Tinseltown Throwdown – The Mummy 1999 vs. The Mummy 2017

It’s interesting to look at the placement of the Mummy within the context of the movie monster pantheon.  Unlike it’s fellow monsters, the specter of the Mummy does not come from a literary source or folkloric tales.  Instead, he (or in some cases she) is a monster pulled right from the headlines of the day.  In 1922, around the golden age of silent cinema, renowned Egyptologist Howard Carter made an astounding discovery in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.  His archeological dig uncovered the burial chamber of King Tutankhamun.  Before this discovery, the world was already well aware of ancient tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs, and the practice of mummification.  But what made the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb so monumental was the fact that it was left untouched for thousands of years.  Left undiscovered by grave robbers and unspoiled by the elements of the Sahara Desert, King Tut’s tomb was a treasure trove for archeology and the best record yet of how the Egyptian people prepared their dead for the afterlife.  But, just as much as the discovery of King Tut’s tomb captured the imagination of the world, so did the aftermath.  In the years following the unearthing of King Tut’s tomb, several people involved in the discovery would die of mysterious causes.  Of course, the deaths once investigated have shown to have easy explanations, including pre-existing ailments that preceded the discovery of the tomb.  But, it was still suspicious enough at the time to lead people to believe that the Tomb of King Tut was cursed.  The idea of the curse continued to flame through the popular imagination, with even a renowned author like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame even giving credence to the idea.  This of course led Hollywood to pick up on the idea of Egyptian curses as concept to exploit in their films.  But they of course would imagine something far more physically iconic that a phantom curse silently poisoning those who have disturbed the tombs of the kings.  They would imagine the curse of the pharaohs as the dead literally coming back to live to seek revenge on the living.  And thus, we saw the emergence of Mummies as a monster within the movies.

Typically, when we think of a mummy as a movie monster, we think of a figure wrapped head to toe in burial cloths.  It’s pretty much how we see the mummified remains unearthed after thousands of years.  The impression of a person wrapped in tightly in a lying position, placed in a stone sarcophagus ornamented with gold and jewels and an artistic rendering of the person inside.  But, in the movies, the haunting image of a corpse come to life made that already foreboding image of mummified remains even spookier.  The movie that really cemented the image of a mummy as a cinematic monster was the 1932 film The Mummy.  Made by the masters of Hollywood horror, Universal Studios, The Mummy (1932) defined what would eventually be the iconic lore behind the Mummy and his curse on the big screen.  The film brought the actor responsible for bringing Frankenstein’s monster to life a year prior, Boris Karloff, but as Hollywood would see, Karloff would not repeat the same tricks he used for creating the other vocally impaired creature.  Playing the Imhotep, the mummy of the film is not a mindless monster but rather a sophisticated high priest seeking a lost love, or what he thinks is the re-incarnation of his lost love.  Karloff, though playing an Egyptian high priest, tapped more into his English sensibilities to play the Mummy here.  Still, Karloff distinctive facial features translated well into the spooky personage of the walking dead.  And with some still impressive make-up work, he presents a version of the mummy that still elicits scares, showing us the corrupted flesh that lies underneath those decaying cloth scarves.  Karloff’s original is still the archetype for all movie mummies that followed.  And like with Frankenstein, it’s not uncommon to hear a mummy speak with a classy British accent as a nod to Boris.  But over the years, many filmmakers have tried to put their own spin on the Mummy; with many attempts hoping to make the creature scarier and sinister.  Universal Studios of course have done their part too, bringing the character back multiple times in order to breathe new life into this legacy monster in their studio.  Two noteworthy attempts at reviving the Mummy on the big screen stand out, mainly due to the things they get right about the character and it’s legacy, and what they get wrong.  To see how the Mummy stacks up in different eras of a studio’s history, let’s take a look at the big differences between The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy (2017).

“I only gamble with my life, never my money.”

