Review: The Mummy Returns

by malducin

The 2000 Summer season gets and early start this year with the opening today of The Mummy Returns. A sequel to the highly successful 1999 film, it brings back much of the original talent, with director Stephen Sommers back to lead the troops. Much of the original cast is back, along with the ILM crew, lead by John Berton Jr. .

The review will appear later tonight (after I get back from seeing it :-), but feel free to post your own reviews. Remember to warn for spoilers.

Here is my take with medium to heavy spoilers, but surrounded by asteriscs if you want to avoid.

The Story

Well we all know the story I guess. We are first treated to an opening sequence for the back story of the Scorpion King. Basically, he is a warrior bent on conquering but after being defeated in a 7 year war he makes a pact with the Egyptian god Anubis. He sells his soul in exchange for an army of Anubis warriors. In the end the army is put away and the Scorpion King's soul is taken away and made servant of Anubis until he is awaken again.

What follows is the events set about 9 years after the original movie. Rick and Evelyn are married and have an 8 year old boy, Alex. Evie discovers the Scorpion King's bracelet which gets locked into the wrist of Alex and it's the only way to find the resting place of the Scorpion King, and also starts the End of the World, since the Scorpion King and his army will be resurrected. In the meantime, Imhotep followers resurrect him again, led by the mysterious Meela.

*** Light spoilers begin***
Imhotep's plan is to kill the Scorpion King and command his army while bringing back her lost love Anuck Su-Namun.
*** End spoiler ***

Since the bracelet is stuck in young Alex's hand his is kidnapped, and a race to rescue him and get to the Scorpion King's resting place begins.

The Trailers

Seems that Universal wasn't able to ship trailers to everyone. At my location Jurassic Park 3 was indeed shown on the big screen, the same one that premiered Friday also on Apple's website. But on the big screen the quality really shines. While you only get glimpses of the spinosaur, and it doesn't look that much bigger than the T-Rex, seems it will be quite a site. The new raptor species get a revamp, not only with the slight primitive feather crest but also their slight coloring on their scales. The stampede of dinos look like it will try to beat the excellent sequence shown in The Lost World. Other trailers shown was the Final Fantasy trailer, but it's not new, Rush Hour 2, The Fast and the Furious, and What the Worst Thing That Could happen (I believe that's the title for the DeVito and Lawrence comedy), and Evolution. the Evolution one was nice, almost identical qith the first full trailer but with a couple of added shots, especially a huge creature coming out of the ground. But JP3 was the highlight and well worth getting on time for the show.

The Movie

The tone of this movie is a tad bit darker on this one, and much more action oriented. Much of the goofiness of the first one is gone. Instead we are treated to what amounts to a string of almost continuous action sequences. Much of the characters have stayed the same and there has been no growth. Brendan Fraser's Rick O'Connel is basically the same, shoot first, make smart comment guy from the first movie, no much indication of how married life has changed him with the exception of the very few moments he interacts or speaks about his son.

Two of the coolest guys from the first movie have not much of a presence: Oded Fehr as Ardeth Bay and Arnold Vosloo as Imhotep. While Fehr has several good action sequences, his lines mainly concern repeating about prophecies and fate. His does have several good scenes fighting baddies including mummies and Anubis warriors. Another missed opportunity is Vosloo's Imhotep, he is usually just going about his way to reach the secret Oasis, just stopping enough to cause trouble, but his menacing presence is diminished, as he is the one being chased instead of being the one terrorizing our heroes for the most part. Even though he shares quite a bit of scenes with Patricia Velasquez' character they didn't expand more fully on these tragic romantics except for a few scenes where the mostly show their affection, but no more complexity in their characters.

In contrast the women seems to have gotten the best deals. Patricia Velasquez character has more screen time, though here motives or how she came to find her past heritage which in turns brings the Mummy back is not discussed. Rachael Weisz' Evelyn on the other hand is the most developed character. She is not the timid and clumsy librarian from the first film. She is a seasoned traveler now, caring of her son, romantic with her husband and quite a bit adventurous, and is a certain sense a big driving force for the film (story and emotionally wise).

