FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

What went Wrong with The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

by Kristin Battestella

Director Rob Cohen (Dragonheart) takes up the mantle from producer Stephen Sommers, director of The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, for the 2008 sequel The Mummy:Tomb of the Dragon Emperor as Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and his wife Evelyn (Maria Bello) come to the rescue when their son Alex (Luke Ford) discovers the entombed Dragon Emperor (Jet Li). Once unleashed, however, the only person who can stop the resurrected Emperor is Zi Yuan (Michelle Yeoh) – the sorceress who cursed him.

Ancient Chinese mounds, swords, armor, and dynastic motifs accent the assassination plots, stabbings, raids, and conquest in the opening prologue. The enslaved building of The Great Wall, life after death texts, and forbidden romance betrayals, unfortunately, are a lot like the opening of the First Film, right down to the same Mummy music cues. Then again, the elemental powers, ancient libraries, tormented generals, and immolating curses nonetheless make for a great tale – one viewers forget isn’t it’s own adventure once Tomb of the Dragon Emperor restarts with our previous heroes now unhappy with post-war quiet and in a rut despite luxury living. Their son’s discoveries of Chinese monoliths and the Emperor’s tomb come easy and don’t feel super epic thanks to the back and forth editing between the bored O’Connells and grave robber skeletons. There’s little time to awe at the 2,000-year-old frozen in time clay army when the more interesting plot elements are glossed over for set pieces treated as more important than the wonder. We can’t enjoy the dragon crossbows, booby traps, or tomb chases because The O’Connells were apparently doing secret espionage work in the interim that we didn’t get to see, either. Instead, some Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – Cradle of Life Eye of Shangra-La gem points the way to eternal life, with Tomb of the Dragon Emperor both embracing the Asian history yet feeling xenophobic with evil uniforms, double-crossing enemies, and contrived western interference repeating the prior films’ M.O. Chases through the streets with fireworks and New Year run amok are fun, but long, hollow fight sequences that do nothing to advance the plot make Tomb of the Dragon Emperor feel longer than it is. There’s no sense of the scope or magical powers despite Himalayan treks, avalanches, mystical healings, and a revived Emperor who himself is asking what this is all for anyway. After the first hour, it’s not quite clear what’s happening with everything including a three-headed dragon thrown at the screen in the last half hour. With a hop, skip, and jump, we’re at a Great Wall spectacle raising rival dead armies in a Lord of the Rings easy meets CGI versus CGI a la The Phantom Menace that rapidly loses its touch.

Fly fishing in the English countryside is not quite Rick O’Connell’s thing, and Brendan Fraser’s once proactive, rugged adventurer is now an out of touch, corny old man with outdated weapons and unheeded advice. It’s weird to see our favorite couple now arguing about their parenting and contemplating mistakes made – and not just because Maria Bello (The Dark) replaces Rachel Weisz as Evelyn in Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. After writing two successful novels about their mummy adventures, she’s hung up with writer’s block on the promised third book, but Evie doesn’t have much to say or do once the characters are forgotten in the nonsensical action. Bello looks great in the period frocks and initially the camera accents that forties tone with coy smiles and under the hat brim poise, but this Evie does indeed seem like a different person. It would have been interesting if Bello had instead been a second wife and resented step mom competing with Evie’s memory. Although the kid in peril was one of the problematic parts of The Mummy Returns, Luke Ford (Hercules) is now the grown up Alex rebelling against his parents yet conveniently following in their archaeology footsteps. Unfortunately, immortal hang ups and young love opposites attract can’t save the character from falling completely flat, and Uncle Jonathan John Hannah is a nightclub owner who spends most of his barely-there comic relief with a yak while pilot Liam Cunningham (Hunger) is merely convenient transportation. It’s a pity we only really see Jet Li’s (Romeo Must Die) warlord at the beginning and the end of Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. For most of the picture, the eponymous bad guy – who doesn’t get any other name despite the historical possibilities – is just a resurrected, stilted, CGI thing more like an automaton robot rather than the feared man in charge. His powers over the elements are small scale or convenient, manipulating snow or fire and shape-shifting as needed without any real countdown or ascension of power as anchored by Arnold Vosloo’s Imhotep in the First Film. For the finale we get Li’s fine action skills as expected, but he never really has the chance to be the true villain of the piece. Likewise, Michelle Yeoh (Tomorrow Never Dies) is relegated to glossed over bookends. Her immortal Zi Yuan witch lives in Shangri-La, and 2,000 years of magical pools are quickly explained away before a great but too brief one on one battle between our ancient foes – which is all we really want to see in Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.

