If Universal Want to Resurrect Their Classic Monsters, They Need to Look to the Past: Re-Evaluating ‘The Mummy’ (1999)

An update of a beloved franchise, featuring one of the world’s biggest action stars and elaborate stunts – studio executives were undoubtedly left scratching their heads when Alex Kurtzman’s attempt at The Mummy (2017) failed in practically every aspect where Steven Sommer’s 1999 blockbuster succeeded. Kurtzman’s creature lumbered out of its tomb to be met with dreadful reviews and hopes for the ‘Dark Universe’ were swiftly laid to rest. Ignoring the ill-conceived bid to connect multiple films at once, there are deeper problems that could have been remedied had they paid attention to Sommers’ version. While generally dismissed upon release, the Brendan Fraser-led adventure has remained popular, recently celebrating its 20th anniversary. Re-watching The Mummy reveals the ingredients for a successful reboot that is utterly charming.  

Every great monster needs a protagonist to match and Fraser’s Rick O’Connell finds the right balance between charismatic and comical, believable as an action hero while still game to throw himself around a set. Regularly compared to Indiana Jones, he arguably has more in common with Han Solo. Like Harrison Ford’s smuggler, he has a rather sketchy past (2001’s sequel teases Rick’s part in a bank heist) and accompanies Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) to repay a debt for her rescuing him from a Cairo prison. Rick isn’t seeking fortune or glory and would rather run and survive than save the world. Introduced as a lovable scoundrel and former soldier in the French Foreign Legion, Rick’s integrity deepens the more time he spends with Evelyn; by resolving to help her defeat the mummy, he emerges as a hero worthy of her love. There’s a cheekiness to the character that is counteracted by his attentiveness. When Evelyn recounts her knowledge of Egyptian history, he hangs on her every word, revealing a softer side to the gunslinging adventurer. His vulnerability enhances his appeal, lacking the sure-footedness of a superhero. He’ll stride into the ancient city of Hamunaptra all trigger-happy but inevitably has to improvise when things go wrong. Starring in 2017’s update, Tom Cruise can’t compete with Fraser’s inherent affability, too preoccupied with his trademark stunts and heroics. Archaeologist Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) would like to believe there’s a “good man” inside his Nick Morton, but the depths of the character are left largely unexplored in favour of action and world-building. 

Fraser is only one-half of a memorable duo, which is something the 2017 version forgets. Wallis isn’t allowed to have any fun in the role and has precious little to define her character, even claiming that Cruise initially refused to let her run with him onscreen. The same cannot be said for Weisz’s aspiring Egyptologist. When we first meet Evelyn, she is a charmingly clumsy librarian yearning to prove herself by locating Hamunaptra. She is intelligent and resourceful, with a sense of humour that makes her a wonderful companion to Rick and her brother, Jonathan (John Hannah). In many ways, she is Rick’s equal. He trusts her knowledge and she trusts his combat skills. There are several occasions where Evelyn actually saves his life, such as during a riverboat attack where he is busy reloading his gun and she swiftly pulls him aside as enemy bullets fire through the wall and inch dangerously close to his head. 

Evelyn is the brains of the operation, emphasised through comparison with a team of rival treasure hunters. Her counterpart, a stuffy British Egyptologist (Jonathan Hyde), dismisses the heroes and scoffs, “They are led by a woman. What does a woman know?” The camera cuts to Evelyn excitedly educating Rick and Jonathan on their ancient surroundings, effectively throwing a middle finger to his sexism. Defying gender tropes, she protests when Rick wants to keep her safely locked in her bedroom, and volunteers to put herself in danger to save others without becoming your typical damsel in distress. Most importantly, Weisz and Fraser are given equal opportunity to shine and showcase their different skills. The 2017 film treated its female lead as merely a romantic interest and not a resilient, compelling character in her own right, devoid of Evelyn’s infectious enthusiasm. 

This image is from The Mummy (2017). Ahmanet throws her arms out wide as a building explodes behind her.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

Horror films are only as good as their monsters and Sommers delivers a creepy yet relatable villain with Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), a disgraced high priest who is forced to suck the life from his victims to regenerate into his human form. The CGI used to create his rotten flesh is still effective today and provides audiences with several ghoulish glimpses of his transformation as he relentlessly pursues the treasure hunters who have stolen jars containing his lover’s remains. There’s even a method to his madness – his main purpose is to resurrect the Pharaoh’s mistress, Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velásquez), with whom Imhotep was having a secret affair which ended in tragedy. Vosloo wanted to play the role straight, understanding that Imhotep is enacting his own twisted version of Romeo and Juliet. After centuries of slumber and a horrific curse, Imhotep’s first thought is to be reunited with the woman he adores. It’s hard to completely discredit a villain who exhibits such devotion towards another person. In comparison, 2017’s mummy, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), cares only about herself. She is a power-obsessed princess who murders her family in a jealous bid to claim the Egyptian throne. Prior to her arrest, she gains supernatural powers through a deal with Set, the god of death. The reasoning behind this deal is ill-defined and merely used to enhance her ruthless nature. The exclusion of a grisly mummification scene as depicted in the 1999 version further removes any pity – one can’t help but feel sorry for Imhotep when he has his tongue removed and is entombed alive with carnivorous scarab beetles. Ahmanet is a typical villain who merely wants to control the world, with a backstory that makes her entirely unsympathetic. In contrast, Imhotep’s objective is macabre romance, with ruling mankind simply an added bonus. 

