By Jared M. Gordon
The Mummy – 1999 – dir. Stephen Sommers
Whether it’s action, romance, or angry, angry beetles, Stephen Sommers’s 1999 hit The Mummy has what you’re looking for. Marketed as a next-generation’s Indiana Jones, The Mummy succeeds as a film by delivering exactly what it promises – and a little bit more.
With an ensemble cast including Brendan Fraser, pre-Oscar Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, and Arnold Vosloo, there are enough contrasting, zany characters for any “Which character are you” Internet quiz. But what keeps The Mummy from being just another visual-effects-laden Hollywood song and dance?
Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr), descendant of the Pharaoh’s bodyguard, says, “For three thousand years, men and armies fought over this land, never knowing what evil lay beneath it.” So it’s campy, too. What really makes it stand out?
The Mummy is a movie in which the good guys are in fact just as intriguing (and fun) as the bad guys. For an action thriller, there’s a surprising amount of time given over to character development. You certainly oughtn’t expect Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview or Tom Hanks’s Forrest Gump or Kate Winslet’s Hanna Schmitz… but screenwriter/director Stephen Sommers makes the good guys a bit more distinct and three-dimensional than you might otherwise expect. Think of them as denizens of a very, very well-loved pop-up book. Mostly flat, but still hovering a millimeter or two above the page. But what makes ancient Egypt so intriguing? Why do we like stories of the mummy’s curse? It could be the promise of life after death, or of supernatural retribution among desert sands, or the culmination of the religious beliefs of an advanced, ancient culture.
For me, it was a bag of Chips Ahoy, back in the 1980s (during the reign of the Pharaoh Reagan). The folks over at Nabisco ran a promotion in which they included various puzzle maps with their cookies. One such map was labeled “The Pharaoh’s Curse,” and had a picture of a particularly furious Egyptian monarch. If you, as a fan of quality, mass-produced cookies, were able to decipher the codes upon the map, then you’d score a sweepstakes entry. I don’t remember what the prize was, but finding a map to a Pharaoh’s treasure in with your cookies is pretty darn cool.
What I like about The Mummy is HOW it scares you. Too many horror/thriller/scarefests rely on what I call the “ragh-jump-out-at-you” scare. To be sure, The Mummy relies on that tactic, but I maintain that its most frightening moments rely more on how it plays with your senses. It’s hearing the bugs, seeing the decomposed Imhotep (Vosloo) staring you down across the crypt or distending his jaws, and watching some extremely gruesome deaths. Sommers, like Quentin Tarantino, included such things not only because they contributed to the story, but because they look freakin’ sweet.
Another strength of the film is the anticipation and suspense that it builds. We’re exactly an hour into the movie before the mummy himself awakens. Like Jaws before him, we’ve heard so much about what he did and what he can do, that we’re quaking before we even see him. Awesome.
Another thing I like about it is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously as a film. It could have been ruined if played more dramatically than it was, but with plenty of comic relief (Brendan Fraser as our knight in shining desert fatigues?), its thrills and humor compliment each other nicely. We care about the characters because we laugh alongside them.
An eminently catchy score (evocative of the Arabian strains of Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia theme) by late veteran composer Jerry Goldsmith is the final jewel in this film’s canopic jar.
Is death really only the beginning? Well, this movie certainly is, with regards to the franchise. There’s a fourth installment in the works. But regardless of the mummies, scorpion kings, and Chinese emperors that Rick O’Connell and Evie Carnahan face, one question remains unanswered:
Whose idea was it to set up the Museum of Antiquities’s bookcases like dominoes?
“I dreamt about this since I was a little girl!”
“You dream about dead guys?”