I don’t know very much about music, but one thing I’m sure of: there’s no point in doing a cover of a song that’s exactly the same as the original.
The best covers I’ve heard take a great piece of music and try something different with it. The songwriter comes at the same melody from a different angle (or in this case, key, I guess?) creating a new work that shares DNA with the original, but succeeds on its own. Last year Ryan Adams famously covered an entire Taylor Swift pop album with his own unique style, but I also like Damhnait Doyle’s haunted-music-box take on “I Want You to Want Me” or Yael Naïm’s surprisingly unsettling rendition of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” Covers are not actually about being better or worse than the original. Good covers become their own unique thing.
And movies are often the same.
Remember last summer’s Ghostbusters remake? You should; it created a medium-sized social media explosion. When Bridesmaids director Paul Feig announced that he was making an all-women version of Ghostbusters, many people (mostly men) were displeased, and used the magic of the internet to make that displeasure known. The movie came out and did poorly, and the trolls considered themselves victorious: the new film wasn’t as good as the old, by golly, and women can’t carry a blockbuster film (Wonder Woman a year later: “suck it.”), and so on.
Maybe you liked the new Ghostbusters and maybe you didn’t, but I think the tremendous mistake that too many people made was to compare it to the original film. Because the 2016 Ghostbusters wasn’t really a remake. I actually looked up the definition of the word, and “remake” means “a movie or piece of music that has been filmed or recorded again and rereleased.” The 2016 version of Ghostbusters wasn’t trying to re-do Ghostbusters. It was trying to take some of the DNA of the original and do something different with it.
As a result, the two films are practically in different genres. The original Ghostbusters is small and grounded and anchored by Bill Murray’s dry, sarcastic humor. Feig’s Ghostbusters is a big, broad, silly façade covering a core of feminist anger and a fierce message about sisterhood. “Is it as good as the original” is the exact wrong question to ask. Is an apple as good as an orange? Is a dog as good as a cat? Who cares? All that matters is that sometimes, under certain circumstances, you can find dogs and cats living together.
Which brings me to the new version of The Mummy. The 2017 Mummy isn’t as good as the 2016 Ghostbusters, but they do have unfair condemnation in common. I’ve written more extensively on how The Mummy isn’t nearly as bad as everyone is claiming; it has a fairly tight storyline, as popcorn movies go, beautiful cinematography, and some cool action sequences (mummies underwater!). Moreover, it does an excellent job of getting us Penny Dreadful nerds excited about the Dark Universe. In fact, if someone hadn’t decided that it’d be a good idea to turn The Mummy into a Tom Cruise vehicle (what the hell, Universal?), I’d probably be happy to endorse it. As it stands, I’d give it a C.
But like or hate the new movie, it irks me that so many critics and moviegoers are comparing it to the “original” Mummy movie. Setting aside for the fact that the 1999 Brendan Fraser flick was far from the first Mummy film, it’s just not a fair comparison. They’re two completely different animals. The Fraser Mummy is a period movie made by a director, Stephen Sommers, who has spent his career playing with the chemical balance of camp, humor, thrills, and scares. That’s his whole thing, and in his quest for the perfect cocktail, he’s made plenty of movies that left a bad taste. But The Mummy (1999) is Stephen Sommers’ masterpiece, the one movie in which he gets everything right: the romance, the humor, the scares, all of it. It’s the complete Stephen Sommers package.
The Mummy that came out last weekend, meanwhile, isn’t even interested in competing with what came before, because it’s too busy trying to open a doorway. The Mummy is set to be the first of a series of interconnected films featuring classic Universal characters, called the Dark Universe. And it’s set not in romantic, dangerous 1936 but right now, in our messy, cell phones-and-iPads world of too much access and not enough respect for history.*
Which feels like an interesting juxtaposition, at least in theory. I actually think it’s laudable that Universal decided to try pitting their best monsters against a modern world, because that’s something we haven’t seen done well in…maybe ever? And while the new Mummy is way too Cruise-infused to be the great, allegorical film that pulls out big questions, it’s good enough to set the stage for the one that will.
And happily, we still have Brendan Fraser. The 1999 Mummy will always stand as an ideal example of what happens when a director gets everything right. It holds up on its own, and Tom Cruise himself can’t tarnish it. But his Mummy is a new thing. It’s a cover, not a remake, and trying a new thing with old DNA is something that can work out well—as long as we don’t get too caught up in comparisons.
*If you disagree with either of these statements, might I direct your attention toward the White House? (Yeah, that’s right. I went THERE.)
From her website at http://melissafolson.com/:
As of 2017, Melissa has published seven novels in her Old World series for 47North, and will release a second novella for Tor.com in October. Her journalism and academic work has been published in The International Journal of Comic Art, The La Crosse Tribune, U-Wire, Women on Writing.com, and the compilation Images of the Modern Vampire, and a few other places. She spends most of her non-writing professional time traveling around to conventions and conferences, though she is still somewhat fuzzy on the difference between the two. Melissa speaks about issues related to genre, feminism, writing, and parenting.