I didn’t have the opportunity to dig up an old classic Universal monster movie this year, so instead I watched and reviewed a somewhat newer Universal monster movie. The Mummy gives some passing nods to its 1932 predecessor, but rather than being a horror film, it’s an adventure film with a monster in it.
As is traditional with stories involving mummies, the whole thing starts with a curse. A priest in ancient Egypt (Arnold Vosloo) is caught in a lover’s rendezvous with the Pharoah’s wife, and so he is condemned to be entombed alive, to be gnawed upon by scarabs eternally. Of course, this has the usual problem with undying curses, in that you have to make the victim undying. A few millennia later, somebody breaks into the tomb, and the wrathful priest is bringing back the plagues of Egypt.
Naturally, we need some heroes in the story, and just as naturally, they’re the ones responsible for awakening our cursed corpse. Brendan Fraser stars as an itinerant explorer, or perhaps a soldier… actually it’s not entirely clear what his primary occupation was supposed to be. But regardless, he’s the guy who has found the lost city of the dead, and he is hired by a comely librarian (Rachel Weisz) and her treasure-hunting brother (John Hannah) to bring them there so they can discover riches and historic artifacts. A bit of competition with other treasure-seekers, and a bit of careless disbelief in local superstitions, and the adventure is off.
It’s one part monster movie, one part Indiana Jones adventure… but what it truly reminds me of is Big Trouble in Little China. There’s a certain tongue-in-cheek nature to the whole thing, a bit of bungling on the parts of the heroes that gives the whole thing a degree of ironic levity. Indiana Jones was always part pastiche itself, but Dr. Jones at least knew what he was dealing with; these guys, we are repeatedly shown, really have no business being here. But that’s what makes the whole film fun. Writer-director Stephen Sommers could have given us a hyper-competent hero with a wise leading lady and a capable sidekick. Instead, he gives us a trio who aspire to be those things but fall just short enough that the audience sees them as people rather than icons. It’s the sort of story that is always at risk of the audience thinking it is goofy; by embracing just a bit of that goofiness, it manages to make the whole thing a little bit more believable.
Combine this with some skillful special effects and a quick-moving plot with just enough seriousness here and there to make it work, and it’s an adventure film of the sort that we don’t get quite enough of: one that’s just fun and not too pretentious.