THE MUMMY: 4K UHD Blu-Ray (Universal, 1999) Universal Home Entertainment
Owing more to the adventures of Indiana Jones than the classic Universal monster of its title, Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy (1999) is a spine-tingling, fun and fabulous fright fest, careening with hairpin plot twists and more than a light smattering of slapstick comedy. Many today will forget the original Mummy (1933), starring Boris Karloff, was a darkly purposed supernatural melodrama, upholding Uni’s reputation as Hollywood’s own Transylvania; the cycle, begun a year earlier with Carl Laemmle Jr.’s affinity for Todd Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein (1932). The outstanding element of the ’33 version was Karloff’s fearsome mummy make-up, plastered together via a painstaking and hours-long application of rags, collodion and spirit gum. Karloff was a good sport here. I cannot imagine how labor-intensive the process must have been. Uni’s original Mummy was, in fact, an original concept – cribbing from the then fashionable explorations funded by the British Museum to unearth ancient Egyptian ruins and rulers, buried beneath the sands in the Valley of the Kings. Sommer’s reboot of The Mummy has virtually nothing to do with researching antiquity. Our adventuresome rogue, Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser) is merely out for all the fortune, glory and riches he can get. And, as this mummy could not be left to lumber about with a limp and a prayer – however unholy – the newly incarnated monster in Sommer’s tale is represented as an effects-laden extravaganza, its half-rotting remains, steadily brought back to life via its cannibalizing consumption of live humans.
Given The Mummy’s lengthy gestation period – and the many hands involved in shaping, then re-shaping it for the screen – the results could have been more disastrous than dazzling. The project dated all the way back to the early 90’s when producers, James Jacks and Sean Daniel received a green-light from Universal to develop The Mummy as a B-grade horror flick on a relatively minuscule $10 million budget. In keeping with that original vision, Daniel hired Clive Barker to direct, but also assist in the adaptation. Alas, Barker's vision, centered on a contemporary cultist reanimating mummies, proved too dark and sexual for the studio chieftains. So, Barker left the project. For a moment’s glimmer, it looked as though Joe Dante might direct Daniel Day-Lewis as the bandaged king, from a working draft also set in contemporary times, written by Alan Ormsby, later, almost entirely reworked by John Sayles. Here, the focus was on reincarnation. Interestingly, some of the elements from this draft, including the flesh-eating scarabs, would find their way into the finished movie. Only now, Uni upped the ante by $5 million, otherwise rejecting Dante’s concept for the picture. Along this rough road, legendary schlock-meister, George A. Romero was brought in, reinterpreting the picture as a zombie-esque horror movie, its protagonist, a female archaeologist who unearths the tomb of Imhotep, an Egyptian general. Again, the picture was set in modern times. At this juncture, however, Romero’s previous commitments on another project over at MGM precluded his further participation. As he owned the rights to this story, another screenplay was put into development in his absence, with Uni considering, first Mick Garris and then, Wes Craven to direct. While Garris showed definite interest, Craven illustrated none.
By 1997, the time was rife for Stephen Sommers to pitch his own 18-page treatment for The Mummy; Universal, experiencing its own ‘changing of the guard’ after the box office implosion of Babe: Pig in the City (1998). Uni needed a hit and a megaton one at that. As nothing modest would do, they not only backed Sommers project, but inflated its budget to a reported $80 million (although, Sommers would later suggest, the picture only cost Universal $62 million). As political unrest in Egypt precluded any principle photography, Sommers was instead given seventeen weeks in Marrakech, Morocco, and, the opportunity to shoot in the middle of the Sahara; also, the United Kingdom. To spare cast and crew from dehydration under extreme heat conditions, a special glucose/protein shake was created, which was consumed by everyone every two hours. Alas, shooting in a foreign land, Sommers was given the full support of the Royal Moroccan Army, with Uni taking out ‘kidnap’ insurance on the entire cast and crew. However, these extremely remote locations came with many drawbacks, not the least, daily sandstorms and aggressive encounters with poisonous snakes, spiders and scorpions, necessitating some having to be airlifted to medical safety after being bitten and infected with their lethal venom. During the sequence in which Rick O’Connell is preparing to be hanged in the public square, a malfunctioning rope caused Brendan Fraser to suffer real strangulation. “He stopped breathing,” costar, Rachel Weisz recalls, “…and had to be resuscitated.”
While Sommers busied himself taking advantage of all these genuine locales, production designer, Allan Cameron recreated a replica of the real volcano near Erfoud as the forbidden city of Hamunaptra, built as a set at Shepperton Studios, along with an intricate series of underground passageways. Cameron also redressed the dockyards at Chatham, England to suggest the port city of Giza, augmenting it with open carriages, carts, horses and grooms, plus a small menagerie of Arab vendors and wild animals. Roughly $15 million (or, the movie’s entire original budget) was poured into Industrial Light & Magic’s SFX, supervised by John Andrew Berton, Jr., employing motion capture to achieve a genuinely terrifying monster. Wherever possible, actor, Arnold Vosloo’s actual face was replicated in digital prosthetic make-up, adding both continuity and credibility to the performance of these computer-generated mummies. Effects Supervisor, Nick Dudman also created 3D make-up and prosthetics, skillfully wed to some animatronic and live-action recreations. Rats and locusts were, in fact, real. The last bit of good fortune bestowed upon the production was its score, composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith to provide a rich orchestral tapestry, imbued with all the elements of danger and adventure.
