Romance! Adventure! Mythology! Monsters! Oh my!
In 1999, I was the ripe old age of eight. I was a fourth grader who already felt like a nerd, wasn’t that interested in boys, and thought the epitome of cool was rocking my brother’s old three wolf moon t-shirt. That was the year The Mummy, starring Brenden Fraser (*swoon*), hit theaters. What followed was a chain of events that I can only describe as “borderline obsessive.” It’s rare for a movie, especially one has received so many mixed notices over the years, to change your life.
Good Movie + The Right Timing = Obsession
The mythology, the monsters, the history! When the VHS came out, I watched the movie every. Single. Day. That’s right. My daily ritual when I came home from school was to fix a snack, rewind the tape from the previous day’s viewing, and watch The Mummy. Sometimes twice. No shame. This went on for at least a month.
The Mummy sparked an interest in Egypt that follows me even today. I bought books to learn hieroglyphics and I started reading everything I could on Egyptian mythology and mummification. I wanted to know everything that Evelyn, Rachel Weisz’s tough librarian character, knew. Being a nerd was one thing, but being a nerd who could not only resurrect ancient Egyptian mummies, but also save the world from unspeakable evil all with the powers of her brain…this was dream too intoxicating to ignore!
I took years of horse back riding lessons, becoming quite the equestrian, because the brains weren’t enough. If I was going to be as cool as Rick O’ Connell, I had to ride a horse and go on adventures. How else would I beat the other archeologists to the super secret dig sites? That being said, this is also around the time that I started discovering the difference between wanting to be Rick O’ Connell and wanting to marry Rick O’ Connell. It seems strange now, but ’90s Brenden Fraser was a romantic awakening for me, and I am willing to bet, even if I didn’t quite realize it then (I was 8, boys were still gross), that is probably one of the bigger reasons I kept watching.
By middle school, my male interests turned to the boys in the hallways, but I was still sporting a ring with my name in hieroglyphics daily. In fact, I didn’t take that ring off until college when it slid off my finger and was lost forever. Even as a film major, I took as many non-major Egyptology classes that I was allowed to take. By then, I had long since abandoned the idea that I could read a book and raise a mummy from the underworld or be a gun slinging adventurer, but the grip of The Mummy still had a firm hold on me. At the end of those courses, I was able to write choice fun phrases in ancient Egyptian. It would have been an excellent way to pass notes in my non-Egyptian classes, had I had friends to pass notes to.
Fourth grade me was determined to be an archeologist. Though Indiana Jones had shown me for years how badass being an archeologist could be, that only gave me the job description. The Mummy gave me a destination. I wanted to shoot like Rick O’ Connell and be as knowledgable as Evelyn Carnahan. There is a magic to The Mummy that other adventure stories lacked. Indiana Jones didn’t fight monsters – he fought people (though, Nazis and Monsters are pretty close relation). The Mummy had elements of horror, romance, action, comedy, and fantasy, but the fantasy land was real! I could, theoretically, go to Egypt!
Growing up Catholic, I was familiar with Christian mythologies, but ancient Egypt was something else, it was something exotic. From the sweeping landscapes to the mummification process to the curses and language, The Mummy introduced a whole new world. It was a love letter to a part of history and culture that I hadn’t learned about yet, it encompassed what I wanted to be when I grew up: a gun wielding archeologist traversing the sands of Egypt…in the 1920s, when the outfits were cooler.
However, in another entry in the long history of adults not realizing the impact of things they say to children, those dreams were crushed when an adult stopped to tell me that I didn’t really want to be an archeologist, because I would never get to see my family and it isn’t that glamorous and I wouldn’t get to ride horses and shoot monsters. Sigh.
A Horror Fairy Tale
So what is it about The Mummy? How could a movie (especially a movie that certainly didn’t receive unanimous critical praise) inspire all of that?