As for the rest of the characters, John Hannah, as Jonathan, Evie's brother, is always enjoyable. Freddie Boath as young Alex does a good job of holding his own. While at sometimes he looks to smart for his age he kind of works as someone between his characters adventurous father and smarter mother. Other characters include a few baddies most of them quite forgettable. Alun Armstrong as the deceitful museum curator, but nothing is mentioned as to why he is an Imhotep follower. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as baddie heavyweight Lock Nah, first makes a strong presence but then his meanness is diminished by the fact that he has to keep an eye on the kid. And of course Dwayne Johnson aka "The Rock" is only really present for about 5 min. And while not much of his character is explained he has real screen presence (no wonder Universal wants to make The Scorpion King). Also a nice cameo of the actor who played the original pharaoh in the first film. And the blimp pilot (sorry forgot his name) Izzy brings some good comic relief.

The real problem is the sometimes big plot gaps on the story and some twisting and stretching of some of the facts established from the first movie:

*** Warning Heavy Spoilers Ahead: ***
In one instance we discover that Rick has a tattoo indicating that he is the protector from God (against the oncoming Apocalypse). While he explains he maybe got it at the orphanage, the tattoo is located in a very visible place, right above his wrist, which of course he didn't have on the first movie. A better thing would have been to put it in a more covered body part. Evie's back story is changed as to be the reincarnation of the Pharaoh daughters, who battles Anuck Su-Namun, and the reason she has visions. Especially jarring was the fact that not only was she the reincarnation but also looked the same in both times, which contradicts the first film where Imhotep is reminded of Anuck Su Namun when looking at Evelyn and even kissing her. At least Meela and Anuck are made a tad bit different (mainly by simple makeup), that when a time transition occurs there is a subtle morph. It seems that now they are not only soul reincarnations but also physical doubles. One of the biggest plot holes happens at the end of the movie. The heroes use a primitive blimp to pursue Imhotep, which he downs in the secret oasis of Ahm Shehr. The pilot states that the blimp need gas to inflate it again (never mind that it might have been severely torn in the thick jungle) but out of nowhere he comes to save the heroes at the very end, no explanation whatsoever. Also it seems this blimp has jet propulsion in 1933. Another one is when Imhotep is resurrected the first time, he briefly comes out as the stage one icky mummy, but on his own he is able to transform himself to stage 2 mummy, kind of the dissecated body. We never get an explanation why the Scorpion King gets transformed into his hybrid form (a curse?) nor there is any hint of why when he was at the edge of victory with the Anubis army is his soul taken away.

In the end it seems that it was mainly action sequences stringed together, or just to showcase FX. The plot is not that convoluted as some people have expressed. But it seems not everything was thought through. The concept of the bracelet vision seemed a bit too much, a hologram, more like a portable Holodeck. On the other hand Evie's vision are handled better. As I mentioned no explanation of why the museum curator is really an Imhotep follower. Another instance happens when at the very end Anuck Su Namun abandons Imhotep and they meet their destiny, which destroys the fact of having these two as tragic lovers. Something better like both dying while trying to save themselves or a maybe even escaping as just mortals would have been better. It didn't fit the character of Anuck Su Namun. There are other minor annoyances in the settings, like the totally fictitious view of London (showing basically all the big landmarks at that POV), or having a much raised Gizah in a plateau with a lower train station and city in the foreground. Then there is the fact that when Imhotep reaches Karnack they just happen to find a pool of black ooze (like in Hamunaptra) just to resurrect Anuck Su Namum. We also have the kid making sand castles of Egyptian monuments, with the help of water, to leave as clues to his parents in pursuit. It stretches a bit the credibility that this kid would be able to make this sculptures that good, especially being a captive and then not having them being discovered. Especially in the first instance when it's in plain sight. On other occasions he did hid them with clothing he was leaving behind, but still. Also at times the secret oasis looks like a deep African or Amazon Jungle than an oasis but it's a minor grievance. Just like the typical running as the sun rises. Suffice it to say, many little details were twisted or contradicted stuff or simply didn't make sense.
*** End spoilers ***

The FX

The VFX were done by ILM, CFC, Matte World Digital and Digiscope. Nick Dudman returns for the makeup FX (which doesn't seem as extensive as the first movie) and Neil Corbould handles the physical FX.

