When tracing the path of the CGI revolution, two films are usually cited as the beginning of the boom: James Cameron's 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' (1992) and Steven Spielberg's 'Jurassic Park' (1993). Certainly, these are seminal films -- if it wasn't for Cameron's robo-metal T-1000 and the amazing, all-digital dinos of Spielberg's pop masterpiece, today's blockbusters would look very, very different indeed. But there is another film that is usually left out of the CGI historical canon, but whose mainstream success I would argue is as integral (if not more so) to the advent of all-digital filmmaking as Cameron's and Spielberg's triumphs. That film is Stephen Sommers' 1999 reimagining of 'The Mummy' -- a film so overstuffed with CGI it all but assured digital effects equaled big box office, and virtually rewrote the physics of celluloid action.
The basic plot of 'The Mummy' should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the iconic monster first made famous in Universal's horror yarns of the 1930s, although here he is given a bit of a postmodern spin. Brendan Fraser stars as the hapless Richard "Rick" O'Connell, an American serving in the French Foreign Legion. Assigned to an archaeological dig at the ancient Egyptian city of Hamunaptra, things start to get complicated when, along with the brother-sister team of beautiful Egyptologist Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) and wisecracking Jonathan Carnahan (John Hannah), O'Connell unleashes a centuries-old curse. Seems the high priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) once started a forbidden relationship with Anck Su Namun (Patricia Velasquez), mistress to the Pharaoh Seti (Aharon Ipale), and paid dearly for it. But now Imhotep is free from his eternal prison, and he's mighty pissed off. Rick, Evelyn and Jonathan, along with a rival group of careless American adventurers, most now do battle with the ancient foe and save mankind from Imhotep's reign of destruction.
Sommers is a director who seems blissfully ignorant of the word "restraint." Though critics often cite 'T2' and 'Jurassic Park' as being all digital flash at the expense of substance, compared to 'The Mummy' they are intimate chamber dramas. Sommers' barrage of CGI effects is almost non-stop, with nary a scene that doesn't seem to end prematurely, as just another prelude to bigger action spectacle to come. Even the film's locations and sets seem pumped up and artificial, with backdrops painted on with CGI goo and half the props appearing to have been created by computer. This is a far cry from early digital-assisted pics like 'Jurassic' and even Cameron's 'Titanic,' which felt more like flesh-and-celluloid creations with a few CGI bits thrown in. That makes 'The Mummy' the real precursor to today's anything-goes CGI era, as typified by George Lucas' dreadful 'Star Wars' prequels and Sam Raimi's 'Spider-Man' franchise.
Thankfully, the cast really saves 'The Mummy' from Sommers' relentless overkill, providing the film with its only semblance of human warmth and emotion. Fraser himself is a fun hero -- though he's physically molded to bear more than a passing resemblance to Indiana Jones, Fraser wisely plays him almost as a buffoon. He's closer to the bumbling Jack Burton that Kurt Russell created in John Carpenter's cult classic 'Big Trouble in Little China' than the cool and composed Indy -- and he's all the more likable because of it. I also admired how Weisz turns her beauty into an asset, turning Evelyn into a repressed bookworm type rather than just another variant on the standard, ravishing James Bond-type babe. And Hannah is great with his one-liners, which come off as genuinely smart and witty. They make a great trio, and (along with Vosloo's imposing Imhotep) rescue 'The Mummy' from complete digital immolation.
Still, watching 'The Mummy' again for the first time in many years for this HD DVD review, I remain disappointed with the core conception of the movie. I remember seeing the film during its original theatrical release and being totally bummed out it wasn't a horror film. I don't need blood and guts all over the walls, but 'The Mummy' is hardly scary, and I hoped for a bit more of a creepy, EC Comics-esque interpretation of the character. Ultimately, 'The Mummy' is just another none-too-subtle homage to Indiana Jones and every Steven Spielberg movie ever made. I suspect it may be best remembered more for the stars it introduced and the effects it pioneered than for anything it is about, which is pretty much nothing. Sure, 'The Mummy' is way better than Sommers' subsequent efforts like the dreadful 'Van Helsing,' but done right it could have been a reimagining on the order of a 'Batman Begins' or a 'Spider-Man.'
For a film made so many light-years ago in 1999, 'The Mummy' holds up quite well on high def. I'd be highly surprised if Universal is not using the same master created for the 2003 D-Theater DVHS release, which was a generally excellent release. And while I didn't find this one perfect due to some consistency problems, it still makes the grade as a significantly better-than-average catalog release.
The source material remains in fine shape. There is a slight veil of grain apparent in most scenes (believe it or not, 'The Mummy' was actually shot on film) but it gives the transfer a more warm, real feeling and is not distracting. Dirt and blemishes are also not a problem, and blacks are pure. Colors remain quite vibrant but not too overdone, with blues, purples and reds particularly impressive. Fleshtones hold firm as a nice shade of orange. Unfortunately, some of the most saturated hues suffer from slight if noticeable chroma noise, which sometimes can be distracting. This is a problem I've noticed on a fair number of Universal titles, particularly 'Red Dragon' -- I hope the studio reels in the colors a bit on future HD DVD titles.