While some of the fiery terracotta effects don’t look so great on bu-ray, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor does well with tangible sand, statues, tents, and archaeology tools. The grand English estates match the vintage cars, antiques, typewriters, gloves, fedoras, and stoles. Temples in the mountains, Asian architecture, and snowy panoramas create a sense of adventure while chariots and molten horses coming to life invoke danger. Unfortunately, the shootouts, attacks, and explosions are super loud and cliché music cues are noticeably out of place. To start, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor feels very forties styled in a Universal homage, but then the action becomes hectic and modern messy with stereotypical seventies zooms when it comes to the kung fu. The camera, the people, and the fantastics are all moving at the same time and it’s tough for the audience to see anything, and those contrived yetis – yes, yetis – are embarrassingly bad. Today, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor could have been a direct to streaming off-shoot adventure – after all they’re still making those direct to video Scorpion King movies. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor breaks from the more familiar theme with a bait and switch title caught between two masters. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor seeks to take the series in a new direction whilst also keeping its ties to the previous films. If this had no connection to The Mummy and embraced its own dynastic legends and lore, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor could have been a fun action adventure. Perhaps it can still be entertaining for youth able to separate it from the legacy of the First Film. Otherwise, the flawed, thin story, and try hard of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is just window dressing reaching for an adventurous charm that isn’t there.

 

Revisit More Mummies Including:

Gods of Egypt

Mummy Movies!

Tomb of Ligeia

 

Odds and Deadends : The Mummy (2017): A Universal Problem

I love a good monster movie. And when it was announced years ago that Universal Studios were reviving their classic monster movies, I, like the rest of the horror world, had a small heart attack. Then Tom Cruise got attached to The Mummy and we realised that they were going all in. It was going to be mind-blowing.

Until it wasn’t.

I’m going to outline my thoughts as to why the rebooting of the iconic collection failed, and I’m going to split it into the following three categories:

1) The film itself.

2) The heritage and genre.

3) The Marvel effect.

  • THE FILM ITSELF

The MummyThat the other two categories feed into this general discussion of the movie as a whole is not to be ignored, but this first category ignores that the film is part of a larger narrative and just focuses on the filmmaking and storytelling itself.

The first glaring issue is the over-reliance on CGI set pieces used to try and carry the film. From large green screen sandstorms to a plethora of unrealistic zombie mummies, the film might as well have been completed animated. The worst part of it all is that these set pieces come thick and fast, with no rhyme or reason, or sense of proper narrative timing. You look at a Marvel movie (such as the new Spider-Man: Far From Home), and you notice that they normally break it up into three main parts. A fight early on, one in the middle, then the big wind up for the third act. It’s your basic three act structure with a large action sequence in each, and it allows the movie to have the downtime to build on its characters. Even movies such as those in the James Bond or Mission Impossible franchises will do the same sort of thing, with a sprinkling of smaller sequences here and there, but it’s still just the three big moments. The Mummy has so many that the rhythm is off. It just doesn’t feel right.

And it also means that parts, such as the desert sandstorm near the beginning of the film, are irrelevant. We saw the crows take off after the sarcophagus when it is airlifted away, and it is these birds that will bring the plane down. Why is the sandstorm needed? To add a little hint of ‘danger’? To make sure the audience doesn’t forget we’re in the desert? It makes no sense. When the sandstorm blows through London in the final act, it was a wonderfully gothic image, capitalising on the fear of outsiders and things that shouldn’t happen. But having this be a singular, major event that cut out communication lines, throwing all the heroes into confusion, would have been wonderful, and saving the sandstorm for this moment would have made it seem much more threatening. As it is, we’ve already seen a sandstorm do nothing. Why should we be scared of this one? Short answer: we aren’t.

One of my other issues was the lack of subtlety in the film in any department. The scares were ham-fisted attempts at CGI skeletons that didn’t take the time to allow the tension to build. And the amount of exposition is ridiculous. Jekyll’s opening speech gives most of the plot away, and leaves no mystery as to what is to come. It’s bad filmmaking and bad storytelling at the best of times, leading to a picture that rushes from one big scene to another, and has to have things spelled out quickly in between each blockbuster moment to make sure we’re following along. It’s nowhere near efficient craftsmanship.

  • THE HERITAGE AND TONE

When Universal said they were reviving the monster movies, audiences wanted horror. They wanted to be scared, brought back to being a kid. Universal, wanting to compete with summer blockbusters, changed their classic horror into an all-out action thriller with a few horror elements scattered around. There’s even some funny moments scattered around, such as when Jenny yells ‘Get her, Nick!’ to Tom Cruise’s character as the newly revived Princess Amanet heads towards them in the forest. Really? ‘Ger her, Nick!’? It’s not the movie audiences wanted, or were promised.

Because the movie goes for a grander scale, the horror, when it is there, never really hits. Sure, give your plagues and your zombies an apocalypse to try and bring about, but even these focus on a small group of survivors. Think Night of the Living Dead or 28 Days Later. Horror is deeply personal, and you have to make sure it feels personal to a protagonist we connect with, in order to make us truly feel it.