*** More heavy Spoilers, detailing FX sequences ***
Last but not least is the FX. Are they really bad or are people misrepresenting the work? My take it's that it's something in the middle. If we take 80% of the public (what I call the mom test), probably 90% of the FX are fine. The main problem the regular public will have will probably be the Scorpion King (more on that later) and some of the FX sequences. But for the more discerning and keen eyed it will be hit and miss. In general terms, the miniatures were good, the huge human armies were extremely good as were the several mummy FX, all A+. matte paintings were quite good though some looked a bit flat and lacking atmosphere, but for the most part quite effective, B+. Anubis warriors in close-up were also very good, another A+, but long shots of their armies B-. Compositing was good for the most part, a solid A with a few instances of C-. Other assorted FX varies, The water wall receives a B overall (some shots A others B-), dynamic and particle FX were mixed some A, and some B- and C+. The Scorpion King gets a C, some parts were A, but others were not that great.

In the beginning we are treated to an impressive view of Thebes 5000 years ago. The miniature and compositing is flawless. Then we see two armies, the Scorpion Kings one and the opposing Egyptian army. The scene contains thousands and countless rows of warriors, of epic proportions are quite larger than the Gungan battle. Not noticeable problems of crowd replication or cycling motion are apparent, and when the armies clash some very nice touches like the front rows slowing down in the clash while the other rows catch up. A nice short shot occurs when a scorpion comes out of the sand, you can see it perturbing the sand when it burst out and the Scorpion King grabbing it. Soon enough a "magical" oasis springs up, including palm trees springing up, with sand being kicked up and vegetation springing up. Not a bad sequence though it moves quite fast, I preferred the jungle that forms in Jumanji. The next major sequence brings the Anubis army in sight with a hero shot of one of these baddies. The camera starts at its canine foot while panning up and seeing the warrior growling and wielding his weapon. The animation was superb, you can see those muscles twitching and the skin shader is good. But in subsequent shots we have some problems. We are given a wide angle overview of Thebes on the siege, with the Anubis warriors pouring in. You can quite clearly see that not many variation of walk cycles were done, but it almost looks like they just move their legs back and forth, some even seem to float above the ground as their is some lack of shadow definition and their leg motion sometimes doesn't coincide with the speed they are moving. While they are quite small it somewhat noticeable. But as the camera pans and we see the temples burning you can see the smoke mainly coming out flatly out of the buildings with just a simple transparency gradient to blend it in. You don't get the feel that the smoke is actually pouring out of the temples openings. Moments later we see a nice shot of the Scorpion King's soul been taken away and a time transition to the present (well, 1933).

A minor sequence involves the O'Connell's exploring some ancient tombs. After activating a booby trap (which story wise it was not shown how that happened as opposed to the first movie) the Nile starts pouring in. We see Rick and Evie running from the water in style reminiscent of the Temple of Doom. Compositing in several shots of the actors was quite solid. We are also treated to some practical FX of pillars falling like dominoes similar to the library films on the first film.

The next set of sequences involve the resurrection of Imhotep and the reappearance of several mummies. First we get a shot of the flesh eating beetles from the first movie. A mound forms from where the beetle come out, no close-up of the bugs and they just start consuming several of the people around, moving like a sea like the first time around. There is one nice shot of the bugs crawling under someone's skin. The only grievance is that this sequence is pointless and no other appearances of the beetles are seen. While it's meant to show that they are getting close to where Imhotep crystallized body lies, the actual remains are found elsewhere. We get some nice matte painting of London along the way. Next Imhotep is resurrected but quickly transforms from icky mummy to more humanoid mummy. The detail is quite amazing, the shaders are amazing and of course as he moves around you can see the underlying dried up organs and muscles move around. Overall all these mummy shots are good, the animation is superb, and the excellent lighting and compositing really make this creatures real and blend with the action. Fighting starts and the Mummy resurrects 4 mummy warriors also quite good which chase the heroes. In a scene reminiscent of Jumanji, 2 of the mummies walk above the car and crush it and in another small but excellent detail one of them goes through a bit of steam and the interaction with it while short is good, more than just a simple blend. Soon the mummies start climbing the walls of buildings like spiders during the chase, one even jumps through several flagpoles, while they move quite fast and sometimes seem floaty it fits perfectly with the first movie. When they catch the double Decker a hand fight ensues (a combination of CG and prosthetic mummies). Lighting is quite solid in here and in one instance a mummy cut in half, his torso continues the fight. We also get several mummy face stretching. Overall excellent sometimes surpassing the original mummy shots.

