Film

Why ‘The Mummy’ Was The Pivotal Blockbuster Of The Nineties

It had heart, humour, heroics and Brendan Fraser at the peak of his movie star powers.

The Mummy 1999

It had heart, humour, heroics and Brendan Fraser at the peak of his movie star powers. Twenty years later, we examine why The Mummy was the perfect popcorn movie.

The year was 1999 and it was a great one for popcorn movies.

Want an action film with mutant sharks and an LL Cool J theme song? Deep Blue Sea was there for you. Horror movies that would change the game? Hello there, The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project.

How about a surprisingly deep animated flick children and adults could enjoy in equal measure? Toy Story 2, The Iron Giant and Tarzan had your back.

Something existential for the bros? The Matrix, Fight Club and Three Kings were all serving that up on a platter.

That’s before we even get into the last remnants of the rom-com genre with Notting Hill, Never Been Kissed and 10 Things I Hate About You, each enduring long after the decade ended.

Yet when it came to unashamedly commercial blockbusters, things were a bit of a mess. Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace grossed nearly a billion dollars that year, but it’s remembered as one of the worst blockbusters of all time. The nineteenth James Bond outing The World Is Not Enough had the trifecta of what-the-fuckery, with Denise Richards playing a nuclear physicist (what?) named Christmas Jones (the?) in hot pants (fuck?).

Traditional franchises like Stars Wars and Bond were letting people down, which made the success of an old school Hollywood brand like The Mummy all the more spectacular.

Monsters, Grr, Aargh

The Universal Movie Monsters were the first shared cinematic universe in pop culture, beginning in the 1920s with iconic characters like The Wolf Man, Count Dracula, Creature From The Black Lagoon, Frankenstein’s monster, Bride Of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Mummy, Hunchback Of Notre Dame, Doctor Jekyll/Mr Hyde, Phantom Of The Opera, and more popping up in each other’s movies and continuing storylines across features.

They were a huge hit at the time and made stars of their performers like Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi and Elsa Lanchester. Yet after two World Wars and people becoming well acquainted with IRL monsters, cinemagoers were less interested by the time it got to the fifties and the franchise died off.

At the start of the nineties, Universal was keen to resurrect it and started developing a reboot of 1932’s The Mummy. It was a famously tortured project, with work beginning in 1991 and the list of directors who came on board then jumped ship reading like a bizarre who’s who, including Clive Barker, Wes Craven, George A. Romero and Joe Dante.

It was only after the commercial failure of Babe: Pig In The City (Aussie Aussie Aussie!) that The Mummy regained momentum, the studio giving up on trying to create new franchises and reverting back to nurturing their in-house properties.

The Mummy Shouldn’t Have Worked

Envisioned as a low-budget horror offering, the production was bumped from $15M to $80M when Stephen Sommers came on board as writer and director, nearly a decade after they had started development.

On paper, nothing about The Mummy should have worked.

It was an earnest action-adventure movie in a decade when three films in that same genre had spectacularly failed back-to-back: The Rocketeer (1991), The Shadow (1994) and The Phantom (1996).

The film rested on the shoulders of Brendan Fraser doing an Indiana Jones riff after a string of comedies where we he played a variation of the dumb blonde. And the filmmaker at the helm was a guy whose last flick was about a tentacled sea creature that eats a cruise ship (no disrespect to Deep Rising).

Yet when The Mummy debuted in the heart of American summer blockbuster season, it was an immediate success. It made $43M in its June opening weekend in the US, a feat that was mind-boggling at the time. By the end of the year, it was the sixth highest-grossing film of 1999 with a global haul of over $415M.

From there it spawned two direct sequels (The Mummy Returns and The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor), a video game, tie-in rollercoaster ride at Universal Studios and several novelisations. That’s not to mention the spin-off series of Scorpion King films that kick-started Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s cinema career and have been keeping wrestlers-turned-aspiring-movie-stars like Dave Bautista and Nathan Jones gainfully employed for five movies and counting.

A Meaningful Cinematic Achievement?

Critics didn’t really get it, with Rotten Tomatoes saying: “it’s difficult to make a persuasive argument for The Mummy as any kind of meaningful cinematic achievement”.

Hold my beer. Sure, although it was nominated for an Oscar in a technical category, The Mummy was never going to be an awards season favourite alongside The Hurricane, Boys Don’t Cry or American Beauty that year.

Yet when it comes down to what’s more enjoyable to rewatch, its got to be Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz’s bubbling chemistry over Tom Cruise’s “respect the cock, tame the cuntmonologue in Magnolia every time. Then relatively unknown, Weisz was so damn charming in The Mummy as a convention-breaking librarian who accidentally summons the dead, that it shouldn’t be a surprise what an effective comedienne she is in films like The Brothers Bloom and The Favourite.

She delivers an endlessly endearing performance as Evelyn Carnahan, even through the trauma of what they did to her eyebrows. The budding romance between Evelyn and Rick O’Connell gives an otherwise male-heavy actioner an injection of heart. Fraser as the pistol-wielding, wise-cracking adventurer with boy-band hair delivers on the heroics, while a combination of comedic timing and a pitch perfect supporting cast — including John Hannah — deliver on the humour.

What Makes A Great Blockbuster

They’re supposed to be the three tenants of a great blockbuster: heart, humour, and heroics.

The Mummy had them all, along with a fourth h — horror. While the special effects done by George Lucas’s company Industrial Light & Magic mightn’t hold up so well for the giant sand mummy scene with Arnold Vosloo (aka not Billy Zane), the majority of the film’s other scares remained practical and genuinely creepy to this day.

Any movie that opens with a murder and mass disembowelling isn’t keeping its horror origins close to the chest. For a blockbuster that was supposed to get into as many theatres as possible in 1999, that’s bold.

By the end of the punchy two-hour runtime (why aren’t more movies two hours, honestly?) the body count is in the hundreds, beetles have eaten people alive, and you’ve watched traditional American “cowboys” be dismembered one-by-one.

“Cheered By Nearly Every Minute Of It”

It was a pivotal blockbuster for anyone alive in the nineties.

In a testament to its rewatchability, you can come in at almost any point in The Mummy — whether it’s Weisz drunkenly proclaiming that she’s proud to be a librarian or Fraser using a cat as a weapon — and you know you’re going to get caught on the couch, watching the next hour unfold before chanting Im-ho-tep blindly.

That year gave us a lot of shamelessly great pop culture, whether it was Mariah Carey’s Rainbow album or season three of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. As we headed into the naughts, The Mummy was a prime example of entertainment that you could enjoy without a niggling worry in the back of your mind.

Hell, The Mummy is still so beloved by people that nearly two decades after the fact — when Universal tried rebooting it again with Tom Cruise — 2017’s The Mummy had to include a reference to the 1999 hit, implying they were part of the same shared monster universe.

As he so often was, legendary film critic Roger Ebert was ahead of his time and one of the few among his peers that recognised what a gift The Mummy truly was, stating he was “cheered by nearly every minute of it”.

To quote the master himself: “I cannot argue for the script, the direction, the acting or even the mummy, but I can say that I was not bored and sometimes I was unreasonably pleased. There is a little immaturity stuck away in the crannies of even the most judicious of us, and we should treasure it.”

Treasure away, good sir.

Maria Lewis is a journalist, screenwriter and author of It Came From The Deep and the Who’s Afraid? novel series, available worldwide.


All this week, Junkee is heading back in time to relive the greatest moments in pop culture from 1999. For more 1999 content, head here.