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, must 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, 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.'
'The Mummy' is the first Blu-ray title I have reviewed from Universal, though any excitement is tempered by the fact that this does not appear to be a remaster versus the previous HD DVD release, albeit with a 1080p/VC-1 encode at a higher bitrate. (I would also be surprised if this isn't minted from the same source as the previous D-VHS release.) For a film made so many light-years ago in 1999, 'The Mummy' holds up quite well on high def. I still don't find this one a five-star transfer due to some consistency issues, but it certainly ranks as a significantly high-tier catalog release.
The source material remains in fine shape. There is a slight veil of grain apparent in most scenes ('The Mummy' was actually shot on film, despite the extensive CGI) but it gives the transfer a more warm, real feeling and is never 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 can sometimes be distracting.
Detail is quite good, if uneven. There are shots that are breathtaking, while others appear a bit flatter. Some of this has to do with the CGI, as effects-heavy 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 is a lot in 'The Mummy.' The result is that fast action lacks clarity and fine detail, but so it goes. At least the encode is strong, with compression artifacts such as macroblocking and pixel break-up not apparent.
If the video for 'The Mummy' offers no upgrade over the HD DVD, the audio sure does. Vastly superior to the lame Dolby Digital track provided on the HD DVD, Universal delivers a DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit) that finally deliver the high-res audio 'The Mummy' deserves.
'The Mummy' benefits greatly from 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). The rear soundfield is noticeably more pronounced in DTS-MA, with directionality much more dexterous, and heft and realism far superior. Imaging, too, is seamless, which elevates the mix to a whole new level.
Dynamics are also stronger. High end is more expansive, with better clarity and realism. The score, too, is punchier. Predictably, there is some heavy bombast during the film's third act, which can obliterate everything else in its path. As with the standard Dolby Digital mix on the HD DVD, 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. It's the only minor complaint I have, though, and 'The Mummy' is sure to thrill.
Universal has released 'The Mummy' so many times and in so many different configurations on standard-def DVD that I've lost count -- the title seems to be one of Universal's most durable cash cows. Now we get the Blu-ray version, which doesn't omit any of the features on the previous HD DVD, so format fans who've been waiting to own the film on high-def don't have to worry about missing out. (All the video materials are presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 only, and there are no subtitles provided.)
'The Mummy' isn't really a great movie, but it is a perfectly capable, quite stylish Hollywood confection. I 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? This Blu-ray is also a strong opening salvo for Universal, with video that matches the previous HD DVD release, and audio and supplements that exceed it. Thanks to the inclusion of some Blu-ray exclusives, Universal certainly seems to be hitting the format running.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.