As the action shifts to Egypt we get a nice composite/matte painting of the train arriving near the pyramids of Gizah. The only problem is a conceptual one as the previous London one, where they want to seem to fit all sorts of architecture to establish the shot, in London you see the Bridge, Big Ben and Buckingham, while here you see the pyramids on a plateau along a town, a mosque and the foreground train station. We get some more shots of Imhotep, one speaking with the kid. A previous scene has Imhotep kissing Meela and the interaction is stunning. We see Imhotep inner face muscles move along his mandibles, while Meela's hands touch Imhotep's face and we even see some of here fingers poking through the skin. The tracking is simply amazing, even as the camera moves towards the end. Later on Imhotep finds 3 victims so that he can reform himself. In a nice shot we see him suck the life energy of one of them while he becomes more human (something mostly off camera first time around). At this point he is whole again. As a side note as the story progresses, we are treated to flashbacks and visions of the back story. We have a few matte paintings of ancient Thebes at night which are good, and we see some of the buildings in this time. Some of the painting look a bit flat especially on the very background objects like pillars but nothing too objectionable, only a keen eye would find much fault. Eventually Imhotep finds a pool of black ooze and brings back Anuck Su Namun's, just exactly like the first film. Nothing new.

In the meantime the heroes start the chase on the blimp. The model is quite good and you can see the wind rippling through it. A few problems occur during the night shots, especially at the end. the camera starts at the front focusing on Evie after her vision, and the camera starts circling the blimp, but the background stays fairly in place which really brings the illusion down, making it appear as two separate filmed objects. It's only the camera moving, there is no sense of the blimp moving or the perspective change in the background until the very end. The wide views during the blimp chase are a bit hit and miss. We get to see the blimp fly over the semi buried Abu Simbel temple, a quite lovely shot. But just before that, as the blimp flies over the Filae Island we see another of those miss shots. While the temple and the water elements are fine separate, you get one of those simple transparency blends between the water and island, there is no waves crashing or foam, the water just slows fades away around the edge of the island. While short, it was quite apparent.

The next big sequence happens when Imhotep raises a wall of water from the Nile river similar to the wall of sand from the first film. The actual rising of the wall is quite stunning and extremely well executed and animated. Then the wall rushes toward the blimp. As it does, we can see the Imhotep face also protruding. The interaction with the canyon walls is good with much foam spaying, but the face, while very apparent, doesn't have as much definition as the sand version did, in part because the water is made out to be really clear and blue and almost no ripples (small scale details) and spray were included, it lacks the more volumetric sensation. It needed maybe a little more surface detail akin to the wave in Deep Impact, and not as realistic as The perfect Storm water. Overall OK, but it could have been a bit better IMHO. To escape the blimp uses it thrusters.

Some of the FX look fine but the I don't like the concept. Case in point is the blimp. When the thrusters are activated it moves quite fast, but not only that, the actual balloon remains firmly in place, doesn't get stretched to the back, or deformed and rippled because of the wind force. Smoke looks good though it disappears quite fast, looked more like water vapor than thick smoke from a jet but that's just a personal preference. Soon the blimp is overtaken and it crashes on the edge of the oasis. Before that we are treated to a few matte shots of the hidden oasis. Just a big jungle in the middle of nowhere.