In getting ready to write this article, I sat down to watch The Mummy for the first time in…well, a couple months. What I realized watching it with my writer-hat on was this: The Mummy has a lot of heart. It begins like a Disney movie, with a voice over narration telling you a classic tale, but re-imagined for kids that have started realizing that they want an adventure with a little more oomph. In the first five minutes, you already have a salacious affair, some very impressive body paint, murder, and mystic lore. You know, everything a growing kid needs.
The Mummy has all of the qualities of a story book. It is an action-horror-fairytale of good versus evil, and it doesn’t shy away from explicitly laying it all out for you. Honestly, I don’t know how many more ‘these lands are cursed,’ ’you mustn’t read from the book’, and ‘most have never returned,’ comments you can fit into one movie. It follows a reliable, and comforting, structure, with the characters sliding neatly into several archetypes.
Rick O’ Connell is the only character that takes three ‘first-impressions’ to really understand. We first meet him as an American adventurer fighting with the French Foreign Legion. Here, we see him as strong, capable, a fighter, a suitable Prince Charming for our yet unknown damsel. Next, we see him as a dirty prisoner, obviously shaken by his time in battle and the strange occurrences he witnessed in the desert. He is a rebel, a cowboy, not the straight up and down soldier we first saw, he even forces a kiss on our wide-eyed heroine. And lastly, we meet his final form at the boat docks before they set out on their adventure. Once again, he has returned to the cleaned up soldier from the first scene, but now that we know he has got a little old west bad boy in him. And I say again: swoon.
As I mentioned before, Rick O’ Connell was a sort of romantic awakening for me as a child. He was handsome, gruff, and capable. The flawed man you see in the prison cell was a broken down version of who he really was. He helps protect the American treasure hunters who he was previously at odds with, he tries to save Beni as the walls are closing in (even though Beni had committed unforgivable wrongs!), and he saved Evie from the Mummy, even though he had initially wanted to flee. He is a man of loyalty, and a worthy first big Hollywood crush.
Honestly, I think first crushes effect us more than we realize. I found the Rick O’ Connell to my Evelyn Carnahan when as a college girl studying film and ancient Egypt – I met and married a soldier. Like Rick to Evie, he has the skills that I lack and vice versa, the perfect counterpart to my still-dreamed-about archeological adventures. It doesn’t hurt that he loves The Mummy too.
Rachel Weisz’s Evelyn Carnahan is the rare gem missing from a lot of action/adventure stories. We meet her in Cairo at the library where she works. She is beautiful and quirky and talking to herself. However, an error in judgement turns this sweet intro to chaos as she knocks down every single bookcase, dominoes style. She is supremely and rightfully proud of her accomplishments and her vast knowledge of Egypt, but she is not afraid to admit when she needs help. As an intelligent woman, she knows that the best way to reach her goals and satisfy her needs is to enlist people that succeed where she comes up short. Evelyn will negotiate with prison wardens and hire cons because that is what she knows she has to do to get shit done. Unfortunately, being brains over brawn in an adventure horror story, inevitably puts her in the damsel category as she is chosen to be a blood sacrifice for a 3,000 year-old-mummy’s girlfriend, and the hunky brawn-over-brains hero has to save her.
Don’t let the term ‘damsel’ fool you. Everybody has the potential to fall into danger and need rescuing, and it is in no way a show of their strengths and weaknesses. Having a leading lady in Evelyn that was actually a leading lady was very important, especially when starting to face the years of middle school hell. I was not a cute kid and in the hallways of junior high words like ‘fat, ‘dyke,’ and ‘nerd,’ were never far behind me. In the days of super low-rise jeans and Brittney Spears, being the girl three inches taller than all the boys, that preferred shirts three sizes too big, there was plenty of ammo to go around.
However, having already formed a relationship with Evelyn Carnahan and Rick O’ Connell, I was always able to let it roll off. Who cares that I didn’t look like a pop star – I had adventure ahead of me! I was going to leave all of those kids in the dust of my horse as I took off to explore ancient cities around the world. Evelyn was the perfect embodiment of ‘knowledge is power’ that I needed to rise up and power through the brutal trenches of junior high. Evelyn faced sexism and sexual harassment, but she never lost sight of her goal. She was my perfectly imperfect fairy tale princess.
