This year, CultOfWhatever is looking back on some of the most influential, transformative, genre-defining, and cult-favorite films of 1999. We began in January with a look at M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout hit: The Sixth Sense. It’s a horror-thriller that stands the test of time and works as a great movie that would have been great in any year of release. M. Night could have made this movie yesterday and he would have had a smash on his hands. He could have released it in 1989 and it would have been just as tremendous.
We then looked at Fight Club, a movie very different from The Sixth Sense. It was very much a product of its time and time has not been good to it. It’s obnoxious, pretentious, gritty but undramatic, and the twist at the end was flat compared to Shyamalan’s first big shocker.
So we have two movies, one that has endured over the past two decades and one that hasn’t. What else did 1999 offer? How about The Mummy…
Nope. Not that one.
I’m talking about the film that doubled as a love letter to the classic monster movies of the 1930s to the cheesy adventure serials of the 1940s that inspired the Indiana Jones films of the 1980s. Does The Mummy still hold up? This one I mean…
And I’m sorry to have to do this, but we really need to consider this movie in relation (more like in contrast) to the horrible Mummy movie from a couple of years ago. That movie was wrong-headed, presumptuous, dark, unfunny, and dull. In short, it was everything the 1999 movie was not.
Maybe you’ve not considered the Brendan Fraser version in a while. It was a big hit at the time (grossing 400mm on a budget of only 80mm) but subsequent sequels (while maintaining a steady 400mm box office clip) struggled to match the quality of the original. A decade after the third film in the series left theaters, most had forgotten about it.
The 2017 movie, on the other hand, has no sequels (at least not yet). Nevertheless, it was made with the express intent on producing three or ten or however many Universal could get away with. The 1999 Mummy movie was never meant to be a franchise starter. Sure there was always the possibility, the movie did nothing to make a sequel impossible, but no one involved in the production had the audacity to think they had a mega-hit on their hands and that they needed to spend a huge chunk of the movie planting sequel-bait for future installments.
which is exactly what the 2017 movie did.
Universal was not just greedy, they were ignorant. They saw what Disney was doing with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and decided to create their own. That works well when you put it simply like that, but when you try to execute the idea, you quickly realize how hard it is to replicate what Kevin Feige and co. have done. For one thing, the MCU is an interconnected series of stand-alone properties. Iron Man has his own side characters and villains, same as Captain America, Spider-Man, Black Panther, Dr. Strange, etc. Beyond that, there are decades of stories to draw from, not only for each individual character, but also the various team-ups.
The Wolfman belonging to the same universe as The Mummy or Frankenstein’s monster or Dr. Jekyll does not have fifty years of backstories to draw from. You’re starting from scratch and shoehorning characters together who really have no commonality beyond the fact that they’re all “monsters.” The MCU characters however have a plethora of things in common and just enough differences to create drama and fun when they get together. Comic Book characters belong together; monsters don’t (necessarily). Shoot even WB/DC has struggled with this and they own the most famous comic book characters of all time.
And that’s not to say it’s impossible to build a shared universe with these monsters. You could, but it requires—at the bare minimum—a demand from the fans. The MCU right now is twenty-movies deep. Many fans are doing a fifty-hour-long series-rewatch in preparation for Avengers: End Game. Think about the commitment Disney is asking of its fans, to come to the theaters three times a year to keep up with this constantly evolving series of movies. And yet…the fans turn out. Why? Because they are, first and foremost, good movies. Some are great, a few are okay, but by and large they are “good.”
In 2017 Universal failed to make a good movie. They made a bad movie that, on top of its badness, had the nerve to say “this is just the beginning!” Imagine sitting down to dinner and being served a bowl of rat turds, turning your nose up in disgust only for the chef to say, with a total lack of awareness, “and there’s more where that came from!”
The 1999 Mummy movie, on the other hand, would have been just the film to jump-start a shared-universe franchise. You’ve got Brendon Fraser as the perfect lead, exuding a smug charm to rival mid-80’s Harrison Ford. You’ve got a Rachel Weisz being an excellent balance of old school “damsel in distress” and new school “girl who gets tough and kicks butt.” The supporting cast is equally excellent, with everyone making the most of their brief flashes of camera time to round out the movie and fill the world with fun and charm from end to end.
And then there’s the villain. If you only remember that there was a 1999 Mummy movie, you might have forgotten the antagonist. You might assume it was just a generic mummy back from the dead, wreaking havoc and so forth. On the contrary, Imhotep has more in common with Batman’s tragic Mr. Freeze villain than whatever chased Tom Cruise around for two hours a couple of years ago. He’s not so much interested in taking over the world as he is righting the wrongs of his first life. He wants his love to join him in an undead-life and is willing to kill to make it happen. You never end up rooting for him but you do appreciate his motivation. He has more depth than most villains in movies like this are given.
Is the 1999 Mummy a masterpiece of cinema? No. It’s schlock, but entertaining schlock. Roger Ebert’s review summed it up perfectly: “There is hardly a thing I can say in its favor, except that I was cheered by nearly every minute of it.” And that’s more than can be said for the remake. Unlike it, the 1999 Mummy remains an easily-rewatchable movie, charming and fun, light and cheesy in all the best ways, and still awesome…twenty years later.