movie review by
Gary Johnson


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The Mummy
Do mummies really scare anybody? It's a little difficult to get concerned about a shuffling bundle of bandages that moves at about one mile per hour. That's the central problem that Universal Pictures ran up against when creating their new version of The Mummy. In Universal's previous incarnations of the story, as in the classic (but highly overrated) 1932 version with Boris Karloff, the mummy was moldy and crumbling, barely capable of holding itself together long enough to carry out its nefarious duty. Therefore, Universal has completely redesigned the creature (thanks to digital effects). Now, this ain't your granddad's mummy anymore. This new creature moves like a whirlwind and fights like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Most importantly, however, Universal has revised the story completely. We still get the requisite opening scene that takes us to Egypt, circa 1290BC, and shows us Imhotep being wrapped as a mummy while still alive--as punishment for his affair with the pharaoh's mistress. (This opening sequence draws upon the 1959 Hammer Films version of The Mummy.) But soon afterwards, The Mummy eschews most vestiges of horror for an action-packed format that evokes the old Saturday afternoon serials of the '30s and '40s. Not surprisingly, The Mummy is much closer to Raiders of the Lost Ark (which also drew upon the serial tradition) than to any previous mummy movie. Writer/director Stephen Sommers (who also directed Deep Rising and Disney's live-action The Jungle Book) has re-fashioned The Mummy as an adventure story strongly reminiscent of the opening tomb-robbing sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The story's goal is to place us within a dangerous tomb of its own creation and to then regale us with a bevy of threats--such as silver dollar-sized bugs that burrow beneath the skin of their victims and pressurized, flesh-eating salt acid that erupts from tomb doors.

Much like Sommer's Deep Rising, the effects of video games resonate strongly throughout The Mummy. In particular, after the participants enter the hidden city of Hamunaptra (where the earliest pharaohs hid the treasure of ancient Egypt) , we're treated to a non-stop series of thrills. As the camera takes us into the maze-like passages within the Egyptian tomb, the movie becomes a dead-ringer for first-person shooter computer games such as Quake or Hexen. All that's missing for the audience is the joystick. In lieu of controlling your own perspective, you get to watch Brendan Fraser as a dashing legionnaire who guides an archaeological expedition to Hamunaptra. (Fraser's upper body is so pumped up he looks like an NFL linebacker.) Rachel Weisz (Swept From the Sea) and John Hannah (Sliding Doors) are sister-and-brother explorers who accompany Fraser. But the quest to find the treasures buried at Hamunaptra isn't an easy one, for they discover that a group of American scavengers--all dressed like rejects from a Hollywood Western--are on the same mission. And a mysterious group of Egyptian warriors stands sentinel over the lost city, protecting the sacred burial grounds from the rebirth of Imhotep.

If you go to The Mummy expecting to find a horror movie, you'll likely be disappointed. Writer/director Sommers focuses on spectacle, thrills, and comedy, but true horror is virtually absent. In classic cliffhanger fashion, the movie moves so quickly from one scene to the next that anything remotely resembling atmosphere gets steamrolled in favor of a pure adrenaline rush of adventure. I don't necessarily mean that as a criticism of the movie. In fact Sommers supplies such an amazing series of battles and close-calls that the movie begins to resemble a pumped-up Raiders of the Lost Ark. However, whenever the movie slows down Sommers begins to lose control. Almost every word of dialogue thuds like a brick. Sommers attempts to give Fraser the same type of droll one-liners that Harrison Ford mouthed in the Indiana Jones movies, but Fraser's one-liners are embarrassingly lame.

Ultimately, however, The Mummy is all about digital effects, and that is where the movie succeeds best. The digital effects crews provide majestic panoramas of ancient Egypt, unnerving battles with a squadron of mummies/skeletons (in a scene strongly reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen's classic skeleton battle from Jason and the Argonauts), and ominous sand storms that billow hundreds of feet above the desert. The Mummy definitely is not a thought-provoking movie, but its computer effects are impressive eye candy.

Still, however, I miss the horror. Because the movie comes from the same studio, Universal, that created virtually all the great movie monsters (the wolf man, Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, the Invisible Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, etc.), it's especially disappointing to see one of their creations so completely revised and drained of horrific overtones. Maybe that's the price we have to pay for cheap thrills.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]