sovay: (I Claudius)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2017-09-08 12:46 am
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And did I panic? I think not

I did not see Stephen Sommers' The Mummy (1999) when it came out in the spring of my senior year of high school. At that point in my life I watched very few movies and when I did they were mostly social activities or taped off the television in black and white and this one looked big, loud, stupid, and above all not Boris Karloff. My then-boyfriend saw it without me; he reported a lot of computer-generated gore and scarabs. I didn't bother. Flash forward eighteen years and all of a sudden I'm seeing The Mummy and its first sequel namechecked everywhere as paramount examples of heroic female geekery and a het romance that actually works. Yesterday was characterized by exhaustion and eye-crossing headache and I needed a distraction, so I got a slightly scratched DVD out of the library and decided to see what I was missing.

The film is big, and it is loud, and the Orientalism goes up to eleven, but it knows it's not Boris Karloff and I don't think it's stupid. It's adventure pulp made by people who knew Spielberg was never going to come through with the further exploits of Indiana Jones—and must have felt smug when he finally did and they were The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)—and while the generation loss of making a homage to a homage could have left The Mummy insubstantial and ironic, instead it plays with the breezy fast pace and selectively sidestepped tropes of a blockbuster that looks like everyone who made it actually had fun. Rachel Weisz as Evie Carnahan is a one-woman screwball comedy, bespectacled as Cary Grant, chaos-making as Katharine Hepburn; still so young that she's curly-haired and kitten-faced, she's also the most accomplished Egyptologist in the story ("Take that, Bembridge scholars!") and I couldn't help noticing that while the climax does find her in need of rescue from your traditional lost-love resurrection ritual, the bulk of the plot on either side turns directly on her actions, from pursuing a childhood dream of the lost city of Hamunaptra to identifying a crucial hieroglyph by rather shaky description alone while dodging a priesthood's worth of murderous mummies. Opposite her, Brendan Fraser as soldier of fortune Rick O'Connell has to be good in order not to get wiped out of his own top billing and he is—he can do casual rugged heroism with tongue discreetly in cheek, he looks splendid in the Army-cut fashions of the '20's, and it gets funnier every time he reacts to the intimidating roar of something evil by screaming his face off right back at it. They fall in love like all the best adventurers, doing absurdly competent and foolhardy things while looking as though they can't believe their luck that the other person is right there alongside them. Kevin O'Connor is such an unapologetic weasel as Beni, ex-Legionnaire turned mummy's Renfield, that despite the script's explicit warning that "nasty little fellows such as yourself always get their comeuppance," I was still sorry to see him get his, and John Hannah's Jonathan Carnahan proves that I am incapable of not overthinking even summer blockbuster pulp, because when I see, in 1926, a young-ish Englishman that drunk, that flippant, and that good with firearms, I can't help wondering if his war was the Western Front or the Mesopotamian campaign. I am pretty sure that Odad Fehr's Ardeth Bay survives his heroic self-sacrifice by sheer force of beauty, but with that profile and those tattoos I'll buy it. And Arnold Vosloo makes a surprisingly effective Imhotep who resembles his 1932 incarnation only in his love for a woman three thousand years gone; he spends most of the movie in a partial state of motion capture, but whenever he's more or less human, he is as intense and solemn as if he's starring in a romantic tragedy, not a monster movie, which from his perspective is true enough.

From everyone else's, of course, it is a monster movie, with faces emerging hollow-mouthed from sandstorms and gem-like scarabs slithering under people's skin and skeletal mummies clashing swords like the return of Ray Harryhausen. The plot is the sort of thing you expect when no one in an ancient Egyptian royal court sees the potential blowback of deploying a curse whose object can, if exposed to the right incantations, come back as an immortal sand demon with the power to summon plagues from a different mythology entirely, and no one in the present day believes in the existence of such curses except for the hereditary caste of warriors who have become as mythical as the sand-drowned city they guard. There are seekers of knowledge versus hunters of treasure, the return of the repressed in sun-snuffing style. Everybody gets at least one moment of pure heroism and one moment of pure comedy and sometimes they're the same thing. Refreshingly, for all the prevailing goofiness, the script has few true moments of idiot plot and they are at least doozies when they arrive. (It's a nice gruesome touch when Imhotep begins to supplement his eviscerated body with living organs harvested from the disturbers of his tomb, but then he should spend the rest of the movie bumping into furniture, since those shiny new eyeballs of his came from a man who canonically had trouble finding his way down a hallway after his glasses were knocked off.) The CGI does not hold up, exactly, but for the most part it's not objectionable and even pulls off some nice effects that don't need to look naturalistic, like the spirit of Patricia Velásquez's Anck-su-namun boiling thickly out of a sacred pool with the weird purplish sheen of corona discharge, eddying over her vacant body without ever quite settling into recognizable human shape.