As far as fools go, Jonathan Carnahan (John Hannah) is still one of my all-time favorites. Who doesn’t want to hang with the guy that lays in a sarcophagus with a mummified corpse for who knows how long just so that he can prank his baby sister? Jonathan provides consistent comedic relief throughout the journey. He has some brains, but not nearly as much as Evie, and he has some skill with a gun, but not nearly has much as Rick. He is our relatable and lovable friend that reminds us that although ancient cursed mummies are super scary, you can still battle them with wit and charm.
As a kid, I don’t think I would have liked The Mummy as much if it wasn’t for Jonathan. Although seemingly not as important to the task at hand, Jonathan provides the kind of humor that gives the story its pulse. Like a good fool or court jester, he announces what is going on, whether it be through wit or his hauntingly cool biblical narration of the plagues. Too many films, particularly kids movies today, separate funny from intelligent and capable. Jonathan was both. He is an integral part to the story, and I was always sad that he didn’t get all the treasure from the treasure room. He deserved it.
Last, but certainly not least, the villain: Imhotep. The high priest of the Pharaoh Seti I. But this priest isn’t so holy. At first glance, he seems to just be a man in love. A man consumed with the affection of an untouchable woman. He could almost be sympathetic, if he and Anuk Su Namun didn’t get all stab happy and murder the Pharaoh before Anuk Su Namun stabs herself so that Imhotep can get away and just resurrect her later. As one does. Talk about faith.
Sex, murder, underground rituals with your loyal band of priests, being eaten alive by bugs and cursed for eternity. Seriously, what more could you possibly want in a villain? He is the fairy tale villain for the kids who watched horror movies after their parents went to bed. Imhotep arrived at a time when I wanted movie villains to be cooler and he definitely scratched that itch.
Yeah, But Does It Hold Up?
Yes. The short answer is yes.
However, in the age of Marvel movies and more skillfully crafted fantasy adventure, The Mummy’s flaws come across as almost glaring, careless errors. What it has in heart, it supremely lacks in logic and detail. To this day, I still don’t understand what a scarab does. Does it crawl under the skin and attack your brain? Or do they eat your flesh from the outside? And how fast do they kill you? According to Evelyn, they ate Imhotep alive ‘very slowly,’ but they sure made fast work of those red shirts, I mean workers. Maybe there are two different kinds. We will never know, because the movie’s world can be so inconsistent. Also, the Book of the Dead and The Book of Amun Ra look like pretty big books, how does Evie automatically know, without ever seeing it before, which passage will allow Jonathan to control the mummy guards?
The Mummy has certainly aged better than its sequel. By not trying to be too over the top in its execution, the film’s 1999 CGI still works today. Although some things appear obviously outdated, and some of the location shots are very clearly green screen or sound stage, it isn’t bad enough to make you wince. However, that doesn’t stop The Mummyfrom being plagued with awkward cuts and unappealing choices. As I have rewatched the movie in recent years, I have noticed that there is an unnecessary and distracting out of focus look to the perimeter of some of the scenes, and on more than one occasion, the action packed scenes appear to reuse the same shot. The Mummy sometimes feels like the final rough draft before a finished product. The errors feel so simple and easily correctable and yet somehow they went over looked. It feels shrugged off, when it could have felt perfect, or at least closer to perfect.
But through all of these faults, The Mummy holds up, for all of the reasons that I loved it as a child. Sometimes the sum of a movie’s parts, all of its charms and character, all of its wit and adrenaline, all of its pure heart, is more than the sum of its flaws. I don’t need to defend a movie like The Mummy, because you either see it for what it is, an enchanting horror fairy tale where a cowboy and a librarian take on a monster and fall in love, or you see it as a flawed reboot of a Universal Monsters classic. No amount of defense will change that, because for movies like this, it is all about timing.
I saw The Mummy in that sweet spot between being a child and a young adult and it became part of my genetic code. I may have never become an archeologist, and I have yet to go to Egypt, but the romance and adventure that defined my childhood still fuels my modern dreams of adventure.