There is nothing new under the sun — not even that sentiment, which first originated in some old book called The Bible and has since wormed its way into modern vernacular as an efficient way to express a kind of weary cynicism about the repetition of life. It’s easy to see how this phrase could be distressingly applied to the Hollywood machine, full of reboots and sequels and bald-faced pastiches. My counter-argument would be that “nothing new under the sun” gives creators freedom — if everything’s already been done, why not have fun doing it?
The Mummy, a Stephen Sommers action-adventure-horror blockbuster from 1999, is an obvious melange of influences. Most bluntly, it’s a take on Universal Pictures’ The Mummy series of films from the 1930s and ’40s, and a general update of that studio’s classic, Gothic horror films (many of which are adaptations of Gothic horror novels and stories before them). But the charming, fleet, and wholly entertaining picture also blends elements of classic, romance-tinged adventure cinema — Indiana Jones, Romancing the Stone, The African Queen, early film serials — and contemporary, family-tinged action-adventure cinema — Jumanji, Hook, Men in Black, and Jurassic Park. All of this blended together yielded a film that felt timeless yet timely, post-modern yet classical, faithful to adults looking for romance and horror while never alienating kids looking for fun set pieces and silliness. The Mummy‘s reputation has only increased in the years since release, even culminating in that most honored of contemporary pop culture status: A Super Yaki tribute.
Since that film’s release, Hollywood has tried to re-shine the sun on The Mummy and recapture its lightning-in-a-bottle success in varying ways, including two official sequels extending the continuity, a spinoff extending the unvierse, and a 2017 reboot that tried to start its own, new cinematic universe. It’s also tried to make new Mummy-esque movies, attempting to blend that film’s ingredients of adventure, action, horror, romance, comedy, and classical panache into something new yet old. With Jungle Cruise the latest film attempting to rekindle this highly specific genre, we thought it interesting to examine 12 of the most Mummy-feeling attempts since it changed cinema in 1999.
The Road to El Dorado
In many central ways a thorough embodiment of the “DreamWorks Smirk,” The Road to El Dorado casts two con artists, Miguel and Tulio (Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Kline having a ton of fun), on an accidental journey toward the mythical-but-surprisingly-real land of El Dorado, a city of gold and riches. Plus, thanks to some farcical misunderstandings, our wisecracking, eternally smirking leads are viewed by this city’s people as gods coming down from the spiritual realm to fulfill prophecies. Hijinks, treasure-seeking, lesson-learning, and an oft-problematic relationship between “colonizers” and “colonized” ensues; sometimes the film wants to satirize the idea that these simple villagers could be bamboozled so easily, sometimes it wants to play that regressive trope straight (this winds up being a pervasive problem in many of these kinds of films).
And speaking of problematic: The jocular tone of the picture, especially when oriented around our bumbling, maverick heroes and their continuum of “greed vs. altruism,” often plays to its benefit, giving the Mummy adjacent adventure picture a welcome sense of lightness and spontaneity (at one point Miguel literally stifles laughter, which feels like a very real reaction from Branagh in the booth that was animated in) even as its narrative gets curiously stuck in the middle section. But the budding “enemies-turned-to-reluctant-allies-turned-to-lovers” romantic arc feels garish in its explicit male gaze. Rosie Perez plays Chel, the Mesoamerican object of our heroes’ affections, and she is animated with a gaudy, audacious sexualization. Chel proves herself to be a capable, crafty figure — she’s immediately onto the con artists’ plan and wants in — but the top-down choices about her, from the way she moves to the way she’s lusted after, reveal a shallow, icky viewpoint of women from many key creative members. While it’s admittedly nice to see her and one of our heroes wind up together in a semi-organic matter, this romance is a far cry from the sparkling, equal-footing relationship between Rick (Brendan Fraser) and Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), our heroes from The Mummy.
The Mummy Returns
Speaking of The Mummy Returns and He Brought a Dope Nu-Metal Tune With Him: This 2001 sequel brings back just about every member of the key creative players, including Sommers, Fraser, and Weisz, for an even bigger, more globe-trotting feeling adventure that scratches just about every itch you had lingering from the first one. Rick and Evelyn now have a child named Alex (Freddie Boath), who shares his mother’s precociousness and his father’s stubbornness, and gives the younger audience a more explicit avatar to latch onto (your mileage may vary, but I find him to be quite the endearing, and not annoying, young hero, especially in his interplay with John Hannah as his uncle and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as the henchman assigned to watch him). Evelyn has a richer interior journey to go on, involving a prophecy of reincarnation and/or lineage that gives Weisz lots of dope, physical action to do (especially a kinetically staged flashback fight scene between her and Patricia Velásquez). And the film’s front half broadens the scope of the action away from Egypt, including a crackling banter-filled fight scene in the O’Connell’s home and a thrilling London double-decker bus chase involving a bunch of skeletal mummies. The Mummy Returns, by design, feels less tightly constructed and surprising than the first film, but for a round two of crowd-pleasing fun with characters you love, it’s hard to beat.
