Most of us are too young to have first-hand knowledge of the moviegoing experience Stephen Sommers has tried to recreate in his two films about treasure-hunters and fortune-seekers in strange, spectacular worlds.
In The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, which opened to a staggering $70 million in receipts last weekend in a movie market barren of any other big draws, the writer-director of both films is looking to make movies just like the big-ticket popcorn films—of the 1940s, that is.
The Mummy—which became a surprising smash hit two summers ago—and the sequel are the most expensive Saturday-afternoon serials ever made. They’re profoundly corny, and they travel a familiar path as they recreate the world before movies. And it’s remarkable how well all this old stuff still works.
Cutting-edge special effects carry both films, but in all the conventional moviemaking elements, Sommers keeps a remarkably retro sensibility while resurrecting a genre we didn’t even know we missed. The wonder we feel (and even the cynicism, truth be told) in watching these films is nothing different than what the first audiences felt watching the earliest attempts at such crowd-pleasing spectacles. The anachronism is the draw.
While Sommers keeps things simple (too simple for some tastes), he doesn’t patronize us—and that’s the difference between these fundamentally fun films and the work of man-children like Renny Harlin or Steven Spielberg, who always added that lame layer of schmaltz back when he made popcorn pictures. The principle characters in The Mummy Returns aren’t cuddly, and they’re also quite comfortable making fun of themselves and their fantastical adventures.
All of The Mummy’s principals return for the sequel. The only headlining addition is a cosmetic turn by professional wrestler The Rock, who doesn’t say a word in about five minutes of screen time during a prologue concerning the life and afterlife of a 3000 B.C. warrior named The Scorpion King, who turns out to be critical to the latest plan to raise the dead.
As talking sides of beef go, The Rock is no more offensive than Schwarzenegger or Seagal, but the real stars are still Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz as adventurous duo Rick and Evie O’Connell. They used the eight years between films to get married and have a son, but in the sequel, they’re in trouble before any opening credits even have time to unfurl.
A bunch of bad guys are conspiring to again raise the titular mummy, Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), from the grave and rule the world—and that’s really all you need to know. The sequel’s best innovation comes in the evolution of Evie. She’s an ass-kicking adventurer this time, every bit the equal of her husband—no small achievement in the testosterone genre and the early-20th-century milieu.
The Mummy Returns retains its predecessor’s merciful inability to take itself seriously. Sommers continually pokes fun at his genre, and while the jokes are usually wincingly lame and obvious, that’s another part of the awkward, slobbery-dog charm this series possesses. We don’t have to listen to some 28-year-old screenwriter’s sarcastic barbs, which pass for movie humor these days; we get a hokey one-liner that could have been written 50 years ago, and we’re surprised by how much we like it.
Sommers also brought back most of his behind-the-camera personnel, including cinematographer Adrian Biddle, production designer Allan Cameron and costume designer John Bloomfield. Most importantly, Industrial Light & Magic’s John Berton returns as the visual effects supervisor on a picture with a reported $20 million in effects. When you see the infinite jackal-headed warriors of Anubis’ army charging over a sand dune, or the spontaneous generation of a desert oasis —complete with hundreds of palm trees sprouting from the sand—you’ll be inclined to believe Universal got its money’s worth from ILM.
In a movie this saturated with special effects, it’s easy to forget what beauty the filmmakers have created. Biddle creates dozens of lush compositions of CGI and standard moviemaking technique, from an impressive wall of water to a dirigible straight out of Jules Verne. The interior shots are all duskily torch-lit with a captivating unanimity. It’s spectacular eye candy, and the sequel’s remaining elements are all faithful to Sommers’ version of the original. If it never broke, why fix it?
Those who trash The Mummy Returns are simply saying they’re not interested in anything Hollywood has to offer. They’re saying the pure, original escapist power of the movies has no effect on them. You’d be wise to steer clear of these people. If they can’t appreciate a blast from their past, how will they recognize the future of film?
The Mummy Returns (PG-13) HHH Directed by Stephen Sommers. Starring Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz and John Hannah.