What really does not hold up, and honestly should not have even in 1999, is the racism. There is a redshirt in the form of a corrupt prison warden who accompanies our heroes to Hamunaptra; he is played by Omid Djalili and his purpose is to demonstrate how dangerous it is to go wandering off alone in a city haunted by an undead high priest and his cursed followers, but I feel this could have been accomplished without jokes that would not have been out of place in Girl of the Port (1930). I mean, I appreciate that the script tries to be even-handed with its stereotypes by making the rival team of treasure-hunting Americans a bunch of gung-ho literal cowboys, but the fact remains that trigger-happy Yankees are less flatly offensive than an Arab character hawking and spitting on cue of a British character's disgusted remark about the expectoratory habits of camels. I have less trouble with Beni because he is so generically Eurotrash, like a turbo-charged Peter Lorre caricature; after Erick Avari's indignant introduction, it's nice to discover that his obstructive curator of the Cairo Museum of Antiquities is more than he seemed when he was chewing Evie out for trashing his library before half-destroying Jonathan's tattered, ancient find of a map. I almost wish more had been made of the casual reveal that the Carnahan siblings are, despite their all-British names and received pronunciation, half-Egyptian—"You see, my father was a very, very famous explorer and he loved Egypt so much, he married my mother, who was an Egyptian and quite an adventurer herself"—although that would have raised even more strongly the question of appropriate casting. (Send help, I just pictured Siddig El Fadil as Jonathan and now I am wistful.) There are conventions of adventure pulp that simply no longer need to be observed and I am sorry The Mummy thought its period setting would gloss them. I prefer when it remembers to subvert all of its tropes, as with the fact that Ardeth Bay's Medjai know damn well where the lost city is, they just don't want anybody visiting.

I have been awake since seven o'clock this morning and spent the day traveling and write this review from a motel in Pennsylvania while [personal profile] spatch catches up on the news on the bed behind me; I don't know what else I can say about this movie except that it is on the whole a really adorable adventure with a couple of sour notes I wish it hadn't struck and the people who recommend it for its heroine were right. I don't know if I would have enjoyed it in high school. I had much less experience of pulp in any form and might have bounced off the three-way mash-up of horror, humor, and action, especially since I thought I disliked two of those genres for years. (I thought I disliked alcohol for years. It turned out what I disliked was the kinds of alcohol college students think is a good idea. So too with horror film and action movies.) I suspect I would have enjoyed Evie; nerd heroes are rare and female nerd heroes practically unicorns. I would have been very impressed by Anck-su-namun's costume, which I did not realize was primarily body paint until it smudged under Imhotep's hands. I would have liked Jonathan, but that is predictable: he is light-fingered and almost resolutely irresponsible, but not actually stupid; bashes his way through hieroglyphs decently enough for magic and picks a plot-relevant pocket not once but three times in the film, each time with aplomb. I remember picking up the novelization in the Waldenbooks where I worked in the late '90's and early 2000's, but I don't remember anything about it except one stray line that evidently changed between shooting script and final cut. I haven't been able to get hold of Michael Almereyda's Trance/The Eternal (1998) and I wanted something with mummies even if they didn't come out of a bog. This excavation brought to you by my library-loving backers at Patreon.
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[personal profile] swan_tower 2017-09-08 05:26 am (UTC)(link)
I love this movie to an absurd degree, and if we could just cut the stuff with the prison warden I could love it nearly without reservations. I saw it on a night of voluntary no sleep: I was a freshman in college that year and the nearest theatre at which we could watch Star Wars: Episode I was the one up in Alewife, but the managers wouldn't let people camp out for tickets, so the night before tickets went on sale, we lurked at the edge of the parking lot until they shut down, then all rushed to the entrance and settled down to wait. A goodly chunk of my college SF association and a bunch of strangers hung out together all night, then bought our tickets as soon as the theatre opened in the morning, and then several of us went LET'S SEE A MOVIE and picked this one more or less at random. I expected absolute crap and was delighted by what I got. (See also: Pitch Black.)

