At first glance, 1999's The Mummy, starring Brendan Fraser as a lantern-jawed Indiana Jones-in-waiting facing off against an undead Telly Savalas look-alike, played like knowing spoof, a lighthearted, if half-assed, remake of the 1932 film starring Boris Karloff. At first listen, it was one big joke, a horror-movie parody masquerading as special-effects extravaganza -- Scream for the American Movie Classics generation and their grandchildren. But after sitting through a screening of The Mummy Returns, the first cash machine of what's sure to be a bludgeoning bummer of a summer, it's clear now that whatever charm and humor The Mummy eked out was a mere accident. Here is a sequel that abolishes whatever goodwill its predecessor engendered, a knockoff so contemptuous and empty it's cold to the touch. This franchise, which is surely what Universal has in mind, has quickly become the living dead.
It's as though writer-director Stephen Sommers, who was also responsible for The Mummy, had taken that script and deleted every other line simply to shoehorn in more, more, more computer-generated effects, hollow and dim references to a dozen other films (among them the entirety of the Indiana Jones trilogy, Sam Raimi's far superior Army of Darkness, The Matrix and Star Wars -- apparently, the Force is strong with Fraser's Rick O'Connell) and a handful of stock characters (including pistol-packing mercenaries, Soldiers of God and a black airplane pilot -- it's hard at times not to think of this as Flying Miss Daisy). Sommers has brought back most of The Mummy's cast (including a woefully wasted John Hannah) and added yet another villain: the Scorpion King, played with sneer and growl by the World Wrestling Federation's The Rock, who appears for only a few seconds early on; later, he's entirely computer-generated, down to the scowl (as though one could actually tell the difference). The entire project so reeks of cynicism you can smell what The Rock is stepping in.
This isn't filmmaking; it's programming-by-the-numbers, a movie made on a computer in which the actors play fifth fiddle to CGI sandstorms, scarabs and scary creatures. Fraser and Rachel Weisz, as Rick's wife, Evelyn (and, as it turns out, the reincarnated Nefertiti), are just actors reciting lines to each other, not human beings talking to and listening to each other. Their jokes land with a horrific thud in the enormous distance between them (a preview audience, primed to love the movie, could barely muster a handful of laughs), and they never seem to look each other in the eye. And they treat their 7-year-old son, Alex (played by Freddie Boath, a young Indiana Jones who comes equipped with either a British or Midwestern accent), like an extra: When he's kidnapped early on by baddies in search of a bracelet that will resurrect the Scorpion King, Rick and Evelyn seem about as concerned as the audience, which knows that he'll be rescued well before film's end. Everyone's but a hired hand meant to kill time between explosions and set pieces and battles that pit the living against the undead.
It's pointless to encapsulate the plot, because there isn't much of one. The movie feels as though it starts in the second reel; if The Mummy was incoherent and rambling, then The Mummy Returns is the crazy guy on the corner you try to avoid when crossing the street. It begins and ends in Egypt in 1933 (it's set eight years after the original); takes a side trip to London where a fleshless-and-bone Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) is once more resurrected so he can take over the Scorpion King's dog army (he's back . . . and this time, he's really pissed!); and, like Moses and the Hebrews, spends the rest of the time wandering aimlessly through the desert (at least, it feels like 40 years). There is one brief foray into the jungle, a most pleasant diversion if only because a good chunk of the cast is annihilated by what appear to be zombie Ewoks; imagine what Return of the Jedi might have felt like if written by Oliver Stone.
The Mummy Returns is that sequel that's simply unnecessary, a movie that exists only to take your long green without giving anything in return. It punishes rather than entertains; it condescends, it offends, it loathes its audience. The Mummy Returns is the very definition of a film that serves only as an advertisement for itself (or the myriad special-edition Mummy multi-DVD sets Universal is currently hawking), because it thinks we have no interest in story or characters; it treats us like infants who only want to see things blow up and catch fire because we're not smart or developed enough to handle genuine emotion or terror. But maybe Sommers and Universal are right: When The Mummy Returns mints a fortune, we'll no doubt get a third installment in which all the actors are computer-generated, replaced by ones and zeroes. Audiences get what they deserve.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.