The Mummy Returns is a bunch of 1s and 0s in search of a movie.

The Mummy Returns
Directed by Stephen Sommers
Universal Pictures

A colleague with access to a state-of-the-art DVD projection system reports that the disk that takes the coolest advantage of all those computer-augmented lines of resolution and surround-sound speakers—the DVD that rocks the house—is The Mummy (1999). This makes a kind of existential sense. With simulated vistas, digitized ghoulies, and cartoon conflagrations, The Mummy was born as 1s and 0s on computer screens, so it’s only fitting that to 1s and 0s it should return. It just feels at home in the digital universe.

In the theater, the picture struck me as pumped-up, mechanical, and remote, like a rackety video game viewed over someone else’s shoulder. Hordes of special effects would descend on the heroes and be swiftly annihilated, the lack of danger reinforced by banter so campy it would embarrass the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But the movie was a smash, and a reader or three accused me of leading with my prejudices—among them the expectation that a film called TheMummy would actually be scary. On its fans’ advice, I settled in for the sequel, The Mummy Returns, with looser criteria and an $8 popcorn-and-soda jumbo combo, resolved this time to go with the mindless flow.

And I kept running aground. The Mummy Returns is bigger and even busier than its big, busy predecessor, and it will doubtless make as much money. But it’s still a few billion 1s and 0s in search of a movie. As before, the writer-director Stephen Sommers’ recipe is one part Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), one part Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness (1993, the third film in the Evil Dead trilogy), and one part computer game; what’s missing is even a glimmer of something original and unprocessed. OK, forget originality; it’s the processed feel that kills the thrills. It all feels so weightless, artificial, ungrounded, fake.

The movie opens with swarms of Egyptian extras that look as real as the cast of Antz. Armies hack at each other, but the scores of deaths have no impact—these people never lived, so how could they die? Superstar wrestler the Rock makes a pact with the Egyptian equivalent of the Devil, who dispatches hundreds of wolf-head warriors that move with the devastating precision of computer-game automatons. Hold on, they are computer-game automatons.

Four thousand years later, explorer Brendan Fraser and his wife, Rachel Weisz—whose eyes seem to move farther apart in every movie despite a concerted effort to connect them with gobs of black liner and mascara—poke through a phony spider web and unlock a secret passageway. Weisz knows the secret-passageway combination because she has been having flashbacks to ancient Egypt. She turns out to be the reincarnation of Queen Neferteri—something that ought to have come up in the last movie when the Mummy kept trying to transfer her soul to the embalmed remains of his lady love, Anck-su-namun. (“Excuse me, I’m already occupied by another Egyptian oversoul.”) This time, Anck-su-namun’s own reincarnation (Patricia Velasquez) is around (and also having flashbacks to ancient Egypt) to challenge Neferteri’s reincarnation to a rematch, having engaged with her 4,000 years earlier in some half-naked martial arts. The half-naked martial arts is the good part of the movie.

Actually, most of the scenes with Weisz are the good part. She’s newly muscled-up, and she looks rather dishy striding around in her stretchy-tight riding pants or getting chloroformed and carried off by nasty Third World types. The bad parts feature a charmless English kid who’s supposedly the spawn of Fraser’s and Weisz’s characters but who doesn’t look remotely like either of them. In one scene, he watches a zillion-dollar special effect—a giant pillar that tips over onto another giant pillar, which tips over onto another giant pillar, etc.—and then, after a beat, exclaims, “Whoa!” It was that “Whoa!” that blew me out of the picture. Imagine the money and time and expertise that went into that Egyptian-dominoes gag, and the best response that Sommers could come up with for the kid was “Whoa!” Again and again you can feel him straining after Nick and Nora Charles or Butch and Sundance, only to settle for Saved by the Bell.

Saved by the Bell’s immortal Screech couldn’t make it for this one, but everyone else is in this thing, including the darlingly avaricious Scottish brother (John Hannah) and the portentous matinee idol Ardeth Bey (Oded Fehr). As advertised, the Mummy returns, first as a special effect and then in the (bald) person of Im-Ho-Tep (Arnold Vosloo)—another character with flashbacks to ancient Egypt. His minions kidnap Weisz and take her to the British Museum; when she gets away, they kidnap the kid, who has a supernatural bracelet that gives him flashbacks to ancient Egypt. By the time everyone’s flashbacks are over, they’re back in Egypt and reviving the Rock—now with the body of a scorpion. Then the wolf-head warriors return, along with some nasty, chattering, spear-wielding monkey skeletons. Cities get sucked into the ground. Scarabs burst from the floor. A hot-air balloon outflies—Star Wars-style—a giant tidal wave with a face. The Mummy Returns just keeps throwing things at you, until gosh darn you have to admit that a lot of very talented people (not necessarily the director) have invested considerable time, energy, and wit into making a crackerjack roller coaster ride.

The problem is that even roller coaster rides need a grounding in the physical world: the weight of gravity; the mixture of long, steady climbs and sudden plunges; the sense that real people are at risk. Sommers’ idea of a narrative is one climax connected to another climax connected to another climax connected to another climax, building to four mega-climaxes happening simultaneously. Some will consider this an excess of generosity; others would trade a hundred interchangeable cliffhangers for one real yyyaaaaaaahhhhh!!!! I came to scream with pleasure, but all I could manage was a pitiful, “Whoa!”