosphere, and its titular character’s look is just as unforgettable as that of his contemporaries like Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. As with all those films, though, time has changed how effective the Mummy and his cohorts are at striking terror in audience’s hearts; what once caused theatergoers to faint is now humorous in retrospect, as the horror genre itself has evolved in ways that would likely cause those very same people to spontaneously combust. Their influence and impact is undeniable, make no mistake, but to a huge chunk of the modern audience who couldn’t care less about such facts, those classic films are boring, and so, too, have the monsters of old devolved from boogeymen to pussycats in the public eye.
Over the years, Universal has tackled bringing characters like The Wolf Man and Dracula back to life in an attempt to make them scary again, but to no real avail, which makes their most successful outing yet all the more curious for the fact it clicked with audiences simply as a result of dropping any pretense of being scary. The Mummy has its wonderfully creepy moments, but at its heart it’s an unabashed adventure film, one that owes just as much to the types of pulp serials that inspired the Indiana Jones franchise as it does the film on which it’s based, eschewing outright horror for the sake of being fun.
In 1999, this didn’t work for too many critics, but it succeeded anyway, even spawning its own franchise consisting of two direct sequels, an animated series, video games, and an entire spin-off series in The Scorpion King, at odds with so many remakes that fade into obscurity as soon as they’ve come. The Mummy is, on the surface, anything but a flawless film, one that the self-categorized upper class of the cinema-critiquing elite will likely forever look down their nose at simply because it exists, but it’s a perfect engine of a movie nonetheless.
By now, you undoubtedly know the basic setup: The Egyptian high priest Imhotep - eternally in love with Anck-su-Namun - is mummified in 1290 BC, leaving behind a curse that states that should he ever be resurrected, he’ll bring about the end of the world. And so things go until the 1920s, when he’s accidentally brought back and desperate to reunite with his former lover, kicking off the rest of the film in a way that honors the inherent romanticism of the character that existed in the original film while expanding the scope of the film to make its titular monster more than just a shambling threat.
Imhotep here - as played by Arnold Vosloo - is cool and dangerous, and though the audience is never really clued into anything about him beyond his drive to bring back Anck-su-Namun, the character simply works anyway, imposing more as a monstrous force of nature than as some sort of Machiavellian villain. It’s a far cry from Karloff’s subdued take on the character who disappeared and quietly camouflaged himself in society after his resurrection, as Imhotep here wastes no time in ensuring people fear him, sucking the life force out of his victims and using all sorts of tricks to demonstrate his power. And for any film that relies on the heavy use of CGI, particularly to bring an entire character to life, time usually tends to not be on its side in terms of the effects aging gracefully, so it’s kind of amazing that the CGI work behind Imhotep’s initial mummy form still holds up over 17 years later, gifting the film with a monster that still looks great.
Of course, other aspects of the CGI work haven’t aged as well, like some late-game appearances of Imhotep’s lackeys, but they’re so trivial that it almost doesn’t really matter, as the film embraces the power of practical effects in a way that has paid off for the film’s longevity. In a time when blockbuster films overuse their green screens, it’s refreshing to revisit a film like The Mummy and revel in actual production design, with amazing sets contributing to the film’s epic scale in a way green screens just can’t nail down. The Mummy presents a world that feels like one we can reach out and touch, relying on CGI only as a tool, not a crutch, as it should be.
This same notion extends to its action sequences. Moments like a car escape through the streets of Cairo or a daring flight across the desert sands or the final showdown with Imhotep work so well because they simply feel real. Again, real sets and props and actual extras help breathe life into these moments in a way doing it all against a green screen wouldn’t, and the action beats still hold up as a result, especially for their remarkable restraint in knowing when to end or stay relatively grounded, a surprise considering the series went on to feature giant CGI scorpion men and yetis kicking field goals.
Those very action scenes are also spaced out well. When they arrive, they’re earned, spicing up the proceedings at just the right times. The film runs at just over two hours, but never once feels it, as the narrative is paced at such a propulsive speed that never feels sluggish nor breakneck, and just as the film knows when to pump the brakes on its action sequences, it knows when to do away with unnecessary exposition. It’s a tightly-focused film, particularly once Imhotep has been unleashed, but its main characters never feel slighted as a result, which is another saving grace for the film.
Its broad cast is chock-full of stereotypes - from the gun-toting, ignorant Americans to the haughty, sexist Englishman to its unfortunate portrayal of Arabs as nothing more than punch lines and red shirts - but if you can look past that, the core cast is incredibly endearing. There’s Brendan Fraser’s Indy-esque, charming swashbuckler, Rick O’Connell; Rachel Weisz’s proud and intelligent librarian, Evie; John Hannah’s slippery but lovable Jonathan; Oded Fehr’s stoic badass, Ardeth Bey; and Kevin J. O’Connor’s delightfully insufferable weasel, Beni. There’s an incredible amount of chemistry among the cast, all of whom are clearly in on the fun, a fact that more than works in favor of the film, which never fails to take time to capitalize on their collective charm, from simple scenes of Rick and Evie bonding over drinking to Jonathan and Ardeth’s differing reactions to being strapped to the wings of a biplane. There’s not a whole lot of depth afforded to the characters, but they are the spark that makes the whole thing work, effective not for their complexities but for the simple fact they’re all so likable.
On top of all of this, the film has an incredible score by the late Jerry Goldsmith. While I ultimately prefer certain aspects of Alan Silvestri’s score for The Mummy Returns, Goldsmith’s work here is fantastic; rousing, epic, and romantic in a way that thoroughly enriches the film and feels like an ode to scores of old. It truly is solid work from beginning to end, made even more amazing for the fact that Goldsmith himself allegedly hated the film and having to work on it.
Though, as I mentioned earlier, the film does dabble with horror via effective scenes like a creepy sequence in which a character loses their glasses moments before being attacked by Imhotep or the skin-crawling imagery of what scarabs do to people, it’s an adventure film unashamed about what it is. Nearly two decades have passed since it came out, and it’s still something I can come across on television, turn on, and watch straight through to the end, sucked in regardless of whether it’s fifteen minutes in or fifteen minutes from the end.
The Mummy is about to undergo yet another reincarnation as part of Universal’s bid for their own monster-filled universe, and twenty, fifty, or a hundred years from now, it’ll undoubtedly be dug up and remade all over again. Whether any of them work or not remains to be seen, but for me, Stephen Sommers’ 1999 stab at the horror icon will remain an enjoyable classic in its own right. It’s pulp to the highest degree, but one whose pure entertainment value on all fronts is one that’s stuck with me through the years, the type of rare summer blockbuster whose pervasive charms thoroughly outweighed any shortcomings. It had an arduous task in attempting to make mummies scary or relevant in front of it, and instead sidestepped that endeavor at the risk of alienating fans of both horror and the iconic monster, finding an identity for itself that struck gold at just the right time.
In the end - and to bring this full circle - remakes by their very nature won’t please everyone, and maybe that’s a good thing. Had The Mummy tried to be a straight horror film, we could’ve wound up with a forgettable product like 2011’s The Wolf Man or 2014’s Dracula Untold. It took what we knew and completely rebuilt the whole concept from the ground up, maybe not giving us the horror yarn we expected, but giving us the adventure film we didn’t know we wanted, one that has aged well, its characters and imagery and snappy dialogue just as memorable and satisfying today as they were back in 1999. It strove to stand on its own two legs rather than on the shoulders of its predecessor, and in a time when an increasing number of remakes seemingly exist solely to try and recapture magic for a buck only to wildly miss the mark, The Mummy deserves a lot of credit for going against expectations and getting it right.
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