released May 4th, 2001
Okay, now the summer is really starting. Crocodile Dundee, Stallone in a car, those were appetizers. This is the first bonafide Big Ass Summer Movie of ’01, with the advertising and the toys and what not. It opened huge, and eventually made more than $433 million worldwide. I don’t think I know anybody that likes it, though.
THE MUMMY RETURNS is the second one, the one where the mummy returns for a while, then leaves again. Like the first MUMMY it begins with a narrated prologue that’s better than the movie proper because it doesn’t have Brendan Fraser or a bunch of talking in it. This one tells a little bit about the legend of The Scorpion King (The Rock), a guy who led a bunch of warriors in trying to conquer the world, but they all died of heat stroke so he was bit by a scorpion or whatever, and magic. His part is less than 5 minutes, he speaks one line and it’s not in English, and his narrative purpose is to return as a shitty CGI bug monster at the end. Also to set up a prequel spin-off that’s way more entertaining than the mummy movies, in my opinion.
I never watched THE MUMMY RETURNS before this retrospective because I hated the first one so much. I just remember it being a bunch of loud noises and phony excitement with no sense of rhythm or build. This actually wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but sure doesn’t give me a reason to give part 1 a second chance.
After the prologue we go to 1933, a year in which Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz’s characters are now married and have a spunky son. They’re exploring an ancient tomb together as a family activity I guess. There are snakes in the cave and he’s not afraid of them, which is obviously meant as a huge ‘fuck you’ to Indiana Jones, and to call him a pussy and make him feel bad about himself, etc.
Anyway it turns out some bandits or tomb raiders are also there, the kid shoots a slingshot, he gets a magic Bracelet of Anubis stuck on his arm, the entire place collapses and that type of shit. The bandits are trying to resurrect the Scorpion King so he can wiggle around and lead an army of dogheaded warriorsb which means they have to first resurrect Imhotep, the mummy from part 1, played by Arnold Vosloo (the small screen Darkman and big screen Billy Zane), because of such-and-such, but what they didn’t count on was that Fraser was wearing a wristband in part 1 and when he takes it off it turns out there’s a tattoo underneath that proves he’s a Magi and by the way his wife is the resurrection of Nefertiti and the son is “The Chosen One” and the snake is probly the Chosen Snake but that never comes up.
I forgot that there was a cool guy with a tattooed face that knows all the ancient secrets and sword fighting techniques, he’s part of an ancient order trying to stop the mummy, and then there’s another ancient order trying to help the mummy I believe. Fraser says “Oh no, not these guys again!” which is the same thing I thought when I saw him and the other main characters. To be fair to the movie though they are far less annoying than in part 3. They play it mostly straight, and they’re supposed to be so in love that the audience should shout “Get a room!” in unison. At one point Fraser says, “If anything ever happened to you I would never forgive myself.” (Like what, if she turned into Maria Bello?)
But as long as Fraser’s not trying to do witty banter he isn’t that bad. Then again he’s not at all compelling in the Indiana Jones way he’s obviously supposed to be. It seemed to me like they also slimmed down the “comedy relief” participation of the sleazy brother-in-law character. He has a few lines like defending his innocence by saying “I haven’t done anything… lately!” (Ain’t I a stinker?) but mostly they force him to sit around and look serious while the other characters talk, which is a fair punishment for how annoying he was in part 1.
I kind of like that the kid leaves behind a trail of sandcastles that tell his parents which archaeological sites to go to next. They also fly around in a zeppelin, which I guess you gotta give some points for because very few movies have zeppelins these days, and they are an important form of travel. The pilot of the airship has an eyepatch at first but then takes it off because he doesn’t actually need it. That’s the kind of comedy that you can only make up on set. How magical.
I gotta acknowledge that Mr. Sommers does make some sincere attempts at human and/or mummy emotion, and there are moments and scenes that might be really cool if not surrounded by two hours of ridiculous bullshit and terrible CGI walls of water with spooky faces in them and that type of business. In this one the stand out “hey, this would’ve worked in an actual movie” scene is at the climax when the events contrast the relationships between the married archaeologists and the mummy and his girl. The boys are falling into a pit of scary fire or some stupid bullshit, I don’t remember what it was exactly and I’m sure no one involved with the movie does either. Brendan tries to get Rachel to run away to safety but she doesn’t, she risks her life and saves him. Meanwhile, the Mummy’s girl takes a look at him, then runs like a fuckin coward, or like Michael Caine’s employee in ON DEADLY GROUND who claims she has to go to the bathroom and tries to drive off.
And there’s a shot of Imhotep crying. Not because he’s dying (he’s been through that a couple times) but because he thought she was a keeper. In the context of a good story with good characters that would be a good scene.
THE MUMMY RETURNS tries to be a rousing, light-hearted adventure, but at its heart it’s a mystery, and the mystery is “how the fuck does a movie this big and expensive have special effects this terrible?” For the most part it’s a nice looking movie, a big production with lots of wide shots of digitally enhanced period scenes and ancient Egyptian palaces and what not. The effects going on in the background are fine.
