Near the ruins of Hamunaptra, a tidal wave of sand cascades over the Egyptian desert, and within it looms the likeness of a giant, openmouthed face — a hovering death mask. Moments later, the wave and the face disintegrate into a cloud of computer-generated dust.
In The Mummy, an aggressively eye-popping horror film, nothing remains in one shape for very long, least of all the face of evil. Back in the age when monster movies took the time to be suggestive about their terrors, the heroes tended to act brave and cocksure for, say, the first half hour or so. They may have been headed for Dracula’s castle or King Kong’s island, but since no one had a clue as to what unspeakable nightmare lay ahead, everyone could afford to beam, however briefly, with secular confidence. In the new version of The Mummy, which replaces the famous 1932 original’s insidious, shadowed creepiness with the spiffiest of special effects, the characters start off with similar aplomb. When the monster begins to stalk, though, everyone stays chipper, even blase, and so does the movie itself. There is much to look at — it’s like spending two hours in Michael Jackson’s Undead Neverland — but not a lot at stake.
In The Mummy, armies of waxy-shelled scarabs scurry across the floors of ancient temples, attacking people in squirmy, frenzied clusters. Every so often, one of the pincered insects crawls beneath the skin and races around like some sort of beastly hockey puck. The Mummy himself? He’s a genuine prince of goo, a glistening, spindly Terminator who emerges from his sarcophagus with rotten bits of sinew dripping off his skeleton. He needs flesh, lots of it, to regenerate himself, and he gets it by sucking the very substance out of his human victims.
Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser), a junior Indiana Jones in khakis and a puffy desert shirt, doesn’t seem particularly fazed by any of this. Lantern jaw raised, he confronts the Mummy — and, at one point, a roomful of gray-skinned zombie priests — with shotgun blazing and sword flashing. The rambunctious physicality of Rick’s derring-do is meant to be a throwaway, a lighthearted joke. How scary, after all, could these metaphysical terrors be? They’re old, and Egyptian. Written and directed by Stephen Sommers (Deep Rising), The Mummy would like to make you shudder, but it tries to do so without ever letting go of its jocular inconsequentiality. Brendan Fraser, his boyishness swathed in a mane of floppy 1920s-adventurer hair, is the essence of likability, but he lacks Harrison Ford’s spark of angry gravity. Fraser’s facile machismo, his swashbuckling detachment from the very monsters he’s fighting, seems to have emerged from the stop-and-look-at-this nature of the movie’s special effects.
The Mummy wears no bandages this time, but the real difference is this: He’s less a character than an image. He starts out as a high priest named Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), who, in a prologue set in ancient Egypt, carries on a forbidden love affair with the pharaoh’s mistress. When the couple goes too far and murders the pharaoh, guards cut out Imhotep’s tongue and bury him alive in a stone coffin filled with those grisly scarabs. His rage then burns across the centuries. But in the 1932 Mummy, Boris Karloff, his skin like decayed papyrus, played Imhotep with an evil mortician’s infernal glower, and the movie showcased the Mummy’s torment as well as his vengeance. In its hushed, wax-museum way, it was a romance. In the new Mummy, the cursed monster starts out as a glorified videogame effect, and then, when his flesh is restored, he radiates all the menace of a shaven-headed personal trainer. The walking-corpse gimmickry is fun, and I liked seeing the mummy whisk out of rooms as a tornado of sand, but, like the film, he leaves no haunting traces. Fraser’s attitude of blithe fearlessness is matched by that of his sidekick/love interest (Rachel Weisz), a rosy, ringlet-haired Egyptologist who, when threatened with abduction, admonishes Rick: “Think fast, because if he turns me into a mummy, you’re the first one I’m coming after!” This movie doesn’t take anything seriously, not even its title demon. Some might say that’s because we’re no longer naive enough to harbor belief in anything as corny as the old monsters. Then again, perhaps we’ve just lost the vision to imagine them. B-