The Scorpion King
The Mummy Returns featured the introduction of Dwayne Johnson as Mathayus, the Scorpion King, who enters a vicious deal with Anubis for power in exchange for eternal damnation. This gave the picture higher physical stakes in the climactic battle — stakes with pretty rough CGI, but still — and opened the backdoor for the MCU. That is to say, the Mummy Cinematic Universe.
The Scorpion King, released one year after The Mummy Returns, puts Johnson on a solo, originating adventure as our titular king. And while the spinoff was at least lucrative enough to kickstart a direct-to-video sub-franchise, it was critically drubbed, and basically slammed the door on any future Sommers-authored Mummy-verses (Sommers is credited as a writer and producer on this one).
It’s a pity, that, because on modern watch, The Scorpion King is a refreshingly old-school bout of action-adventure, a sturdy piece of craft that delivers thrills from a character-driven place, and a welcomely self-contained story of human decisions affecting each other; from a nuts-and-bolts perspective, it might even play tighter than the bigger-scaled Mummy Returns. With Sommers not in the director’s chair, Chuck Russell (Eraser) helms this one, replacing the original Mummy‘s sense of timeless classicism with muscly machismo, one-liners, ostentatious camerawork, and a crunchy-guitar flavored score. Johnson, therefore, has to make up with the “dated on arrival” pulp by committing hard with and against the picture’s current of cheese, centering it with a welcome balance of stoicism and fun. Most welcomely, the film’s female lead, played well by Kelly Hu, asserts herself as an intriguing sorcerer, a sensible and sparks-inducing romantic partner for Johnson, and a thrilling foil against our primary villain, played subtly by Steven Brand. These two characters motivate each other’s arcs in satisfying ways that come close to replicating the magic of the first Mummy, while the rest of the film’s thrills feel like The Mummy on Mountain Dew. And that ain’t a bad thing.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
While Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is an adaptation of a separate, pre-existing piece of intellectual property, that property happens to be a theme park ride. There are a ton of vibes in that theme park ride, vibes that director Gore Verbinski translates very well. But not a ton of story or narrative to mine from. So where do you go?
Obviously, the 2003 swashbuckler looks at the genre of pirate storytelling and folklore as a primary source of influence, while also cribbing from classic swords-and-scoundrels films like The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Mark of Zorro, and The Princess Bride. But in its imaginatively gruesome but family-friendly fusion of decomposing body horror, its budding-but-reluctant romance between Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, and its modernized takes on set pieces and comedic tones, Black Pearl feels an awful lot like a voyage in the wake of The Mummy. However — and this is particularly strange given the Disney of it all — Black Pearl feels looser, weirder, and wilder than The Mummy while still retaining that film’s whip-smart sense of pacing and stakes. The Mummy is a playful movie, to be sure, but its playfulness feels embedded within the confines of its genre; Fraser, Weisz, and Hannah’s use of comic relief don’t poke at the edges of the frame so much as pleasurably represent the best of the frame. Black Pearl, most efficiently encapsulated by Johnny Depp‘s Captain Jack Sparrow, feels in its self-aware sense of humor like all of the comedy types and tropes represented in The Mummy smooshed together alongside the grotesqueries of the CGI villains, and sprinkled with a chaotic dash of Bill Murray, Monty Python, Beetlejuice, and the surrealist art movement. It plays like someone watched The Mummy and thought, “I can take the piss out of that,” but couldn’t help use the bones of a competent adventure film to make their points pop even more aggressively (the sequels forget this “competent adventure film” skeleton and lean hard into the chaotic surrealism of it all, to their detriment).