In the late 90’s, the digital revolution was beginning to become a dominant force in filmmaking.  Thanks to computer animation technology, movie studios were able to be unbound when it came to making the impossible look real.  Movies like Jurassic Park (1993), Independence Day (1996), and Armageddon (1998) were pushing the limit of what could be done on the big screen when it comes to thrilling action.  In the midst of all this, writer and director Stephen Sommers came to Universal with a pitch to reboot their Mummy franchise.  It was perfect timing because Universal could see the potential for using CGI technology to bring as creature like the mummy to life like never before.  Instead of an actor under layers of make-up, this mummy could instead look like an actual rotting corpse brought to life; accomplishing what filmmakers in the past could only dream of doing in bringing these creatures to life.  But, what was interesting about Sommers approach to the story was that while it was using the latest in cinematic technologies, his film was also gesturing to the past.  The 1999 Mummy very much is a throwback to Golden Age Hollywood, mainly in it’s characterizations and dialogue.  Far less scary and more of a swashbuckling action adventure.  You can easily see any of the characters in the movie being played by cinematic icons of the past; swap out Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz with Tyrone Power or Deborah Kerr and the movie would still feel the same.  The performances are cornball but earnest and the dialogue cheesy but pleasing, and 1999’s Mummy would find it’s place easily within the company of Hollywood classics like The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and Gunga Din (1939), and even the original 1932 Mummy.  It’s the CGI effects that set it apart, with some effects that hold up well over the years while others don’t.  Even still, the movie still has it’s fans over 20 years later, and it was a strong hit upon release, leading to two sequels in 2002 and 2007.  Still, like the original movie it took it’s lead from, 1999’s The Mummy was a product of it’s time and Universal wanted to keep it’s stable of movie monsters in line with the changing times.  So, another reboot came on the horizon.

“Welcome to a new world of gods and monsters.”

In 2017, Universal was looking to bring not just their movie Mummy back to the silver screen, but all of their monsters as well.  While they were planning this, another cinematic factor was coming into play.  The Walt Disney Company was enjoying enormous success with their Marvel Cinematic Universe, a multi-film franchise built upon each movie having a connection to a grander narrative.  This led to other studios wanting to establish cinematic universes of their own to exploit.  Naturally, Universal looked at their classic stable of movie monsters as their entry point into their new cinematic market.  They would take their stable of monsters, build new franchises around them, and sell audiences on the idea that all these characters would combine together just like Marvel was doing with theirs.  They would call this the “Dark Universe,” and Universal was eager to exploit their master plan.  In a textbook case of putting the cart before the horse, Universal’s Dark Universe tried a bit too hard to get people excited for this new phase in their movie monster legacy.  They announced plans for new films centered on Dracula, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man, and of course the Mummy.  Going even further, they even announced casting choices for their various franchises, which included Johnny Depp as the new Invisible Man, Javier Bardem as the Wolf Man, and Tom Cruise as the hero of their Mummy franchise.  It was all very ambitious, but there was one problem; they needed a movie to prove themselves first.  The first planned movie to launch this Dark Universe fell on The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise and Sofia Boutella as the titular villain.  Your ambitious plans for a cinematic universe are only as strong as the foundation that you build it upon, and 2017’s The Mummy is no Iron Man (2008).  It barely even is a Mummy movie, choosing instead to be a film derivative of so many other films and completely lacking in it’s own identity.  It’s just more or less a film formed out of a studio mandate and nothing more.  Suffice to say, the Dark Universe withered away quickly on the box office failure of The Mummy, making it a rare misfire for Tom Cruise as well.  All the planned Dark Universe films were scrapped and the actors were released from their commitments.  Now the Dark Universe stands as a cautionary tale of mismanaged studio hype, and it’s unfortunate that the sacrificial lamb that made Universal learn that lesson had to be the Mummy.

