The Mummy
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124 min.
Release Date
The Mummy

The Mummy presents itself as a mainstream adventure yarn, except it’s not. It’s a lot stupider. Writer-director Stephen Sommers (Deep Rising) seems to have taken a remedial Egyptology course, picked out all the “hey, that sounds cool” parts, added plenty of fictionalized mythology of his own. And there you have it: A poor man’s Indiana Jones with a less interesting hero, racial stereotypes abound, and some of the cheesiest special effects this side of the Sci-Fi Channel. Nevertheless, the movie spoke to audiences in 1999, earning Universal Pictures a whopping $155 million at the domestic box-office, and another $260 million in internationalal receipts—all on an $80 million budget.

The story begins in ancient Egypt, where a narrator tells of priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) and his sexual shenanigans with the pharaoh’s sweetheart. Imhotep is punished with a curse so wicked it’s never been attempted before; the procedure involves being mummified alive and enclosed in a sarcophagus with flesh-eating scarabs. He’s buried in the City of the Dead, Hamunaptra, which remains guarded by a secret order of priests there to ward away anyone looking for history’s secrets. But should Imhotep’s resting place be disturbed, the curse deems he would become a “plague on humanity,” endowed with invincibility and all the powers of evil, which, really isn’t a curse at all. Aren’t curses supposed to be bad? Instead, they’ve empowered this guy with strength enough to get revenge on the world. Some curse—Why didn’t they just bake him some cookies? Maybe wash his car? Or do his taxes, since they were already doing him favors?

Ages pass until the 1920s, when Rick (Brendan Fraser), a legionnaire-treasure-seeker who always just barely survives his series of predicaments, teams up with an unlikely intellectual librarian named Evelyn (Rachel Weisz, pre-Oscar, her eyebrows over-plucked to an absurd degree) to journey to Hamunaptra. He delivers one-liners and shoots people real good; she’s a specialist in all things Egypt. They’re joined by Evelyn’s rich-boy brother Jonathan (John Hannah), serving up his share of gangly comic relief. Sommers favorite Kevin J. O’Connor plays Rick’s former partner Beni, a scamp dedicated to the highest bidder—he too offers clownish laughs. Indeed, every character has their jokey moments, most being the “Here we go again”-type.

Despite Evelyn’s astute knowledge, she doesn’t know (even if everyone else in the movie does) that reading from The Book of the Dead, which they find in Hamunaptra, will release Imhotep from his 3,000-year slumber. When he wakes, he starts sucking up victims’ flesh to rebuild his decayed body, meanwhile unleashing a series of plagues on Egypt (boils, locusts, rivers of blood, etc). His plan, not that it’s really discussed in any detail, involves the sacrifice of Evelyn to bring back his dead lover, the one who got him into this situation in the first place. And on his side are all manner of computer-generated images, including low-rent mummies for Rick to cut through, swarms of scarabs, and massive storms of sand bearing his face.

The biggest shocker comes during the closing credits, where we find Industrial Light & Magic conceived the downright horrible special effects. You’ll be asking yourself how the artists behind the flawless dinosaurs in Jurassic Park could’ve gone so wrong. Perhaps this was a last-minute job, something they cranked-out in a week or two. It certainly looks that way. Take the mummy himself, who is neither scary nor believable, but rather resembles digitized rotten hamburger. Imhotep’s roars of anger sound like some unholy furnace, a sound punctuated by his silly looking jaw, which curiously stretches his mouth down to the middle of his chest. Boris Karloff is rolling in his grave.

Shooting took place in Marrakech, Morocco, because Egypt would have proved too unstable a filming environment (thus, all those pyramids depicted, which should be awe inspiring, also come by way of shoddy CGI). Though, even in Morocco, the filmmakers took out kidnapping insurance on their stars. It’s a good thing too, because if locals got wind of the stereotypes purveyed in the script, no doubt there would have been consequences. I’m thinking specifically of Gad (played by Omid Djalili), an Egyptian jailer who tags along on Rick’s desert venture to Hamunaptra. He’s referred to as “stinky” for the short duration of his character, because, you know, he’s a “foreigner.” Soon he’s just another one of the disposable dead in the movie when a scarab eats its way from his foot to his brains.

Sommers loves his trashy, B-grade entertainment. He’s the guy who made Bram Stoker’s Professor Abraham Van Helsing character into a 1980s hair band reject played by Hugh Jackman (see, or don’t, Van Helsing from 2004). His audience must be able to accept jocular, juvenile setups completely devoid of atmosphere, going so far as to form into something resembling a spoof. Several moments have that tone where we stop and ask ourselves, “Is this a joke?” We must be in the mood for rubbish, which this movie certainly is. And while occasionally rubbish has that satisfying “Guilty Pleasure” label stamped all over it, The Mummy demands that we apologize for way too much of its content before losing ourselves in its mindless escapism.

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