Director Stephen Sommers found two massive back-to-back successes by updating a Universal monster movie with sweeping adventure, grand scale, and a sizzling enemies-to-lovers romance at its center. Naturally, his next move would be to do exactly that again but with all the Universal monsters at the same time. The result was Van Helsing, and it is a monster-sized turd next to The Mummy, but man, it is trying. Everything about Van Helsing is trying its absolute hardest, and that starts at the top with Hugh Jackman as the titular vampire hunter, who is ordered by the Vatican to destroy the biggest bloodsucker of them all, Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh, also dialed up to 12). Jackman, as usual, throws every ounce of his jacked theater kid energy into this film, and it’s incredibly endearing even if it doesn’t quite work, despite all the Mummy blueprint pieces being in place. You’ve got David Wenham as Van Helsing’s assistant, a sort of hybrid Jonathan/Beni hybrid comic relief. The script from Sommers himself aims to turn the simple monster lore into a heightened melodrama wherein a vampire can only be killed by a werewolf but also Frankenstein’s monster (Shuler Hensley, dialed to around 15) is a vital part of the process. And then there’s the simmering will-they/won’t-they between Jackman and Kate Beckinsale as Anna Valerious, last descendant of a family sworn to kill Dracula. The chemistry there couldn’t dream of touching Rick O’Connell and Evelyn Carnahan but, at one point, Van Helsing and Anna do dramatically swing over a masquerade ball full of vampires, and if there isn’t a hint of The Mummy in that series of words, there isn’t a hint of The Mummy anywhere. –Vinnie Mancuso
The Mummy and National Treasure are both fantastic adventure films born from an idea that shouldn’t have worked at all. Much like nobody was clambering for a big-budget, achingly horny update of a 1932 Boris Karloff monster movie, not many people thought the next great adventure film should center around… Nicolas Cage. But both films speak to the power of unorthodox casting and confidence in your pitch. Much like the way the success of the Mummy’s aesthetic radiates outward from its central duo, National Treasure works because of Nicolas Cage and his oddball energy. A standard straight-faced action hero delivering the line “I’m going to steal the Declaration of Independence” would unravel the movie; here, you buy into the tongue-in-cheek energy of it all, that same exact wink that made The Mummy, Romancing the Stone, and Raiders of the Lost Ark work before it.
It’s worth noting that The Mummy and National Treasure also produced sequels of the “kind of different, but mostly the same!” variety that are both actually pretty dang fun, but also highlight the absolute lightning-in-a-bottle miracle quality of the first films (Meanwhile, National Treasure 3 has been a question mark for years now, and we do not speak of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor). –Vinnie Mancuso
The Librarian: Quest for the Spear
In 2004, writer David Titcher, director Peter Winther, and star Noah Wyle tried something audacious: To make a big-budget, treasure-hunting adventure film within the low-budget basic cable dredges of TNT. Thus, The Librarian: Quest for the Spear was born — and on contemporary viewing, if you put yourself in the right mindset, you will have a lot of fun with this curious little picture.
First, perhaps obviously, the gripping sheen of the big-budget Mummy visual effects simply cannot be replicated on this film’s budget, resulting in some garish compositing, questionably quick “hide the seams” edits, and downright laughable attempts at action set pieces. The film also has some issues with tone; while The Mummy blends together its straighter action-adventure impulses with its sillier comedic attitudes with immersion and totality, The Librarian lurches back and forth between tones based on nothing other than the whim of the scene. Olympia Dukakis plays it like a broad comedy, Kyle MacLachlan plays it like an operatic thriller, and Wyle plays it differently from scene to scene, moment to moment, jaggedly articulating broad comedy right before romantic heroism, finding pockets of success before getting bored and wearing a new pair of pants.
However, Quest for the Spear is sneakily one of the more progressive flicks on this list, especially in its study of gender roles. The trope for these kinds of movies, a trope The Mummy is more than willing to play hard into, is to position its male lead as a bumbling-but-charming shoot first ask questions later type, and its female lead as a severe-but-repressed book smart type. Both parties have to learn the strengths of each other’s ways while bickering — and falling in love — the whole time. Here, these roles are simply, cleanly, and neatly flipped. Wyle, our titular Librarian, has gotten over 20 college degrees without an ounce of real-world experience; he’s about as pure an example of the book smart adventure hero as you’ll ever see. But Sonya Walger, our female lead, grabs the picture with confident action heroism, readily admitting that she may not possess any of Wyle’s arcane knowledge, but she does have strength and physical acumen to spare (as she phrases it literally to Wyle, “Me brawn, you brain”). In this simple gender reversal, Quest for the Spear finds tons of refreshing fun and intrigue, and gives the romance between the two a new kind of spark that plays with genuine affection and cleverness. Movies can get away with spectacle over character; on TV, when budgetary limitations can only give you so much spectacle, your characters need to work. Here, we see that idea taken to its limits, and we have some honest-to-goodness fun along the way (and if you dig Quest for the Spear, there are two other Librarian movies to check out, followed by a four-season TV spinoff).