The next major sequence involves the pygmy mummies. I really enjoyed the concept, and this guys were a lot of fun, popping up all over the place, running, shooting (poisonous) darts, stabbing people, swinging on vines and all sorts of stuff. Again as with the other mummy FX they were top notch, though since it's at night and they move quite fast we don't get many good long detailed looks of them. Though some spring forward to the camera as to attack the cameramen, a nice touch. They also are as fun as the warrior mummies, lots of good cartoony facial animation, great interaction with the environment, and good lighting and compositing. They really look to be there. A really excellent sequence. At this point the heroes catch up to the baddies. Our heroes run and Rick blows a tree connecting to sides of a precipice leaving the pygmies on the other sides. A few more shots of the little guys falling, and if you watch closely you can even see one or two still holding to and crawling around the falling tree trunk. My only minor complaint is that the tree looks as if cut cleanly in half, you can see a flat incandescent cut, instead of a jagged one. Finally the Rick carries his son, as dawn approaches to get to the golden pyramid, where he outruns the rising sun while a wall of light approaches fast from behind. Another one of those poor story concepts, and actually if I remember right the light should approach them from the opposite side, not from behind.

Inside the temple the Scorpion King is summoned. In a strange sequence, the interior of the temple light up which didn't make much sense. While Imhotep prepares to fight the Scorpion Kings, he goes through a threshold where his powers are taken away. We get the quick swirly cloud and minor light FX to show this but they look mostly pasted on and almost TV like, unlike the soul taking shot at the beginning of the movie. This looks like it was done at the end.

Finally we get to see the Scorpion King. The design is interesting (even if it's never explained why he is that way) something that could have been done by Harryhausen himself. The body of a scorpion with the torso and face of the Rock, though it has some additions like 4 claws (2 big and 2 smaller ones). The Scorpion body is actually quite good, The animation is great of all it's limbs and it's skin looks quite scorpion like with some human skin characteristics (like it's not as shiny as a hard scorpion exoskeleton). But the head is a bit disappointing, the animation is quite stiff, and while the hair is good is not even the same hairstyle that the character at the beginning. The face looked and moved more plastically. It just seem to have too little keyframes on the lip synch and is not very expressive, quite stiff and shiny and doesn't match the Rock's tan, in a few instances it doesn't look much like the Rock. While being CG allows it freedom of movement (as it climbs the walls and ceiling) you have to wonder why it wasn't choreographed like Merryl Streep's shots for Death Becomes Her. That would have sold the shot. Or just resurrect him as a human. Quite a bit of a letdown. Though the skin in the abdomen is quite good, in one shot when Rick finally kills the monster by using a spear (on another lame story point that I won't elaborate about how he figures that out), you see him twirl the spear and a very nice FX of the skin being stretched is accomplished. Overall while the lower body was OK, sometimes even good, the torso/head brought it down. The CG humans from the Final Fantasy trailer looked better, and they are not supposed to pass for real. Also there is a good shot of a guy being ripped apart by the Scorpion though it looks like he was ripped a bit too cleanly, but that's just a matter of taste. There are some shots with the digital fire, albeit brief it looks quite good. Actually at some points I'm not sure I caught all of them, since there is also quite a bit of practical fire FX going on.

Meanwhile on the outside the armies of Ardeth Bay and the Anubis one clash. In another strange sequence a shadow goes across the sands, at times looking like a big scorpions, at others like formed by millions of scorpions and a big black ash cloud rises and settle and from it the undead warriors form. Again most hero shots are excellent and you see also the underlying muscles and organs of the creatures. The 2 huge armies clash, and some nice battle and fights happen, much like the use of several mocap data and crowd fight cycles of the Gungan battle, we see one here in a much bigger scale and with more chaos and variation. When an Anubis warrior gets his head chopped off he turns to sand again. While the close-ups and hero fights are fine, the wide shots suffer from some problems. mainly that the Anubis warriors don't seem to even affect the sand at all, no paw imprints, no kicking up sand, etc. It would have been good to put some of the interaction stuff in, even if it didn't correspond to the actual steps but with the action it might have been enough to sell the shot more effectively. Finally the army is defeated but as soon as they think they are victorious a second bigger wave of Anubis warriors appears in the distance charging forward. This time we see them kick sand as they charge in several shots. As the Scorpion King is killed on the inside the second Anubis army dissolves into an ash cloud. The other conceptual problem is that it vanishes completely out in thin air. You would expect the floor and guys covered in ash, but not in this instance.

