It is a truth Universal(ly) acknowledged that 1999’s The Mummy starring Brendan Fraser is a masterpiece (fight me). A box-office hit, it should have been enough to relaunch Universal’s once beloved movie monsters brand. After all, it had style, it had grace, it had Rachel Weisz punching people in the face. Yet it was not to be: four movies in the franchise came and went.
When Universal announced in 2012 that they were doing a new take on The Mummy in a bid to kickstart their movie monsters cinematic universe once again, the automatic assumption was that Fraser’s Mummy – swashbuckling as it was – would stand alone and apart from the rebooted version. What no one expected was the two films to be, well, connected.
Fast forward to 2017 and we have a new The Mummy sliding on to our screens smack-bam in the middle of America’s summer blockbuster season. The potential of Universal movie monsters as a bonafide cinematic universe hasn’t been this promising since the thirties. While Universal back then had Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Universal now has Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe. Their not-so-secret weapon, though, is The Mummy’s director and producer Alex Kurtzman.
Hailing from the school of J.J. Abrams with buddy Roberto Orci, he’s kind of a mastermind when it comes to crafting – and managing – an expansive cinematic universe (Exhibit A: Star Trek) (Exhibit B: Transformers). So it’s no surprise the studio has big plans for Kurtzman – plans which he is hella down with, by the way – as the puppet master of the shared Universal movie monsters universe with The Invisible Man, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein films all now officially announced as in development and part of the Dark Universe.
And if there’s one thing Kurtzman knows from doing what no one thought was possible – successfully bringing Star Trek into the 21st century – it’s that you can acknowledge the present, without having to shit on the past. Enter the smallest, slightest, but no less significant wink to Fraser’s The Mummy on stage left. It’s something fans of the late nighties gem will pick up straight away – and have on Twitter following some of the movie’s extended online spots – with people enthusiastically throwing out theories and then doubting themselves just as quickly. It’s a single flash across the screen, just one book lifted from the shelf of a supernatural library and then moved out of frame … yet its significance is profound. It is the Book Of The Dead.
“Yeah,” chuckles Kurtzman, “Yes it is… there’s a couple of Easter eggs.
“You have to go again to see it.”
In Australia with his stars Cruise, Crowe, Sofia Boutella and Annabelle Wallis to promote The Mummy’s June 8 release worldwide, the prolific filmmaker is someone who purposefully buries Easter eggs in his work for people to find (as feverish fans of Alias and Fringe will know). In a world where every film studio is looking for that cinematic universe to recreate the success of Marvel’s and force connections where there may be none, the Book Of The Dead’s brief cameo is more than just a visual high-five for The Mummy diehards. It, the director says, is a mark of respect.
“You must render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” says Kurztman.
“We’re standing on the shoulders of giants here. To deny or ignore that would be very ignorant.”
He’s of course not just referring to what director Stephen Sommers did in 1999’s The Mummy, he’s referring to the significant baggage that comes with trying to take on any Universal monster movie. Whether it’s the OG 1932 The Mummy with Karloff playing the title role, 1931’s Dracula or even The Wolf Man, which came a decade later in 1941, those films are more than just monster movies. As Kurtzman explains, they’re classics for a reason.
“I think that one of the great, defining things about the Universal movie monsters is that you had to fear the monster and fear for the monster,” he says.
“They were unique character stories and they were really a genre unto themselves. If you look at those movies, they were not slasher movies – they’re not straight horror movies – they’re character movies.
“All of the monsters reflect some part of us, some part of humanity, the outsider who longs to be a part of something it can never be a part of. That is a very poignant and human idea and that’s what I love about the monsters.”
But what does the Book Of The Dead popping up in Kurtzman’s version of The Mummy really mean? Could we see a Brendan Fraser resurgence like the Great McConaissance of 2013? Unlikely, for a few reasons. Those who remember the plot of Fraser’s The Mummy will recall that the Book Of The Dead is the instrument which resurrects the series’ big bad Imhotep (definitely not played by Billy Zane). It’s a tool, nothing more, and depending on how you use it can be utilised for good or evil (kinda like Billy Zane). The book has significant value as both a historical and supernatural artifact and is something that somebody – or somebodies – would want to make sure didn’t fall into the wrong hands.
The central plotline of The Mummy takes place following World War I, with events kicking off in 1923 and the franchise following the adventures of the O’Connell family up until 1946. From then until present day, when 2017’s The Mummy is set, some 70 years have passed. The O’Connell family – yes, even their son Alex – would have succumbed to the perils of mortality. So no, Fraser or Weisz or the delightful John Hannah won’t be back in Kurtzman’s future versions of The Mummy, even though they do happen in the same universe. Yet just because those characters are six feet under, the Book Of The Dead is still very much in circulation.
“That book would still exist, of course,” says Kurtzman. “It would still be around.”
And what better person to act as gatekeeper of its abilities than Crowe’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, who is the head of what Universal have called “a mysterious multi-national organisation known as Prodigium”. Their mission? “To track, study and — when necessary — destroy evil embodied in the form of monsters in our world. Working outside the aegis of any government, and with practices concealed by millennia of secrecy, Prodigium protects the public from knowledge of the evil that exists just beyond the thin membrane of civilised society…and will go to any length to contain it.”