Detail is quite good, if uneven. Similar to Universal's recent HD DVD release of 'Waterworld,' there are shots that are breathtaking, while others appear a bit flatter. Some of this has to do with the CGI -- intensive shots tend to be softer, with the most elaborate longshots suffering the most with all their phony CGI extras. And as I've mentioned in other reviews, I'm not a big fan of motion blur, of which there are a lot in 'The Mummy.' The result is that fast action lacks clarity and fine detail, but so it goes. At least Universal continues to pump out very fine encodes, as compression artifacts such as macroblocking and pixel break-up are not apparent.
I'm never sure what to expect from soundtracks that more than a few years old, as what once seemed state-of-the-art can sometimes crumble under the weight of time. 'The Mummy' was once the DVD to beat in terms of sheer sonic excellence, and while it can't really compete with the likes of such modern-day Dolby TrueHD wonders as 'Batman Begins' and 'Superman Returns,' it certainly is no slouch.
Presented here in Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 (at 1.5mbps), 'The Mummy' remains a fine example of lively and engrossing sound design. There is both aggressive use of wall-to-wall discrete effects in the action sequences, as well as more subtle if just-as-effective atmosphere during quieter scenes. I particularly liked the nice use of minor ambiance (such as scurrying scarabs, rustling torches and select score cues during the more suspenseful/exploratory moments). Predictably, there is some heavy bombast during the film's third act, which can obliterate everything else in its path. I did have to compensate a bit with the volume to hear dialogue near the end, but it is far less irritating than some of the most mismatched mixes I've suffered through. Dynamics also remain superb, with excellent fidelity across the entire frequency spectrum and powerful, deep low bass. In short, 'The Mummy' remains an aural winner.
Universal has released 'The Mummy' so many times and in so many different configurations on standard-def DVD that I've lost count. Like such perennial home video favorites as 'Stargate' and the 'Terminator' flicks, 'The Mummy' seems to be one of Universal's most durable cash cows, so it is no surprise they are releasing it fairly early in the lifecycle of HD DVD. Though not as fleshed out as the "Ultimate Edition" two-disc standard-def DVD, this version of the movie retains the good stuff and thankfully dumps most of the fluffy, promo crap from some of the other releases (some of which felt more like extended trailers for 'The Mummy Returns' instead of genuine special editions).
Director Stephen Sommers kicks things off with a screen-specific audio commentary, where he is joined by editor Bob Ducsay. I will say one thing about Sommers -- he really believes in the movies he makes. Incredibly animated throughout, he bursts with enthusiasm for every scene, and it is easy to see why he is able to attract such a-list the talent to his projects. His enthusiasm on the commentary also easily trumps Ducsay, who aside from a few post-production nuggets seems to be purely along for the ride. But aside from Sommers' relentless optimism, I appreciated his insight into his conception of the material as action-adventure rather than horror (even if I wish this weren't the case) and the choices he made in refashioning the Mummy character as more of a flesh-and-blood creation with a backstory, and not just some dead guy in bandages. And at least Sommers is honest about his obvious lifts from Indiana Jones and countless other movies, with numerous references proving that he's well-versed in modern pop filmmaking. I can't say that this commentary is a must-listen for casual fans, but diehards should not skip it.
But wait, there are two more audio commentaries -- one with actor Brendan Fraser, and the second with Oded Fehr, Kevin J. O'Connor and Arnold Vosloo. Why these two tracks weren't simply edited together is beyond me -- Fraser is a very likable, earnest guy, but he struggles to hold a whole track on his solo shoulders, while on the other track only Vosloo has an interesting enough character to warrant a commentary appearance at all. These two tracks are for 'Mummy' masochists only.
"Building a Better 'Mummy'" is a surprisingly meaty 50-minute documentary. Presented in 480i video and pillarboxed at 4:3, the quality is a bit dated and there is far too much focus put on the film's once-cutting-edge special effects. But I was surprised by the wealth of behind-the-scenes material, the snappy pace, and the better-than-average quality of the on-set cast and crew interviews. Sommers is again a one-man show, with seemingly boundless energy. What is fun about watching "Building a Better 'Mummy'" is that no one involved was a big star yet, so there's an air of uncertainty surrounding the project that makes for good drama. A clear cut above your usual fluff-minded EPK.
Two additional featurettes delve even further into the film's digital wonders. "Visual and Special Effects Formulations" offers four different selectable iterations of five different scenes, from raw effects rendering to the final complete sequence. There are also Storyboard-to-Screen Comparisons for three additional scenes: "Hangman's Noose," "Scarab Run" and "Trouble In Cairo."
Finally, there are about two minutes worth of Deleted Scenes. None are very interesting, and all seem like appropriate cuts. The quality of these scenes is also fairly mediocre, presented in 480i full-screen video only.
'The Mummy' is not really a great movie, but it is a perfectly capable, quite stylish Hollywood confection. I personally wished it had been more of a horror movie instead of just another Indiana Jones rip-off, but the film made gazillions at the box office so what do I know? One thing is for sure, however: this HD DVD is another fine catalog release from Universal. The transfer and soundtrack are spiffy, and we get plenty of extras (even if they are somewhat dated). Definitely worth a look for 'Mummy' fans.