There is no doubt that 1999 The Mummy is the vastly superior film, but it’s interesting to see how the two stack up to each other, particularly in how it carries on the legacy of it’s titular monster.  Let’s take the depictions of the Mummy itself.  In this case, the 2017 version fares a bit better in comparison.  The movie does stir things up a bit in an interesting way by gender swapping the Mummy creature.  Instead of the rotting, cloth wrapped walking corpse found in other mummy movies, the character in the 2017 film brings a far more ghostly presence as the creature.  Pale skinned and covered in hieroglyphic tattoos, this is a very different mummy than what we’re used to, on top of being female.  Sofia Boutella’s background as a trained dancer also helps with her physicality in the role, as she contorts her body in unnatural ways.  I also give the movie credit for casting an actress of North African descent in the role as opposed to white European like past versions, although she Algerian and not Egyptian.  Still, her character is pretty limited in the film, which favors over-produced action in place of actual scares.  There is a neat visual with her eyes, as they divide into two pupils, but that’s about the extant of the creepiness with the character.  In the 1999 version however, there is more of an effort to make the Mummy appear more scary.  Though the CGI looks dated now, the effects were ground-breaking at the time in making the Mummy in his most rotten form look real and believable.  The most eerie version of the mummy appears later in the film, when he is halfway through his transformation back to his original self; with flesh on some parts of the body but not others.  In a sense, the character becomes less scary as he becomes more human, with actor Arnold Vosloo perhaps being too handsome a figure to be believably menacing.  At least there was a bit more menace in Sofia Boutella’s Mummy even as she appeared more human.  The general result is that while the physical, human Mummy in the 2017 version is still unique, the 1999 version that appears through the help of primitive CGI still feels closer to what the character should be, and perhaps shows the ideal way to portray the character overall; the one furthest away from looking human like as possible.

“Death is only the beginning.”

One of the biggest assets that the 1999 version has is that the story never takes itself too seriously.  It is a movie that understands what it needs to be and has fun with that.  The throwback to classic Hollywood storytelling is easy to get across to the viewer; with the characters not just dealing with the threat of the Mummy, but also finding themselves in pursuit of the classic Hollywood tool known as the MacGuffin. In this case, it’s the Book of the Living, a spell book that is key to Imhotep’s quest of unlocking his immortality.   In the midst of fighting the Mummy, there is romance and slapstick humor abound, much in the same way old Hollywood adventures would give audiences a little bit of everything in their movies.  You can see a lot of influence that 1999’s The Mummy had in revitalizing the swash-buckling adventure film, eventually leading to like-minded movies in the next decade like Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean films.  But what ultimately makes the story work is that it knows what it wants to be.  The same cannot be said about the 2017 version.  That version of The Mummy is merely meant to be a cog in the gears of a much bigger machine, which ironically never managed to be built.  It especially gets frustrating in the movie when the character of Dr. Jekyll is introduced into the story, played by Russell Crowe.  He brings the Mummy as well as Tom Cruise’s character Nick Morton to his laboratory, where Easter eggs alluding to other monsters are found everywhere.  It’s here where the goal of the movie becomes so blatant and transparent.  This is a movie meant for no other reason than to set up other movies.  The thing that makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe work so well is the fact that most of their movies are able to stand on their own outside of their place within the greater continuity of the the MCU.  Because The Mummy (2017) lacks it’s own identity, it’s use of Easter eggs and future foreshadowing just feels like the cheap gimmick that it is , and just further illustrates the outright failure that the Dark Universe was.  What’s even more insulting is that The Mummy (2017) just outright steals moments from better movies.  Throughout the film, Tom Cruise’s Nick is haunted by the ghost of his dead comrade, played by Jake Johnson.  The scenes where he communicates to Nick what is happening to him, while appearing as a half rotting talking corpse, is stolen directly from similar moments in An American Werewolf in London (1981).  Audiences know when they are being cheated and pandered to, and 2017’s Mummy is a clear example of a studio mistakenly thinking that the gimmick will carry the film through on it’s own.