Broadly speaking, the mid-2000s brought a lot of performative darkness and edginess into mainstream cinema. Emboldened and disillusioned by 9/11, a virulently criticized president, and an unprecedently media-saturated war, we watched comedies shift into male sex fantasies developed for the “unrated DVD” market, horrors shift into “torture porn,” and actioners shift into morally cloudy tone poems of sadness.
In 2005, we watched Breck Eisner try to fuse this particular brand of millennium-era existentialism into the light frothiness of a Mummy-styled adventure. It was, in short, a failure. Sahara is confusing, a nightmare of tonal extremes, a series of whiff after whiff without any sense of cause and effect. Penélope Cruz stars as a World Health Organization doctor investigating a deadly disease spreading across Mali amidst the backdrop of a vicious dictator attempting to ethnically cleanse his people, and a group of rich, white imperialists trying to maintain their financial interests while turning a blind eye to the horrors around them.
And then, in the middle of all this: Matthew McConaughey is a rascally treasure-hunter! Steve Zahn and Rainn Wilson are his goofy, wisecracking cohorts! McConaughey regularly diffuses any inherent tension with one-liners, eyebrow waggles, and nonsensical banter with Zahn! And when the film tries to fuse these two threads together, it really, really does not work! Sahara is a jagged little pill of a film, all corners and disparities that bleed tastelessness. The Mummy may be a blend of influences including the cinema of its time, but Sahara goes to show how impressive a juggling act that level of seamless pastiche can be (by, just to be clear, dropping every single one of its balls, and one of its balls is a chainsaw on fire).
A bit more traditionally fairytale-esque in its approach to fantasy-adventure, Stardust is still one of the most swashbuckling, romantic, and all-around best spiritual successors to The Mummy you’ll find. Directed by Matthew Vaughn and adapted from the novella by Neil Gaiman, the 2007 film stars Daredevil‘s Charlie Cox as Tristan Thorn, a young man from a small English village who makes his way into a fantastical kingdom just beyond the town limits and falls for a walking, talking fallen star (Claire Danes).
Beyond sharing genres, there are a lot of structural similarities between Stardust and The Mummy; the antagonistic-turned-true-love dynamic, vengeful spirits of the royally betrayed, and the relentless pursuit of a monster in need of a sacrifice. In Stardust, it’s a trio of witches seeking eternal youth who feed on the hearts of fallen stars to stay forever young, led by screen icon Michelle Pfieffer, who relishes in her wicked role with the satisfied energy of a pedigree cat lapping at pure cream. Stardust also has a key selling point that The Mummy doesn’t – Robert DeNiro as a sky pirate. Obviously, immediately, a must-watch. – Haleigh Foutch
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
Earlier, you will have noticed my colleague Vinnie Mancuso say “we do not speak of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.” I had never seen it. Now I have. Vinnie was right to warn us.
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor does not feature Weisz reprising her role as Evelyn. She left the project in pre-production due to dissatisfaction with the script. Weisz tried to warn us, and we were wrong to ignore her.
Maria Bello takes over Evelyn for this threequel, unfortunately muting Weisz’s sparkly, irascible take on the character for a classier, more interior, and less wholly charismatic read on the part. Fraser’s reprisal of Rick feels Flanderized; he’s broadened Rick out into a live-action cartoon character, seemingly ignoring what change and nuance he’s gone through the two previous films in favor of an easy, mugging joke or energetic action movement (though in his defense, Fraser also sells some of the sweatiest moments of “emotional connection” with surprisingly subtle work). Stephen Sommers is out as director, instead producing the work of original The Fast and the Furious director Rob Cohen. Under Cohen’s eye, The Mummy franchise becomes a cruder beast, a work less concerned with mining the classical pleasures of cinema’s greatest adventures than with trying to attract “today’s teenagers” with a harder, blunter visual style and a downright yucky, puerile obsession with sex (watching Bello ask winkingly, even flirtatiously about her teenage son Luke Ford‘s sex life is upsetting on many levels).
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is franchise betrayal — with one exception. The tale of ancient mythology, horror imagery, and big-bad inspiration concerns Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh, obvious pros, and watching their storyline rendered with emotional commitment and crafty martial arts action provides an oasis among the rest of the film’s desert.