Another major difference between the 1999 and 2017 reboot is their time period and setting, with Sommers keeping his version firmly in the past. Opening on a prologue featuring Thebes in 1290BC, the first shot perfectly captures the sense of wonder the film conveys. Pyramids stand tall against the orange hue of the sun, while the camera dollies out over a majestic sphynx, smoothly gliding across the thriving cityscape. Supported by Jerry Goldsmith’s grand, bellowing score, Sommers perfectly captures the noble essence of ancient Egypt, historical accuracy be damned. The rest of the action takes place in the 1920s, a time where there was plenty yet to be discovered, including the lost city of Hamunaptra. Combined with a haunted house aesthetic of trapdoors and thick, spooky cobwebs, the world of 1999’s The Mummy is rife with mystery.  

The 2017 reboot lacks this sense of amazement, beginning in present-day Iraq, with the main action then unfolding in London. Why Ahmanet was buried “far from Egypt” is never justified, removing the franchise’s essential sense of fun when some of the earliest images are of the war-torn Middle East and not the towering pyramids of Egypt. Modern technology also strips The Mummy of its creepy tone and the idea of secrets lurking below the sand. Kurtzman introduces a government organisation tasked with containing the supernatural. Military personnel trained to suppress demonic threats aren’t nearly as enticing as old-school adventurers stumbling across a world of the unknown. Ironically, there is nothing very original that comes with the modern setting. The presence of the agency distracts from the central plot, with Universal trying too hard to pre-emptively connect different monster franchises in a villainous riff on The Avengers. Cruise also acts like he’s still playing Ethan Hunt, while Kurtzman haphazardly borrows elements from the 1999 version. Crows replace a swarm of locusts as one of Imhotep’s ten plagues of Egypt, while Ahmanet creates a devouring sandstorm which hovers over London like a depressing rain cloud. It’s not quite the same as a biplane gliding over the desert to escape a wall of sand conjured in Imhotep’s smug image. 

Culminating in a murky chamber in the London Underground, the oppressive blue-tinged surroundings lack any sense of grandeur. Kurtzman’s climax takes place almost entirely in the shadows, with Ahmanet’s undead minions rarely seen. The affair seems incredibly rushed for all involved, this creature never seeming to relish her villainy. The actors lack any enthusiasm, pushing through with the knowledge that it will all be over soon. The final fight is filmed without any creative flair to create tension and reveals little about the characters. Jenny is noticeably absent while Nick singlehandedly saves the day in a predictably masculine display of heroics. The comparison with the 1999 film’s climax is night and day. Hamunaptra is filled with mountains of treasure; golden statues, dusty passageways, imposing staircases and flaming torches transport both the characters and viewers back in time. The camera follows each character, showcasing the impressive set. Shots are designed to raise tension whilst retaining humour to match the characters’ personalities. With mummified servants bursting from the walls and menacing royal guards marching to Imhotep’s will, the final battle is bursting with memorable moments. The principal characters work together to send Imhotep back to the Underworld, with Evelyn key in removing his immortality, allowing Rick to deliver the fatal blow.  

Rick and Evelyn scream and back up against a wall as the rotten carcus of the mummy approaches them.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

Yet perhaps the greatest asset in Sommers’ earlier effort is the tongue-in-cheek humour. The film both honours the original monster movie while poking fun at the silliness of the premise. Everyone is on the receiving end of a joke, from loud, boorish Americans to snooty Brits and characters almost break the fourth wall with their self-aware dialogue. When finally coming face-to-face with Imhotep, the creature roars in fury, only for Rick to pause a moment before roaring back. Only in The Mummy would the hero scream back at the monster in defiance because, honestly, how else would you react? It’s an absurd reaction to an absurd situation. Another scene sees Rick scare away Imhotep with a cat (the animals were considered sacred in ancient times). This may appear ridiculous, but it’s an unexpected gag that illustrates the character’s desperation and improvisational skills. If there’s anything that may possibly help then it’s worth a try. This is all done with a knowing wink at the camera, and the film knows when to hold back on the jokes and deliver some scares – Imhotep’s desire to restore his vision is a particularly gruesome moment. 

Sommers clearly knew what tone he was trying to achieve, even if the cast questioned how it would all come together. To blend horror with action, comedy, fantasy and romance is no easy feat, which is probably why critics didn’t quite know what to make of the film. The Mummy was ahead of its time in its tonal approach, as evidenced by the huge success of franchises like Marvel and Pirates of the Caribbean. Even Disney’s upcoming Jungle Cruise (2021) seems to be replicating The Mummy’s tone and central characters. There’s a reason this film is fondly remembered – spawning sequels, an animated series and a theme park ride – while the 2017 reboot is quickly fading from memory. It’s time Sommers’ film receives the praise it rightly deserves. If Universal wish to resurrect their classic monsters for further adventures, they would be wise to read from the Book of the Dead once more.