The final screenplay for The Mummy is credited exclusively to Sommers, from a story by him, Lloyd Fonvielle and Kevin Jarre, despite the shooting script borrowing elements from virtually all of the failed adaptations gone before it. Our plot beings with a pre-title sequence in ancient Egypt, circa 1290 B.C. Pharaoh Seti's (Aharon Ipale) high priest, Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) is discovered in a forbidden affair with Pharaoh’s mistress, Anck Su Namun (the sultry, Patricia Velasquez). Murdering the monarch, Anck Su Namun commits suicide before the Pharaoh’s guards, but not before Imhotep promises to bring her back from the dead. Temporarily escaping execution, Imhotep steals Anack Su Namun's corpse, traveling to Hamunaptra, the city of the Dead where he endeavors, with priests loyal to him, to resurrect her spirit. Alas, Pharaoh's guards arrive to the hidden temple first, putting Imhotep to death by cutting out his tongue, then placing him alive inside a sarcophagus filled with flesh-eating scarabs. Fast track to 1926. A war has broken out between the French foreign legionnaires, fronted by adventurer, Rick O'Connell and Arab revolutionaries. Escaping certain death on the battlefield, O'Connell is nevertheless taken prisoner and slated for execution after having himself 'a good time' in Cairo. Meanwhile, klutzy Egyptologist, Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) has learned from her treasure-seeking brother, Jonathan (John Hannah), O'Connell claims to have been to the ruins of Hamunaptra. Bribing the prison warden to release O'Connell, Evelyn next forces O'Connell to take them to Hamunapatra.
Unfortunately, O'Connell's fair-weather friend, Bennie Gabor (Kevin J. O'Connor) also knows the whereabouts of this ancient city and has agreed to take a contingent of American fortune hunters there to loot the tombs of the ancient Pharaohs. The Americans discover Hamunaptra's book of the dead. Mercifully, Evelyn has the key to unlock it. After the Americans group leader, Dr. Allen Chamberlain (Jonathan Hyde) has gone to bed, Evelyn steals the ancient book and, unknowing of its potent curse, begins to read from it aloud. Unhappily so, the book's incantation resurrects Imhotep from his skeletal slumber. From this moment on, he will stop at nothing to become whole again, consuming the fortune hunters one by one, a curse foretold and forewarned by Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr) - the chieftain of the Madji. One by one, the American contingent has the life sucked from their bodies by the mummy. With Bennie’s help, Imhotep kidnaps Evelyn to use as his human sacrifice to resurrect Anack Su Namun from the dead. At Hamunaptra, Imhotep begins the ancient ceremony. Mercifully, O'Connell and Jonathan arrive and together with Evelyn's cunning, and, the Book of Amun-Ra, a sort of antidote to the book of the dead, they force the mummy to become mortal again. O'Connell then plunges his sword into Imhotep who dies a second time.
The Mummy is far from perfect entertainment, though it does have its moments. Taking its cue in set design from the original 1933 movie, the ancient temples here are just a tad too pristine and stylish to be believed in all their supposed antiquity. Despite this, set design is one of the most salable assets of this production. So too is the genuine chemistry between Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz palpable; a romantic sparring to ignite their eventual love among these ruins. John Hannah makes for a lovable comedic fop, chicken-hearted to the very end. However, the outstanding performance here goes to Arnold Vosloo. In a role of very few words and even fewer scenes to have not been altered in some way by digital effects trickery, Vosloo manages to convey genuine foreboding. While critical reaction to the picture was mixed at best, virtually all the critics found some redeeming values to amuse their ‘less than artistic’ sensibilities; the late Roger Ebert perhaps summarizing this conflict of interest best, adding, “There is hardly a thing I can say in its favor, except that I was cheered by nearly every minute...” Ebert went on to suggest while he could recommend neither the script nor the performances, we was never bored by the picture, and, better still, “…sometimes I was unreasonably pleased.” The Mummy is, without a doubt, a pop-corn-muncher’s wet dream, a slick and stylishly assembled actioner, cribbing from elements of the supernatural, and taking the audience on one hell of a satisfying roller coaster ride. Not every movie need be a Citizen Kane to be considered great in its own right, or, on its own varying slide-ruler of excellence. And while The Mummy’s artistic merits can be debated ad nauseum, no one can argue with the picture’s profitability – grossing a whopping $415 million at the box office. Fair enough, not everything that makes money is ‘good’, but The Mummy actually is a wonderful showcase for then state-of-the-art SFX done right, and, a story solid enough to hang our expectations on for one hell of a fun time.
There is no point debating the merits between Universal Home Video's 4K Blu-Ray remaster and the original Blu-ray release from 2000. Image quality is night and day, head and shoulders above anything we have seen outside of the original theatrical presentation. The image here is stunningly handsome and picture perfect. Colors that appeared homogenized in sandy oranges on the Blu-ray have been refined to illustrate their subtlest nuances, with beautiful flesh tones, superb contrast, exceptional detail, and a very light smattering of film grain, indigenous to its source. Point blank, the 4K release is pristine – in every way, a reference quality master and stunning barometer of what the UHD format is capable of when exceptional care is taken to ensure all the necessary tweaking has been applied with due diligence. The one shortcoming here is Uni has not deigned to upgrade the standard Blu-ray from the same 4K master, but instead, merely slapped the old Blu-ray into this keep-case. Comparing the two is as futile as justifying camels to black stallions. The 4K is the real/reel deal. Wow – and thank you! We get a lossless 5.1 DTS that is aggressive. There are no extras on the 4K disc. But the original Blu-ray houses a very comprehensive collection of goodies, including 'Building A Better Mummy' in which Sommers and his crew wax about their digital effects. Bottom line: very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)