Wrapped Up in CGI: Revisiting The Mummy

Oscar goes tomb-raiding with Stephen Sommers’ lighthearted action-adventure. Does it still hold up? 

This loose remake of the 1930s horror classic is regarded as one of the big guilty pleasures of the 90s, a pulpy summer movie without any real substance, but it makes up for that in the likability of its main leads and action. The Indiana Jones-style plot often invites unfair comparisons to the Spielberg trilogy, but taken on its own, I find it to be a lot of fun, and much less obnoxious than a lot of blockbusters by more infamous directors. I won’t quibble over what the movie doesn’t do and instead take a look at what it presents.

In the city of Thebes in 1290 BC, Pharaoh Seti I is murdered by his High Priest, Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), and his mistress Anck-su-Namun (Patricia Velásquez). Imhotep flees from the Pharaoh’s bodyguards, but Anck-su-Namun kills herself in order for Imhotep to resurrect her in Hamunaptra, the “City of the Dead.” Imhotep and his priests are caught by Seti’s bodyguards, and Anck-su-Namun’s soul is sent back to the underworld, interrupting the ritual. Imhotep’s priests are mummified alive, but Imhotep himself is cursed to eternal agony, buried alive with flesh-eating Scarab beetles, buried beneath a statue of Anubis, and under surveillance by the warrior order of the Medjai. The Medjai prophesise that, if the tomb is disturbed, Imhotep will rise anew as a powerful undead being with power over the sands and the ancient plagues of Egypt.

Three-thousand years later, Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz), a Cairo librarian and aspiring Egyptologist, is given an intricate box and map by her brother Jonathan (John Hannah). The pair discover the map leads to Hamunaptra, and Jonathan reveals that he stole it from an American adventurer named Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser), now in prison. Evelyn and Jonathan visit Rick; he tells them that he knows the location of the city because his unit of the French Foreign Legion found it three years ago, and Evelyn manages to bargain for O’Connell’s freedom. Rick agrees to lead Evie and Jonathan to Hamunaptra in a race against a team of Americans led by British Egyptologist Dr. Allen Chamberlain (Jonathan Hyde), and guided by the cowardly Beni (Kevin J. O’Connor), a former comrade of Rick. After surviving an ambush by the Medjai and travelling via camel across the desert, the two expeditions reach Hamunaptra and begin their excavations in separate parts of the city. The leader of the Medjai, Ardeth Bey (Oded Fehr), warns them of the evil buried within the city, but the expeditions ignore his warning. Evie searches for the golden Book of Ammon-Ra beneath the statue of Anubis, but discovers the sarcophagus of Imhotep. Chaimberlain’s group discover a box containing the Book of the Dead, warning that the plagues of Egypt will be unleashed if the book is read aloud. Unaware of the curse and curious, Evie reads from the Book of the Dead aloud, awakening Imhotep and unleashing the plagues. The awakened mummy believes Evie is Anck-su-Namun reincarnated, and vows to complete the resurrection ritual…

The performances are decent. Fraser is sarcastic and likable as O’Connell, and pulls off the action scenes with flair, whilst Weisz is endearing as Evie, boasting several funny lines and the right balance of sweetness and intellect. The film manages to make the romance between them fun to watch, despite not being the most developed of characters. Hannah is quirky and poncey as Jonathan; he’s very expressive and has great interactions with the other cast members. Vosloo was creepy and threatening as the fully-fleshed Imhotep. Fehr is a cool presence as Ardeth Bey, and O’Connor makes Beni utterly weasley and despicable, allowing the audience to root for his inevitable death. While the cast themselves don’t have much to work with and come off as stereotypes in places, the little comedic moments, banter and even showing how Evie handles the men on the expedition makes the cast stand out a lot more.

Director Stephen Sommers has a knack for close-quarter action scenes, especially in the opening battle at Hamunaptra between the French Foreign Legion and the Nomads, providing an exciting introduction to Rick’s character. Visually, the film is quite stunning, especially when it relies on the natural beauty of the Sahara to create an exotic atmosphere. The Egyptology, even though most likely inaccurate, lends itself well to the supernatural elements taking place throughout the story. The narrative can be rather convoluted in places and features a lot of exposition, but rarely enough to overwhelm the otherwise basic plot. Indeed, you’ll often find tension and drama shortly followed by a well-placed bit of comedy. The film creates a jaunty, entertaining tone, and it maintains that even at times when the stakes are raised. The score by Jerry Goldsmith is excellent, capturing the spirit and atmosphere of Ancient Egypt, with bombastic horns and a charming love theme for Evie and Rick, overall highlighting the adventurous tone.

Considering the original was a straight horror film, it seems like a departure to go for a full-blown Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque romp, a trait featured in Sommers’ The Jungle Book. What it lacks in horror, it makes up for in a sense of lightheaded charm and energy. The CGI is often just good enough to get by; some shots still hold up like the Scarab beetles and the Mummy form of Imhotep, but a lot of it is very dated. There are also some nice practical effects on the other mummies and boobie traps which hold up well. Small horror elements such as jump-scares, the way the Scarabs devour their victims, and the creepy dried up corpses of the Mummy’s victims are surprisingly effective despite the film’s otherwise upbeat tone. However, don’t expect any hardcore terror. It has been pointed out that the stereotyping of the Arabs is rather crass, especially in the character who accompanies O’Connell’s group, and it can get irritating.

After fifteen years, it’s surprising to find that a lot of people remember The Mummy with a certain fondness. Many cite the humour and sense of adventure as the main pull, and I feel that’s the case for me as well. It doesn’t take itself seriously and doesn’t push for an agenda of any sort. What you see is what you get.

The Mummy is probably Sommers’ most well-known film. Its daft and implausible, yet fun and amusing. The main leads are very likable, the set-pieces still have a spring in their step, and the incredible score by Goldsmith is enough to suck me into the world, even if the special effects don’t succeed on that front. It’s free of agenda or overwhelming thematic weight, but I can enjoy that once in a while. The key word often used to describe the film is “fun.” In spite of the nonsensical scenes, it manages to stay entertaining. With the prospect of a new Mummy on the cards focusing on the horror elements that made the Boris Karloff classic famous, I’ll be keeping  Sommers’ incarnation close at hand in case it disappoints.

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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