The Mummy (2017)
Tom Cruise’s attempt to sprint awkwardly into a cinematic universe populated by Universal’s classic monsters was violently rejected by the general public like a belly full of discontinued ice cream from Friendly’s. In addition to the obvious flaw of zero Brendan Frasers in the cast, 2017’s The Mummy is so bogged down with putting all the right pieces into play to set up the infamous Dark Universe that it forgets to do its job as an adventure film. All those thrilling sequences from the 1999 mega-hit are replaced by blandly desaturated stretches of droning expository dialogue, most of which is delivered by a hulking Russell Crowe, who plays Dr. Henry Jekyll because this movie is stupid. It’s relentlessly dull and almost aggressively charmless, but worst of all, it just isn’t any fun. If you showed a director Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy and told them to craft that movie’s mortal enemy, Alex Kurtzman’s dismal 2017 reboot is the film they would create every time. – Tom Reimann
When I saw the first trailer for Jungle Cruise, I immediately thought to myself, “This film is trying to be 1999’s The Mummy.” Granted, its status as a Disney theme park adaptation and usage of CGI-assisted body horror scoundrels maybe means it’s more explicitly trying to be Pirates of the Caribbean. But after viewing the agreeably entertaining film, I have never been more convinced that there is nothing new under the sun; Jungle Cruise is absolutely a take on Pirates of the Caribbean while also being a take on The Mummy while also being a take on every other postmodern-cum-classical adventure film featured on this list. At times the picture plays too tightly, too sure of these tropes it’s plundering as a style; like if someone turned The Mummy into a Disneyland ride. However, Jungle Cruise makes some wild swings throughout that ensure it strikes its own, decidedly bonkers voice.
Emily Blunt‘s character introduction to Jungle Cruise is an explicit bite and heighten of Rachel Weisz’s Mummy introduction. Like Weisz before her, Blunt is seen climbing a ladder of a World War I-era bookshelf; but where Weisz’s bookshelf shenanigans lead to accidental slapstick mayhem, Blunt’s bookshelf shenanigans are as a purposeful author of intentional action mayhem. Dwayne Johnson shares the slick, con artist charms of Fraser’s Mummy character, with an obvious over-emphasis on brawn and an unfortunately muted performance tone that snips some of the joys of both his romantic arc and his corny jokes (to imagine Fraser’s take on these Jungle Cruise tour guide jokes, cribbed directly from the ride, is to experience bliss). The CGI body-horror conquistador villains cross the gnarly, viscerally pleasurable vibes of the Pirates‘ ghost designs with the emotional despair and commitment of The Mummy‘s Imhotep; Édgar Ramírez takes the tracks left by Arnold Vosloo‘s tragically rendered monster and plunges even further into hurt and heartbreak, giving a performance that, at times, feels more endearing than our heroes. And Jack Whitehall‘s take on the “comic relief brother of the female lead,” played with such verve in The Mummy by John Hannah, is hilarious, refreshingly without ego, and eventually given room to find a modernized sense of pathos no other adventure film on this list would dare take the time to find.
Beyond the mostly effective modernizations of well-trod tropes in Jungle Cruise, the film fosters its own identity by sheer force of potentially alienating risk. Paul Giamatti‘s supporting character, a greedy businessman whom Johnson owes a lot of money, is turned into a commedia dell’arte whirlwind, a beyond-over-the-top invention of pure artificiality and stylization with no desire to be restrained by good taste; you can’t stop watching or thinking about it. Jesse Plemons‘ work as our big bad looks at Giamatti’s work and says, “Lemme try and top that.” He is the idea of “a stereotypical German villain” taken to satirical extremes, all hyperbolic bluster and hair-flopping discomfort and capital F Fun. And halfway through the picture, director Jaume Collet-Serra grinds everything to a screeching halt to dive into a lengthy, Metallica-scored flashback that changes the context of one of our main characters dramatically, careening the final act into unexpected territory.
These wild choices make Jungle Cruise ultimately a less purposefully, wholly satisfying film than The Mummy, but they also give it room to be itself, to makes its own place under the sun. Jungle Cruise, therefore, represents a promising future for this genre of film so effectively encapsulated by The Mummy (1999) after it seemed to be crushed by The Mummy (2017). Where will the Mummy-esque action-adventure-horror-fantasy-romantic-comedy go from here? I can’t wait to strap on my leather boots and find out.
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