One other thing that you can see working against the 2017 Mummy is the fact that it doesn’t have faith in the strength of it’s own titular character.  The movie first and foremost focuses on Tom Cruise’s character, and Cruise very much looks lost in this film.  The normally charismatic box office powerhouse just looks lost in this role, giving his character Nick zero personality.  What’s even more frustrating is that it seems like the movie was treating his journey here like a superhero origin story because (not that you guys would care for spoilers for a movie like this) by the end of the movie, he somehow ends up with the powers of the Mummy, which you would presume would factor in more in future films that were planned.  And though Cruise can play action heroes that are worth rooting for, from Ethan Hunt to Maverick, his Nick is so devoid of redeemable qualities in the film that you honestly don’t care if he lives or dies by the end.  He is a mercenary who becomes cursed because he sought to enrich himself out of raiding an ancient tomb, and honestly he’s the kind of person who deserves the bad fortune that comes his way.  He’s no Iron Man, Captain America, or Batman for that matter, whose origins involve personal growth as they accept their responsibilities as super heroes.  Tom Cruise could play that kind of character, but the movie never allows for that kind of growth, because it’s far more interested in franchise building.  By contrast, 1999’s The Mummy fares better with their characters by keeping it simple.  The main hero and heroine are simple archetypes and are dependent on the actors playing them to fill out that personality.  Thankfully the parts are well cast.  Brendan Fraser perfectly fills the role of the affable, dashing hero Rick O’Connell, whose just got the right balance of roguish swagger and cheeky buffoonery.  Rachel Weisz perfectly compliments this as the resourceful, bookworm Evelyn Carnahan; the lady you can rely upon to explain all the lore to the audience in an informative way, while at the same time holding her own in the thick of a fight.  They are not deep characterizations, but the movie doesn’t require them to be.  All they need to be is likable, and worth rooting for, and the movie does this well by emphasizing the chemistry between the characters and endearing us to them through humor and harrowing action.  It also helps that Fraser and Weisz look at home in a throwback style movie like this one.  You could easily see their same performances working in a movie 40-50 years prior to this one.  In contrast, the 2017 Mummy feels even more like a cheat, because it took one of the most charismatic actors ever in Hollywood, and made him absolutely boring as a result in their movie.

“Sometimes it takes a monster to fight a monster.”

I think that the one thing that both movies fall short on in the long run is that they failed to make the Mummy into a scary force within their stories.  The classic monster movies of the past did a brilliant job of scaring audiences with perfectly spooky atmosphere and ambitious monster make-up and effects for their time.  One thing that we learned from these Mummy reboots in the digital era is that CGI does not make mummies any scarier.  To 1999’s Mummy’s credit, it did at least try.  The largely decayed mummy in that film does look like what a scary version of this is supposed to be, and is only undermined by the limitations of computer animation at the time.  While the 2017 mummy is unique, the last thing you can call it is scary.  One would hope that a bolder horror filmmaker out there can figure out a better way to create a realistic looking mummy that does manage to scare it’s audience.  It could be done, but it’s likely going to come from an outsider attempt and far less likely to come out of Hollywood.  The Mummy movies we are more familiar with from the movie industry tend to be more in the realm of action adventure and less from the realm of horror.  It probably has to do with the limitations of characterization when it comes to the Mummy itself.  Most of these movies focus more on the human characters either hunting down the mummy or being hunted by it.  From the two movies contrasted here, the 1999 film better understood the assignment.  It’s not trying to scare it’s audience, but rather bring new life into an old cinematic property while still appealing to a broad audience; and in that regards it succeeded handsomely.  The 2017 Mummy was just a blatant cash grab and nothing more, wasting the talents of not just those involved in the movie, but of all the people who placed their bets on that failed Dark Universe master plan.  But, if you want to experience a movie that genuinely captures the spooky aura of a Mummy adventure done right, watch the original 1932 version starring Boris Karloff.  It may be quaint by today’s standards of horror, but it does the best job of capturing the atmosphere of what this kind of movie is supposed to be, and Karloff’s take on the character is appropriately menacing.  A mummy movie doesn’t necessarily need to be spooky, but it does help if the creature at it’s center is chilling enough put him in the same league with other iconic movie monsters.

“For the record, if I don’t make it out of here, don’t put me down for mummification.”