The days of rousing, serial-movie adventure are stored in a computer
somewhere, and from the looks of Universal's The Mummy, it doesn't
look like they'll be back anytime soon. Instead of thrilling escapes and
supernatural chills, filmmakers are giving us digital beetle swarms and a
high-tech soundtrack of Dolby-enhanced clicks, scrapes, and roars. It's
nifty in a geeky kind of way, if you like thinking about all the processing
power that a computer-generated sandstorm must have required. But unlike an
old-fashioned adventure movie, The Mummy leaves the audience
comfortably cradled in its seats.
At least writer-director Stephen Sommers (who previously helmed the
underrated live-action Jungle Book) has star Brendan Fraser in his
corner. As the intrepid thrill-seeker Rick O'Connell, Fraser, with his
expressive face and solid physical presence, is more exciting than 90
percent of The Mummy's special effects. His O'Connell stumbles on
the lost Egyptian city of the dead while fighting in World War I, and he's
rescued from the gallows to lead an expedition to the treasure trove.
Joining him are Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), a perky British librarian in search
of legendary artifacts, her layabout brother Jonathan (John Hannah), and a
secret society led by Ardeth Bey (Oded Fehr). At the lost city, however,
ancient curses are surprisingly thick on the ground, and it isn't long
until some ill-advised incantations awaken Imhotep, a high priest who was
tortured and mummified thousands of years ago.
As in the 1932 Boris Karloff version, Imhotep is trying to reanimate his
long-lost love, and he seizes on Evelyn as a human sacrifice. But his
bandages and other traditional mummy trappings are long gone. He's a bunch
of bones in search of some skin, stomping around like a desiccated Lara
Croft, frightening no one but his animators. Only when Imhotep returns to
his former shape, played by the exotically creepy Arnold Vosloo, does the
movie shake off its pixillated malaise and have some scary fun.
By then, we've been desensitized to real excitement by the hundreds of
computer-generated images that pass for threats, villains, and biblical
plagues. Sommers obviously wants to retool the horror classics of the past
for a modern audience, but he chooses the wrong elements to update. He sets
his graphics team to work on state-of-the-art skeleton warriors, but he
leaves intact the appalling racism of the colonial era, in which the white
hero can't stand tall except by contrast with craven, filthy natives.
The attendance figures and staggering $44 million box-office take for
The Mummy's opening weekend prove that audiences crave old-fashioned
adventure, and that they're gearing up for what they hope will be the
mother lode in Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It's a pity all they
got this time was flying bits and bytes.