But there are four different major types of digital characters in the movie and they all look preposterous. There’s the titular mummy Imhotep, when first resurrected he’s a hollowed out corpse. This is a case where it would’ve been nice if they had the motion capture because the way they animate this dumb looking guy has no relation to the personality or posture of the guy playing him when it switches to an actor. This is actually the opposite of the Boris Karloff MUMMY – the monster looks so stupid that it’s a huge relief when it becomes just a dude. There’s one scene where he’s still supposed to be rotten but he’s wearing what looks like an iron mask (turns out to be rubber – not sure why they did that) and he’s so much more of a compelling character that way it’s ridiculous.
Another terrible effect is the dog-headed soldiers of the Army of Anubis, who number in the thousands for huge LORD OF THE RINGS type battles. To be fair it’s more just how stupid the dog-headed cartoon warriors look that is the problem, not as much the fact that they look phony. So I guess I give them a pass. Good boy. You get a treat.
I’d heard for years about people hating the “pygmy mummies,” but I didn’t know why. Nobody told me they were little CGI gremlin guys bouncing around and jibber jabbering.
But by far the biggest offender is the “Scorpion King” character. I actually liked the spin-off movie THE SCORPION KING so it’s sad to learn that the Rock’s likable hero Mathayus not only turns into a one-dimensional evil scorpion monster, but that he fucking looks like this:
(I think I stole this screengrab from Chud’s worst CGI in history list)
For once it’s not exaggerating to say that he looks like a video game. In fact, here is The Rock in an actual video game:
This movie was released ten years ago, you’d think they would’ve finished the effects by now.
I found a quote from Todd McCarthy of Variety saying that the movie “bursts with visual goodies,” which would imply that to at least one professional these effects were considered acceptable at the time. But I remember the other movies that existed and I don’t buy it. This is Industrial Light and Magic, they had already done Jar Jar Binks, and regardless of his controversial politics and comedic style you gotta admit Jar Jar looks pretty real. They’d done digital characters in the Jurassic Parks, DRAGON HEART, MEN IN BLACK… This was 5 years after they did MARS ATTACKS!, which intentionally looked goofy, but better than these fuckin mummies. I don’t get it.
At any rate, this is a good example of the Big Summer Popcorn Movie that only gets away with it because of our thirst for a Big Summer Popcorn Movie when May rolls around and the sun is coming out. It’s all expensive spectacle, no soul, no skill. If spectacle is all you got in your toolbox you oughta be better at staging it than this. Obviously it’s modeled after the Indiana Jones movies, but only in the most base, superficial ways. Clearly it learned nothing from those movies in storytelling or characterization. It’s embarrassing how much the setpieces in this completely hinge on impressing the audience with effects that weren’t even ready to be shown to the public. In a good movie of this type you could laugh or shrug at a dated effect and the scene would still work because of the way it was put together.
To me this goes in the category of expensive, terrible movies like TRANSFORMERS, BATMAN FOREVER and the works of Roland Emmerich. Some are worse than others, sometimes they’re funny to watch, and I’m not saying I’m not interested in seeing them. But to pretend that’s what we’re hoping for in a summer movie is an insult to movies. And movies will have their revenge on you by making you keep watching this type of crap.
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legacy: in the decade since ’01 there’s been a tie-in movie ride, a cartoon series, a part 3, a SCORPION KING spin-off, a DTV prequel to the spin-off, another one on the way… I don’t think many people love these movies, but I guess they tolerate them enough to keep them alive. I don’t think there are any plans to return to the big screen, though.
Sommers is still doing these type of movies, but maybe slowed down a little. Back then he could probly get most of the projects he wanted off the ground, now he’s gotta fight for it. Fraser is still a leading man, but mostly in children’s movies (JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, FURRY VENGEANCE). Weisz chose not to come back for part 3, but has maintained a balance between smaller movies (ABOUT A BOY, MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS) and the genre stuff (ERAGON, CONSTANTINE). And THE FOUNTAIN may or may not count as both.
Most notably of course, The Rock has since fulfilled the MUMMY RETURNS prophecy of becoming a big movie star.
datedness: Those effects look fucking terrible, but I’m sure they looked bad at the time too. Other than that it’s a nice looking production and since it’s a period piece it’s not dated. The scenery looks nice on blu ray.
2001-2011 connections: The Rock (now called Dwayne Johnson) has the standout role in the movie of the summer so far, FAST FIVE. It’s another sequel to a movie where he wasn’t in the first one, but this one really takes advantage of the personality and presence he had in his wrestling days, and lets him say words and shit. Business-wise he’s also spending the summer becoming the go-to “guy to add to sequels to crappy movies,” signing on for upcoming sequels to JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (originally starring Fraser) and GI JOE (originally directed by Sommers).
Would they make a movie like this today? Pretty much. Two summers ago Sommers directed GI JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA, which has all different trappings but the same kind of senseless, random pile of chaotic events, and even with effects that you assume were done on a low budget until you read otherwise. I guess that’s his trademark.