The title says it all: the mummy returns, bringing with him the Curse of the Summer Movie Sequel. Those who enjoyed 1999’s The Mummy are unlikely to be disappointed, as this return engagement by the ancient Egyptian Imhotep plays like a louder, more crowded rerun of its predecessor (itself an amiable enough rehash of countless prior Mummy pictures, as well as the Indiana Jones series). As far as cheesy escapism goes, moviegoers could do worse – and no doubt will as the summer blockbuster season rolls along.
A prologue set 5000 years ago in the Egyptian desert introduces us to the Scorpion King (played by noted wrestler/thespian The Rock) as he leads his thousands of digitally rendered troops into one of those strobe-lit, ear-splitting battles royale that have become standard issue for opening sequences since the release of Saving Private Ryan. Finding himself on the losing end of his crusade, the Scorpion King makes a deal with the devil that allows him to vanquish his enemies but sends him into Hell for the next five millennia or so.
We then jump ahead to 1933 Egypt, where the heroes of the first installment, square-jawed Rick (Brendan Fraser) and his now-wife Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), are digging their way toward more buried treasure. Along for the ride is the obligatory spunky-but-danger-prone tyke (see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the Jurassic Park movies), their son Alex, who stumbles upon a rival band of tomb raiders. Thus begins an apocalyptic and increasingly confused battle between the forces of good and evil, in the course of which both the mummy Imhotep and the Scorpion King will be resurrected to wreak their respective brands of havoc. Along the way we get unhelpful flashbacks to some of the characters’ previous lives in ancient Egypt, gobs of mumbo-jumbo from various sacred texts, and the usual hodgepodge of swordplay, gun battles and creepy undead pygmies.
Not only are many of the settings and creatures computer generated, much of the dialogue appears to be as well. Surely George Lucas must supply the software that spits out such hackneyed groaners as "Oh no, not these guys again" and that old standby, "I’ve got a bad feeling about this." Not that writer-director Stephen Sommers has taken advantage of this time-saving technology to focus his creative energy on character development. If anything, the comic book archetypes of the first Mummy have now been downsized to the equivalent of hastily scrawled sketches on cocktail napkins, given one easily recognizable behavior trait or visual cue to help us tell them apart.
What makes The Mummy Returns go down easier than the average summer carnage-fest is its accentuation on exotic adventure rather than mindless mayhem. Though there are creepy-crawlies galore onscreen, the overall gore quotient is low (for humans anyway; the undead suffer all manner of dismemberment and dissolution). The panoramas are rendered in the photorealistic style familiar from computer games such as Myst; palaces and pyramids shimmer with digital luster, and in all of the Egyptian desert there’s not a grain of sand out of place. These 21st century matte paintings can be hypnotic in short bursts, particularly when they’re crawling with battling hordes of dog-headed warriors. There’s also a dirigible straight out of a Terry Gilliam movie, oddly enchanting as it glides over moonlit vistas or dodges great sheets of water conjured by the mummy’s unearthly power. The flashes of visual imagination aren’t quite enough to sustain interest through all the hokey set pieces, but they help. Kids will probably enjoy it, though, especially those too young to realize how much of The Mummy Returns is as old as Imhotep himself.