Is there a limit to how many digitized images the human eye is able to watch and the brain is able to absorb without somehow short-circuiting, and possibly generating heart palpitations, prompting seizures or just suffering from plain old information overload resulting in mental exhaustion? Will psychologists and psychiatrists someday refer to this phenomenon as chronic sensory overload? When it comes to computer-generated people, creatures, objects and landscapes, how much is enough for a feature film?
These are the questions that engaged my attention during "The Mummy Returns," rather than anything relating to the silly, rather pointless plot. The obligatory-sequel season, er, summer season, is coming down hard with this follow-up to the 1999 film (itself a remake of the 1932 Boris Karloff horror classic) that grabbed a cool $13 million at the box office. It's not nearly as much fun, in a campy, cheesy, retro-digging way, as The Mummy, which benefited much from the funny/scary spirit of Saturday matinee fare. The new one, in fact, seems to be constructed strictly as a go-for-broke cinematic thrill ride, a sort of demo for the latest and most spectacular visual effects available from Hollywood. It feels like overkill.
Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), the mighty but doomed Mummy himself, is back, along with goofy American explorer Rick (Brendan Fraser), his beautiful and mysterious British librarian companion Evelyn, now his wife (Rachel Weisz), her self-deprecating, wisecracking, womanizing brother John (Jonathan Carnahan) and Ardeth (Oded Fehr), a good-guy Arab warrior priest always ready to relate the secrets of the universe. Also on hand are an endless number of special effects, including those nasty swirling, flesh-eating beetles, an army of dogfaced skeletonlike fighters who turn to dust when slain, and a gang of tiny, speedy, vicious predators that might have toiled as raptors in another life.
There's plenty more for the crowds to ooh and ahh over this time: The Nile River rushes through an ancient temple, causing its columns to fall down, domino-style. The former bandaged one levitates another body of water, creating a tidal wave imprinted with the outline of its maker's face. Massive armies engage in brutal sword-to-shield combat. The heroic characters, just like at the video arcade, negotiate their way through shootouts in a variety of game levels, er, settings. A magical, much-coveted bracelet allows Alex (Freddie Boath), the couple's precocious young son, to go on a virtual reality tour of ancient history and the places he's about to visit, against his will. Too bad the jewelry's powers didn't extend to helping the kid put a little more oomph in the rather lackluster punch lines.
Perhaps the most anticipated special is the appearance of World Wrestling Federation star Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a the Rock, as new scary creature the Scorpion King, a character that is already tapped for center stage in another movie. When we first see the Rock, who thankfully leaves that arched-eyebrow shtick back in the ring, it's 3007 B.C. in Thebes, and he's leading an army of desert warriors in a battle that lasts for seven years. The giant fighter finally dies, but it's only a matter of centuries before his army rises again.
Flash forward to Cairo, Egypt in 1935, about 10 years after The Mummy left off. Rick and Evelyn are back in town doing archaeological work, along with their 8-year-old son. She has visions, spirits are summoned, and the temple takes a tumble. Back in London, the kid puts on the bracelet lifted from an Egyptian tomb and sets himself up as a link between the recently reborn Imhotep and the soon-to-be-awakened Scorpion King. "You started a chain reaction that could bring about the next apocalypse," the kid is told by the somber, deeply spiritual, butt-kicking Ardeth.
My guess is that only an apocalyptic rethink of moviemaking priorities could save us from a summer season of fare as overblown and pointless as "The Mummy Returns." Don't hold your breath.