Monday, November 27, 2017
Director Report Card: Stephen Sommers (1999)
In the early nineties, somebody at Universal got the idea to revive “The Mummy.” The studio envisioned a low budget horror series. A number of promising names were attached. Clive Barker nearly delivered a kinky, mystical take on the character. Joe Dante's version was more of a direct remake and would've starred a brooding Daniel Day-Lewis. George Romero's interpretation would've been modernized but romantic and featured some zombie movie-style gore. Writers such as John Sayles, Mick Garris, and Frank Darabont did passes on the scripts. Ultimately, Stephen Sommers' promise of transforming the old monster movie into a blockbuster adventure is what sealed the deal. Sommers' approach worked. “The Mummy” would be a surprise hit in 1999. Though dismissed by most critics at the time, Sommers' “The Mummy” has attracted a faithful following, thanks to nostalgia from teenage millennial who grew up with the film. Is such nostalgia misplaced or is this “Mummy” actually worth remembering?
Sommers' film is a loose remake but maintains the basic idea. In ancient Egypt, the high priest Imhotep commits an unspeakable blasphemy. In this version, his love for Princess Anck-Su-Namun is consummated and they end up murdering the pharaoh. For his crime, Imhotep is mummified alive and cursed to live forever as an undead monster. From there, 1999's “The Mummy” goes off on a totally different direction. Set in 1926, the film follows librarian Evelyn and her swindler brother Jonathan. They discover a map to Hamunaptra, the fabled Egyptian city of the dead. They team up with former soldier and treasure hunter Rick O'Connor. They successfully discover the city, dig up Imhotep's mummy, and accidentally bring him back to life. Imhotep goes about killing people and inflicting the Ten Plagues of Egypt on the world, in order to revive his dead girlfriend and become all powerful.
While the previous filmmakers attached to remake “The Mummy” wanted to make a serious horror film, Stephen Sommers had a different vision for the remake. He wanted to fuse the classic monster movie with a pulpy, “Indiana Jones” style adventure. This approach, largely, works. Both genres, after all, have their roots in the 1930s. Sommers, just like an old-timey serial, keeps the pace speedy. The script is always throwing a new monster, boobie trap, or danger at the protagonists. The story is always escalating so the audience is never bored. The result is a tongue-in-cheek action/adventure flick that moves quickly and goes out of its way to entertain the audience.
the Ten Plagues of Egypt. This, naturally, proceeds the Mummy using the plagues as a weapon later in the film. After showing the map to the City of the Dead to the same man, it's mentioned that the city can sink into the sand at the slightest whim. This, of course, also happens before the story is over. Little details characters mention, like an off-hand reference to a key, set up plot turns later. This approach is a bit heavy-handed and comes dangerously close to spoon-feeding the audience. It is also undeniably concise. The film lays down most of the shit that's going to happen early on, satisfying the viewer when it does.
In order to smooth over a script this circular, Sommers makes sure to include plenty of humor and one-liners. Evie's brother Jonathan is often stumbling into a goofy situation, such as fooling a crowd of Imhotep's followers or struggling to read a magic book. Rick O'Connor is just as fast with a quib as he is with his pistol. Highlights include commenting on the juicy state of the mummy or threatening a friend-turned-enemy. That character, Beni, becomes a Renfield-like sidekick to the Mummy. He's also the film's primary comic relief. When first encountering the creature, he prayers to whatever deity he think will save him. He nonchalantly admits that the mummy wants Evie for his ritual. Kevin J. O'Connor, reappearing from “Deep Rising,” has a ball in the part, consistently making the audience laugh.
Despite focusing on action and humor, this “Mummy” does feature enough horror content to satisfy genre fans. Say what you will about his films but Stephen Sommer is undeniably a monster kid. Sommers engineers a number of jump scares, the best which focuses on Imhotep springing back to life after hundreds of years. The way he drains the life from his victims, sucking out eyes and tongues, slowly morphing from a rotting corpse to a human body, is pretty grisly, as far as PG-13 blockbusters go. Workers are sprayed with skin-rending salt baths. Hordes of flesh eating scarabs strip people down to the bones. And the film certainly doesn't skimp on the mummies, as Imhotep eventually raises a small army of mummified henchmen. None of its exactly scary but it is pretty cool.
Brendan Fraser was a viable box office star. Though an unlikely action hero, Fraser is hugely amusing in this film. He has the handsome good looks, befitting a pulp hero. He has a way with a one-liner. He's also has an appealing physicality, working in the action scenes. Moreover, Fraiser has great chemistry with Rachel Weisz, future Academy Award winner, as Evie. Their relationship begins with an unsolicited kiss but Weisz is believably enamored with him. His feelings for her grow through a series of natural moments. A key scene, where she drinks too much and comes on to him, is quite cute. I'm entirely certain that “The Mummy” wouldn't have worked without the levity and charm Fraser and Weisz bring to the film.
The supporting cast is pretty strong too. Arnold Vosloo, previously of “Hard Target” and those direct-to-video “Darkman” sequels, plays Imhotep. Vosloo isn't very imposing but he brings enough intimidation to the part, making him a fitting horror villain. John Hannah is very amusing as Jonathan, bringing enough charm to the part of a not-quite-gutless con artist. Oded Fehr plays Ardith Bey. Originally Boris Karloff's alter-ego, Bey has become a protector of Imhotep's tomb. Fehr is solid in the part, making his ludicrous, exposition-rift dialogue sound natural. Character actor Bernard Fox, in his final cinematic role, is amusing as the drunken old pilot that O'Connor calls midway through the film.
Being a blockbuster from 1999, you'd think “The Mummy” would be filled with CGI that has aged badly. There are plenty of computer generated effects in the film. Surprisingly, most of it still looks okay. Imhotep, when he's a decomposing mummy, looks cartoonish but in a way that works for the film. Similarly, the mummy soldiers Imhotep calls upon in the last act don't look too bad. Really, only a few effects don't hold up to greater scrutiny. The various CGI sandstorms, which often contort into human faces, don't look very real. The mummies have this weird habit of stretching their jaws out, an effect that hasn't aged well. Otherwise, Sommers' “The Mummy” is pretty smart about fusing computer effects and practical effects, without pushing either too far.
Gods of Ancient Egypt can coexist. But it's a pretty cool gimmick. A mummy that can call down balls of fire, raise a storm of locusts, flood the waters with blood, and controls a horde of henchmen covered with boils is certainly a more threatening villain than the slow, shambling, ineffective mummy Lon Chaney played.
As an action flick, “The Mummy” offers plenty of cool stuff too. The chase between Imhotep's giant sand face and an airplane is a solid sequence. The finale piles on a horde of mummies for Rick and Ardith to blast through, leading to a number of satisfying shoot-em-up scenes. The finale, where O'Connor picks up a sword to slice through a secession of mummy warriors, is especially amusing. Sommers' action direction is loopy. He delights in tossing torches, mummy faces, and explosions into the viewers' face. Honestly, it's a bit of a shame that his career dried up before the 3D fad of the late 2000s. He would've been perfect for it.
Granted, Sommers' screenwriting abilities are not rock steady. The plot is overly convoluted. Mythological nonsense are thrown around fast and loose. Who can keep track of which magical book is located where? Why are the rules of magical resurrection so damn complicated? Why is the mummy afraid of cats? Sommers throws in a clarifying line or two to justify this stuff. Yet it's obvious that these additions where mostly done to justify a plot move or a moment that director thought was cool. In addition to that, there are too many characters, most of them existing to become victims of the mummy.