We finally get to the final sequence of the movie. When the Scorpion King dies his temple starts falling apart and starts to implode. At this moment both Rick and Imhotep are barely grabbing for life, haven fallen to a deep rift in the temple, presumably an entrance to hell. Another bizarre shot, as the walls of the precipice are lined up with glowing animated corpses and creatures. Kind of reminded me of the Jeff Goldblum starer, Brett Leonard's Hideaway. Evie runs to save here man as huge stalactites fall from the ceiling. It a combination of practical and CG elements. The CG elements break up nicely and their texture matches the practical ones but in several shots you can see some color difference between the real and the CG ones, with the CG ones looking much lighter and browner. While it's several quick shots looking carefully at the long sequence you'll be able to catch a few CG ones. Finally Imhotep suicides himself after her love abandons him. He throws himself down and we see him being carried down. Though if I remember the trailer correctly it was supposed to be only fire down below which I think it would have been better. As Anuck Su Namun tries to escape, she falls into a pit full of scorpions, and much like the flesh eating scarabs she is surrounded and consumed. The animation is quite similar, which makes it harder to distinguish them and the interaction as they engulf their face is just a bit simplistic. Actually her face and hand disappear by another simple dissolve (much like the whale's eye in Cast Away), but the contrast makes it very apparent. As the temple gets destroyed the surrounding oasis get sucked into the pyramid. We see the rapidly moving vegetation passing by. In a few previous shots we see a black cloud rise above the pyramid and form a slow moving vortex, with the Rock's face formed on it. Again the volumetric effects is not enough IMHO, sometimes looking a bit flat. Some shots of the vegetation are quite good, as when the heroes start climbing up the pyramid, in other instances it looks more like a fast moving green blur and the oasis looks like it was chopped to small pieces, sometimes defines sometimes blurry. Finally behind the oasis a wall of sand also comes in.. As the heroes are rescued we see an overhead shot of the oasis finally being consumed by the sands along with the pyramid. The terrain undulates like jello and not near as good as the original Hamunaptra destruction. Finally a big sand plume emerges upwards which was good and from it the blimp emerges safely. We get one final shot of the heroes flying away another so so shot of the blimp against the background matte painting.

Overall the FX ranged from good to excellent (especially all the mummies' shots), but there are quite a bit of shots that could have been improved on. Most people won't care except for the Scorpion King. The first Mummy seemed more even in the quality, this one had more shots but conversely there was a higher percentage of shots that didn't quite work for me (and some were technically and artistically OK, but conceptually off the mark). It's certainly not a bad ILM show by any stretch, but the highlights of the year will come later this year on other shows.
***End of spoilers ***

The VFX were done by ILM, CFC, Matte World Digital and Digiscope. Nick Dudman returns for the makeup FX (which doesn't seem as extensive as the first movie) and Neil Corbould handles the physical FX.

(FX review to appear a bit later)

The Veredict

Overall, the movie is satisfying, it's OK and has several good sequences. The feeling I get is similar to Armageddon, sometimes a lot of fun but which is in the end brought down by it's story. It will be a huge hit nonetheless. Overall I give the movie barely **1/2 out of 5, serviceable, barely good, sometimes fun, but not really good. FX I w would give *** out of 5 mainly because of the unevenness, some FX were 4 or 5 stars while other were 2 and 3 so it kinds of balances. Would I see it again? Probably but I won't rush this weekend to catch it a second time. Comparing it to other FX and action movies this year, it a fine effort, the FX quite a bit better than Driven, though the story and direction of Harlin was batter than The Mummy Returns in several instances. If you liked the first you will probably enjoy somewhat this one, so it will be hit or miss some will find it fine while other's will find much more at fault. In the end I fault more Universal and in part Sommers for rushing this one out. With some many good details and FX sequences, with a little more time it could have been really polished, as several FX sequences were really good, and story problems could have been ironed out.

But remember this is just my opinion, I could be wrong.

[This message has been edited by malducin (edited 05-05-2001).]

[This message has been edited by malducin (edited 05-05-2001).]

[This message has been edited by malducin (edited 05-05-2001).]