This is something Bram Stoker did wonderfully in his novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, a personal favourite novel of mine, and one I’ve already discussed on HorrorAddicts.net ( I’ll put a link to my analysis of the character of Queen Hera from the novel at the end of the article). Stoker’s tale presents an ancient Egyptian threat rising from the dead, like The Mummy, but for two-thirds of the narrative, everything is confined to one house and plays out like a murder mystery. It’s closed and confined, and because of this we empathise with the characters because we know them intimately. When the terror comes, we feel the fear because we’ve put ourselves in their shoes. As a result, the possible apocalypse after the book is finished feels much more worrying.

  • THE MARVEL EFFECT

The Dark Universe is Universal’s attempt to replicate the success Marvel Studios have had with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The trouble is that Marvel seems to be the only ones that have really cracked the format. Disney tried it out into Star Wars, but the bad reception to Solo halted their plans for possible Obi Wan and Boba Fett films. The DC Universe has its fans, but has never really caught the approval like Marvel has, and only recently has Aquaman and Wonder Woman really hit the box office hard. One can only wait to see how the Godzilla monster-verse goes on, but if the reviews I’ve seen of Godzilla: King of the Monsters are anything to go by, it doesn’t look good.

The Mummy’s primary problem is that Universal threw all their chips in too early.

The film isn’t just about the eponymous mummy, but the introduction to the whole world. But rather than sneak in suggestions and nods, and build the whole thing up slowly, whilst still allowing each film to be its own unique piece, they’re already interconnecting everything at the very heart. The beating heart of this connection is the Dr Jekyll, head of the Prodigium organisation. However, instead of letting Jekyll just be an incidental part of the storyline, or his true identity being a big reveal at the end of the film, they made him integral to the movie.

This has multiple risks. It risks sidelining the main focus of the movie, the mummy herself, and it risks, if you’ll excuse the vulgar phrasing, Universal blowing their load too early. Universal didn’t keep their powder dry. Hold Jekyll and Hyde back and you’ve got a whole other movie in store to unleash. If The Mummy goes down, you’ve got another shot. Notice how Marvel, in the first Iron Man film, only announced Nick Fury in the post credit scene. They could easily have cut it had the test screenings been bad, and simply kept it as a one-off movie that made a decent splash, whilst also jettisoning the movie from a wider connected universe if they needed to. They can even bring Iron Man back into the storyline in 10 movies time if it takes them that long to get into their rhythm.

The Dark Universe, complete with logo at the beginning of the movie, announces very plainly that everything goes together. You’ve got obvious nods to Dracula and The Creature from the Black Lagoon in the jars Prodigum has in its stores, clearly showing Universal’s intention to use them at a later phase. In one, opening movie, we’ve got four of the classic monsters together. All we needed was someone to be invisible, and Jekyll to have a daughter marrying a doctor called Victor Frankenstein, and Universal would have taken down almost every monster they had in their arsenal in one go.

In a bid to outdo Marvel with their interconnected universe, the producers relied on the fan base of the monsters of the past to carry the movie with references and nods all by themselves. In the end, when these fans didn’t get what they wanted, Universal were left canning the other projects they had set up. Their interconnected world had crashed at the first hurdle, and because the rest of their plans were integral to the first film being a hit, it set up a chain of dominos that knocked the other films down.

One can only hope that Leigh Whannell (and Blumhouse, I believe) will have the sense to work slowly, building up a series of films that are tense, scary, and operate by themselves, which have the potential, but not the necessity, to interlink later on. Whannell has already established himself (along with James Wan, ironically directing movies in another connected universe, having released Aquaman last year), at being able to bring about an interlinked horror franchise with The Conjuring universe. Let’s hope that he can learn from the mistakes that Universal made with The Mummy, and slowly bring us the spectacle we all wanted, and still want, to see.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Follow him on Twitter: KJudgeMental

My article on Queen Hera from The Jewel of Seven Stars can be found here: https://horroraddicts.wordpress.com/2018/09/05/odds-and-dead-ends-resurrecting-the-queen/

Bibliography

28 Days Later. 2002. [Film] Directed by Danny Boyle. United Kingdom: 20th Century Fox.

Aquaman. 2018. [Film] Directed by James Wan. USA: DC.

Creature from the Black Lagoon. 1954. [Film] Directed by Jack Arnold. USA: Universal Pictures.

Dracula. 1931. [Film] Directed by Tod Browning. USA: Universal Pictures.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters. 2019. [Film] Directed by Michael Dougherty. USA: Legendary Pictures.

Iron Man. 2008. [Film] Directed by Jon Favreau. USA: Marvel Studios.

Night of the Living Dead. 1968. [Film] Directed by George A. Romero. USA: Image Ten.

Solo: A Star Wars Story. 2018. [Film] Directed by Ron Howard. USA: Lucasfilm.

Spider-Man: Far From Home. 2019. [Film] Directed by Jon Watts. USA: Marvel Studios.

Stoker, B., 2009. The Jewel of Seven Stars. United States of America: Seven Treasures Publications.

The Mummy. 2017. [Film] Directed by Alex Kurtzman. USA: Universal.

Wonder Woman. 2017. [Film] Directed by Patty Jenkins. USA: DC.