Monday, 18 January 2016

Revisiting 'The Mummy' (1999)

Back in the reign of Seti I, the priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) has fallen in love with the Pharaoh's concubine, Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velasqeuz). The lovers kill the Pharaoh, but Anck-Su-Namun is captured by the Pharaoh's guards and executed. Imhotep attempts to resurrect her from the dead but is himself captured and mummified by Pharaoh's guards in Hamunaptra, the city of the Dead. 

In 1926, Evey (Rachel Weisz), a librarian, and her ne'er-do-well brother Jonathan (John Hannah), find a map to Hamunaptra, a place which is believed to be merely a legend. After the map is partially destroyed, Jonathan and Evey find the man who Jonathan stole the map from. This is Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser), a former member of the French Foreign Legion who lost his entire garrison in the search for the lost city.

After securing his services, the trio head off to find the lost city, where they accidentally re-awaken Imhotep. Little more than a desiccated corpse, Imhotep has to regenerate himself by subsisting on the bodies of the men who desecrated his tomb. If he does, he will completely invincible. It is up to the plucky librarian, her drunken brother and the roguish O'Connell to stop the undead creature before he achieves his goal.

Imhotep has plans of his own for the trio -- especially for Evey, who he sees as the blood sacrifice he needs to resurrect his lost love...

I first saw this movie at a drive-in in 1999, which is probably the most appropriate place to see it. As a child who grew up on the Indiana Jones movies, I loved it. I also remember being terrified of Vosloo's mummy, especially when he is halfway through his re-generation.

Revisiting it 16 years later, its flaws are readily apparent. However, on the whole it is still pretty entertaining. It is basically a blend of a 50s monster movie with Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's a cool blend and The Mummy basically lives up to that description. 

The good stuff

Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz make the movie. Their chemistry and comic timing provide an excellent centre to proceedings, and their burgeoning romance is surprisingly well handled, considering who wrote and directed it. Speaking of which...

Stephen Sommers gets a lot of shit for his work, and generally I'd agree. His scripts are sloppy and lack strong plotting or characterisation, and he relies on too much CGI, which often appears subpar and rushed. Clearly, he can be a poor judge of his own work. However, with The Mummy he knows exactly what kind of movie he is making. 

Sommers pitched The Mummy as an Indiana Jones-style romp with lots of action and touches of horror. As such, it works. Like the Indiana Jones movies, there are jokes, but bar a few examples which I'll get to, they are in the right places. The tone is surprisingly consistent -- having watched quite a few Sommers movies since, I was expecting it to feel like a schizophrenic mess. And while the tone is fairly light, there is none of the half-assed po-mo of other late 90s horror movies. There is an earnestness to the movie which helps. 

The main characters are interesting and likeable, the plot fairly simple and the action moves at a good clip and is easy to follow. Unlike most action directors of the 90s, Sommers has never fallen under the spell of hyper-fast editing, and his action sequences have a good sense of geography and the character's positions within the locations. 


My biggest problem is with the CG. In 1999, it was state of the art -- today, it looks like cut scenes from a video game. From 10 years ago. The problem is not necessarily with the CG, it's that Sommers uses it far too much. While Imhotep is a fully CG character, his mummified acolytes are a blend of performers in heavy makeup with CG enhancement. They look so much better than the central character. It is baffling why they decided to go the whole way with their main attraction. It undermines credibility a bit (in some of the 'scary bits'), but the dated effects add to the charm, and reinforce the links with the old 50s monster movies it is taking after. 

The other problem has to do with characterisation. While Fraser, Weisz and John Hannah get a lot to work with, the supporting cast is a collection of cliches and really hideous ethnic stereotypes. There is one scene which stands out. Jonathan complains about the camels spitting and smelling. There is a cut to Gad Hassan (Omid Djalili) spitting. That's just one example, but it feels like a throwback to the 50s in the worst way. 

Final thoughts

While it does have issues, and the CG is dated, The Mummy is a fun, cheeseball movie. It may not be the best Mummy-related movie out there, but it is still a good time. This new 2017 version may turn out to be better (and less racist), but I doubt it will be anywhere near as fun as this iteration.

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