It's really the characters that sell it for me, and the performances thereof. I could basically watch Brendan Frasier do humorous pulp adventure all day; ditto Oded Fehr. Rachel Weisz has all these little touches that the camera doesn't even call attention to, like after O'Connell decks Jonathan to the ground in the prison and then she steps right over her brother's prone body to go on questioning him. Kevin O'Connor in pretty much every scene he's got ("your strength gives me strength," "something about bringing his dead girlfriend back to life," his fistful of religious amulets). There's just so much energy to everything -- as you say, it looks like they were genuinely having fun.

(On the topic of Imhotep's eyes: that was supposed to be part of why he mistook Evie for Anck-su-namun in their first encounter. But the story more or less ignores the question of his bad vision after that.)

In case you were contemplating watching the sequel: I don't think it's as good, but I do enjoy it. The script manages to pull off that thing Hollywood thinks is impossible, which is the married couple who protag together without some ham-handed attempt to inject romantic tension back into their relationship (OH MY GOD THEY'RE GONNA BREAK UP etc). It also has a kid protagonist who is, by the standards of such things, relatively non-obnoxious; he's believably the child of his parents and uses his brain, at least some of the time. It inverts a few things from the first film, which is a move I like when it's done reasonably well. So on the whole, not amazing, but also not total crap.

The third movie . . . would have been better as its own thing, rather than being tacked onto this series. Not abysmal, but not as good as the second, so nowhere near as good as the first. Though I give them props for finding an in-story reason to explain recasting Evie.
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[personal profile] moon_custafer 2017-09-08 07:53 pm (UTC)(link)
I don’t care much for either of the sequels, but you may enjoy The Scorpion King, (the third movie, mentioned above) which is sort of an indirect spin-off of the series. The first sequel introduced an undead villain called The Scorpion King, played by a mostly-CGI Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. In his own movie, he’s an apparently unrelated, heroic “Akkadian*” warrior who gets hired to kill a sorcerer working for a tyrannical conqueror named Memnon. Hijinks ensue, the comedy relief and kid sidekicks are actually not especially annoying, there are a fairly significant number of PoC actors in heroic roles, and a few tropes get subverted.
*Akkadians in this movie’s universe seem to basically be Cimmerians, in that they’re tough but honest barbarian warriors who are virtually extinct.
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[personal profile] swan_tower 2017-09-08 11:37 pm (UTC)(link)
The Scorpion King had a very Conan/D&D feel, which was entertaining while I watched it, but I've never felt the urge to revisit it. I should have been clearer: when I said "the third movie," I meant Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, i.e. the one with Chinese instead of Egyptian mummies.
muccamukk: Groot surrounded by his own branches and glowing pollen. (GotG: Green Man)

[personal profile] muccamukk 2017-09-10 03:02 am (UTC)(link)
There's a cut scene where the poor vision thing was made clear. I'm entertained by how many people in this thread watched with the commentary on.
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[personal profile] swan_tower 2017-09-11 08:57 pm (UTC)(link)
I have to say, I think you got the better end of the deal with The Mummy than The Phantom Menace.

Oh, we definitely did.

I love that while she looks like the prim librarian archetype with her glasses and her shirtwaist dresses, she really isn't, even from the start. Librarian, yes. Prim, no.

See also her enthusiastic description of the mummification process.

Since I don't expect ever to see it, may I ask? I can't imagine anyone but Rachel Weisz in the role.

I forget the exact setup, but it's something to the effect of a prologue-y bit which turns out to be Evie doing a public reading from a novel based on her life experiences. Somebody in the audience asks whether it's all true, and as she lowers the book/manuscript to say that it isn't all like it is in the story, you see the new actress. So basically it contextualizes Rachel Weisz as the "in-story" Evie.

which on some level leaves me sorry that all of the main characters—played by their original actors—did not simply star in a long-running series of international mummy movies, because there would have been so much scope for it. The Carnahan-O'Connells meet the Chinchorro mummies. The Carnahan-O'Connells meet the Pazyryk mummies. The Carnahan-O'Connells meet a bog body, albeit they just thought they were going to visit their father's cousins in Ireland. ("No, this didn't happen when Mother and Father took us for Christmas! Do they just follow us now?") I'm not surprised at the existence of the fandom; they are all characters you want more of.

. . . I may have just figured out one of my Yuletide requests.
swan_tower: a headshot of Clearbrook from the comic book series Elfquest (Clearbrook)

[personal profile] swan_tower 2017-09-11 09:14 pm (UTC)(link)
May I quote your paragraph above in my request?
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[personal profile] swan_tower 2017-09-11 09:17 pm (UTC)(link)
Yes,with attribution -- I should have specified.