While the 2017 version of The Mummy was busy failing completely and killing the Dark Universe before it even got started, it should have paid more attention to its 1999 predecessor. Not only was this version popular in its day, but it spawned a slew of sequels, and to this day remains just as entertaining as it was 20 years ago!
Using the Setting to Its Advantage
It’s easy to look back at films that came out 20+ years ago and feel like they’re painfully 90’s. There was a distinct campiness that existed in popular films throughout the decade. As special effects got better, characters and plots became simpler and less focused upon. Part of what made The Mummy (1999) stand out however, was its 1930’s setting.
Everything from the ancient immortal monster, to the quest across the desert to find the City of the Dead (Hamunaptra), to the mysterious group of warriors trying to keep the explorers out, The Mummy (1999) feels more like a swashbuckling adventure of decades past. Rick O’Connell feels very much in line with old school stars like Errol Flynn. When watching it today, perhaps the only thing that gives away its era is the CGI (which we’ll touch on later).
It Knows Exactly What It Is
Let’s be honest, the film does have its slightly cheesy moments here and there, but they’re all completely intentional. It never tried to be groundbreaking, nor did it take itself too seriously. Director Stephen Sommers’ only real goal was to make a film that was as entertaining as possible. It blended ancient myth with a Western style of adventure, and had fun all along the way.
Part of what it does very well is juggle several different tones successfully. Rick O’Connell is the brave hero, Jonathan and the prison warden are comic relief, and Imhotep brings a few moments of genuine terror. Each of them work perfectly in unison with each other. Had the film gone all in on adventure, humor, or horror, it probably wouldn’t have worked. But because it blended the three so well, it’s all the more compelling.
To be fair, not all the CGI holds up too well. But the point is it was only ever used sparingly, for shapes and shadows (like the pool of the Underworld, or the face in the sandstorm), or for Imhotep as he was regenerating. Perhaps the only effect that looks laughably bad is at the end when a fully human-looking Imhotep opens his mouth unnaturally wide.
But other than that, the film utilized on location shooting and practical effects done on set. So much of big Hollywood blockbusters today take place primarily in front of a green screen, making the overall digital quality obvious. There’s simply no substitute for real effects, real makeup, and real stunts done in front of the camera. Two years later, The Mummy Returns threw all this out the window, but we’re here to discuss the merits of The Mummy (1999), not its subpar sequel.
At the end of the day, the late 90’s tale of a mummy coming back from the dead to take over the world remains just as entertaining now as it ever did. Between good practical effects, a timeless setting, and a tone that felt consistent and fun, it was exactly the film that it needed to be!
What do you think of 1999’s The Mummy? Let us know in the comments!